I have a problem with women who breastfeed in public. It’s called jealousy.
At 14 weeks I stopped breastfeeding because my GP told me to. Despite months of trying, hours of queuing for help, hundreds of pounds on private lactation consultants – breastfeeding was making me so ill I couldn’t look after my baby.
Sounds extreme, but I’m by no means the only one who’s been through this. This isn’t a post about the politics of breastfeeding, the marketing of formula or the bad feeling stirred up by the Daily Mail. This is just about how it feels when your feeding choice doesn’t work.
Before my baby was born, I thought breastfeeding would be gentle and serene. I thought people who gave up breastfeeding just didn’t like it. When people said it could be difficult, I thought they meant ‘awkward until you get used to it’. I had no idea it could be savage.
When I talk about breastfeeding ‘hurting’, I don’t mean feeling sore for a month or so until you toughen up, like your fingers when you first learn the guitar. I’m talking about disappearing down a spiral.
The bad latch – pain – nipple damage – infection – mastitis – expressing every feed – low milk production – baby weight loss – introducing formula so baby doesn’t starve – nipple confusion – bad latch – pain – nipple damage – infection – mastitis – spiral.
Once you’re on it, it’s almost impossible to get off.
It starts like this. For whatever reason, your baby doesn’t latch on well from birth. You’re a first-time mum, you don’t know what you’re doing. When the midwife tells you it always hurts at first, you believe them and carry on.
But it really hurts. Then your nipples start to bleed. Then your tiny precious baby, only hours old, starts vomiting your blood back onto your dressing gown.
Midwives visit and send breastfeeding counsellors who sometimes do but sometimes don’t turn up. You’re shown rugby holds and knitted nipples and generally told to man up about the whole thing.
Meanwhile, your baby is hungry and frustrated. You know you’re not supposed to latch them on when they’re crying, but they’re always crying. When they attach, it hurts – but at least they’re getting something. So you curl your toes and let them gnaw. Sometimes, for hours at a time.
You can’t get dressed because it hurts to put on clothes. But it’s been two weeks now and the midwives won’t come to your house anymore. If you want help, you have to go to them. You remember everything for the baby but not your house keys.
You have to queue to be seen. When it’s your turn, your baby is firmly asleep and won’t wake to feed. You’re pretty desperate and in floods of hormone-induced tears, but you’re told to come to the next clinic in three days’ time. That’s three days of bad latch, pain, nipple damage, infection, mastitis… and so the spiral goes on.
I did meet one mum who told me she went to a clinic, got help with the latch and fed happily ever after. But ‘sorting out the latch’ makes it sound much easier than it is. I met many, many others who had to stop breastfeeding before they wanted to. According to the NCT, 9/10 mothers who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks wanted to carry on, but couldn’t. To me, this is an astonishing statistic. In all the furore about low breastfeeding rates, why isn’t this reported more?
But back to how it feels when breastfeeding hurts. It feels confusing – because you don’t know if your pain is normal and the advice is mixed. It feels withering – because perhaps this pain is normal, everyone else copes with it and you’re being pathetic to make such a fuss.
It feels exhausting – because to keep your breastmilk flowing through the pain you have to express for an hour or so after every feed. You're doing double the hours of other breastfeeding mums. It feels guilt-inducing – of course it does, because you can’t buy formula without being told on the label you are harming your child.
It feels disappointing – because just as you longed for your child more than anything in the world, you longed for the intimacy and bond of a breastfeeding relationship too. You never thought you’d dread your baby’s hunger cues.
And it feels embarrassing – if you want help, you must undress in front of a room of non-medical strangers. And why can’t you just get it right? You’ve been shown the diagrams a hundred times – are you stupid, or something?
I don’t think the debates about breastfeeding go anywhere near close enough to acknowledging how difficult it can be. Why? Are we scared of putting women off? Do we think if we guilt-trip them enough we can bully them into breastfeeding anyway, however soul-destroying it turns out to be?
There’s a lot of talk about respecting other women’s feeding choices – how we mustn’t judge and everyone must find what’s right for them. This gives the impression that there is a choice to be made about how you feed your baby. But there isn’t always.
I stopped trying to establish breastfeeding in the middle of my fifth bout of mastitis, when I had such a high fever I couldn’t get out of bed to change a nappy. I didn’t have the energy to pump, either, so in the end, my dwindling milk supply made the decision for me.
From then on, I fed my baby formula – but I wouldn’t say it was my choice. My choice was to breastfeed. I just couldn’t.