Whether or not you breastfeed is just a choice right? I certainly thought that before I had my first baby. And when I was asked, time and time again, throughout each pregnancy if I planned to breastfeed, it was an easy question to answer. It was always a simple yes. I thought that people either chose to breastfeeding or to bottle feed. And I chose breastfeeding.
I hear the same said by expectant parents all the time. “I really want to breastfeed my baby” or “I’m hoping to breastfeed”. Then they usually follow this statement up with something like ” but I’m not going to put myself under any pressure to do it”. And yes it’s true they don’t have to. Because here in the UK we have a viable alternative option. An option which often feels easier. An option which you can just pop to a shop, any number of shops to get. It could be a garage, or 24 hour supermarket, a baby shop….it’s available everywhere. And you can buy a bottle and buy the milk and you can give it to your baby. So it is a very easy and often tempting option. I would argue that for stressed and struggling parents it’s too easy.
Breastfeeding usually starts as a choice, a decision, that has been thought through and made. But then in reality, it can become really hard for a lot of people. And suddenly that alternative option, that readily available,24 hour, wherever you are, option, seems really appealing. When times are hard it beckons you to make a different choice. What seems like it might be an easier, less painful choice can be very inciting.
But there is something else, another emotional pull, going on at the same time, deep deep deep within us as Mothers. In evolutionary terms, mammals have been feeding their young for 200,000,000 years! And as humans evolved into a species of it’s own. Mother’s bodies continued to feed their babies this way and still do. And we’re obviously pretty good at it because the human race has always and continues to thrive. So why is it that since around the middle of last century that suddenly, in many parts of the developed world, it’s not the main way that we feed our babies any more? I believe that it’s that easy access, alternative choice that as a society we have come to rely on….instead of relying on our bodies. But when Mothers choose to bottle feed or change the way they fed their baby, that evolutionary and emotional pull to breastfeed doesn’t necessarily go away. This can be so incredibly painful or even traumatic and we so often see that pain play out as sorrow, anger or defensiveness if breastfeeding has ended.
Is breastfeeding a choice that can be made? No not always. I work with so many women who chose to breastfeed but so much worked against them, they had so many challenges and up hill struggles that they felt they couldn’t do it any more. That option to use artificial milk to supplement can sometimes be needed. The problem with supplementing with artificial milk is that it often works against any breastfeeding that’s already happening. It works against our choice to breastfeed and against that evolutionary animal instinct we have to provide babies with our own milk. When babies have top-ups of artificial milk they are fuller for longer. They spend less and less time at the breast.They often get a preference for the flow of a bottle and breastmilk supply drops. This is often the start of the end of the breastfeeding journey. Combination feeding can work once supply is established and when babies are older. But for families who start at the beginning, when their baby is small, it can be a huge challenge and one that usually requires a lot of support and determination.
Some women have a fantastic supply and no matter what they do or how they feed they will always have enough milk. For these lucky women they really can pick and choose how they feed their baby without affecting supply or their baby’s growth. But for anyone who doesn’t have that type of breast that makes and holds lots of milk, which is probably the majority of women I see, they will find that either needing to use or choosing to use artificial milk in the early weeks will affect their supply and breastfeeding actually becomes more difficult than it was originally.
So how do you know if you’re going to be able to make breastfeeding work for you? Well you don’t. The great news is that for a large majority of women, they have everything there to be able to fully breastfeed their baby. For most, breastfeeding is very different to what they expected and for some it will be a struggle. Fortunately there are lots of decisions you can make to help breastfeeding work for you, whatever your situation.
One day I hope I’ll be able to tell you that everyone can choose to feed their baby breastmilk for at least the first 6 months, even if your baby needs to have supplements. But in this country that just isn’t the case. Until we have enough milk banks to meet that need, then breastmilk provision for those who have to supplement is not always a choice that can be made. I found out this upsetting discovery on my own difficult breastfeeding journey with my 3rd child. Fortunately, here in England things are starting change with the formation of the Hearts Milk Bank.
But You can choose to find out as much as possible about breastfeeding before your baby arrives. Before that emotional, hormone driven, uncertain and super-intense time arrives and whilst you have a little more time on your hands, you can read, attend an antenatal breastfeeding course, spend time in breastfeeding groups or chat to a lactation consultant.
You can choose to use all the help that you can find if and when you need it. Have numbers for breastfeeding charities with you before you have your baby. Find out who the breastfeeding specialist is at the hospital your giving birth in. Know where your local breastfeeding groups are and have the number or website for your closest Lactation Consultant. Most breastfeeding issues can be resolved with the right support and certainly without supplementation
You can also choose to make breastfeeding a part of your life before your baby arrives. You can follow breastfeeding Mums on Instagram and start up a Pinterest board all about breastfeeding. Awash and rewrite your subconscious brain with these images and it will soon start to learn what breastfeeding actually looks like.
You can choose to prioritise getting breastfeeding established in the first few weeks. You can choose this over visitors and getting out and about with your new baby. By giving yourself this time of bonding to your baby you can really increase the chances of things working out.
And if you have chosen all those things and breastfeeding is still a struggle then you can make a choice similar to the one I did with my daughter. It’s a choice that took me a long time to feel comfortable with, but one that changed my whole outlook on breastfeeding and bought peace and acceptance to my situation. I chose to give my baby breastmilk everyday. I learnt that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. That some people do not have the choice to exclusively breastfeeding their babies their own milk, but that there are lots of alternative choices that don’t mean the end of breastfeeding.
Anna is a Paediatraic Nurse, Lactation Consultant and owner of The Mindful Breastfeeding School, realistic, positive online breastfeeding education for expectant and new parents. www.thebreastfeedingschool.com. She also works locally to support families in Kent with breastfeeding.