I have a strange relationship with my boobs.
They’re part of me, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them. We’ve had a rather turbulent relationship over the years. They appeared early, resulting in some teasing and accusations of “stuffing my training bra” at primary school. My mum told me I’d be glad of them some day. Things have been really up and down for us – the sheer agony of early pregnancy was a definite low moment in our relationship – but I’ve never hated my boobs.
Until I gave birth.
I had always planned to breastfeed. I’d seen the posters and the leaflets and the public health adverts in the waiting room at the doctors and the antenatal clinic. I’d read internet articles about how breast is best and formula is an evil invention, created for Lazy Mums who obviously didn’t care about their babies. I’d read blog posts telling me that there’s no such thing as “unable to latch”, no such thing as “no supply” – it’s just excuses developed by Lazy Mums. If they really cared about their baby, they’d be able to do it.
Well hey – I care about my baby, so I’ll be able to do it, right?
By about twelve hours after my daughter was born, I asked myself “Do I not care about this baby as much as I think I do?”. That’s a horrendous thing for a new mum to have to ask herself.
My daughter wouldn’t latch. Or maybe she would; but I’ll never know. In the delivery room, the midwives were fantastic – they tried everything to get her to latch, but she was physically pushing her head away. We laughed at her strength, calling it “Roid Rage” – I’d had the steroid injections as she was delivered a little early – but didn’t think much of it. I’d still be able to breastfeed, I told myself.
Then I was sent to the postnatal ward, and my breastfeeding future was left at the mercy of the HCAs on the ward. Every so often, I’d buzz for help. A woman would walk in, grab my boob without saying a word, shove it in my daughter’s mouth and walk out again, with an impatient sigh as though I was wasting her time. The same HCA sat with the woman opposite for half an hour, helping her learn to breastfeed.
I suppose she was hedging her bets. I was nineteen; statistically unlikely to continue breastfeeding for long. The other woman was in her thirties. But it made me feel like a second-class citizen.
A lovely midwife came along on the evening of the day after she was born, and helped me painstakingly express milk into a syringe and feed it to my daughter. When the HCA came along a little later to ask how much she’d had, I said how much had been on the syringe and she snorted, and said “She hasn’t had that much”. By this point, I was starting to lose confidence in my boobs.
By her third day, I was still determined I could make it work. I asked about expressing, and was told “It’s too much commitment”. I asked about mix feeding, and was told that wouldn’t work either. The words used were, “You need to either sort breastfeeding out or give formula, or we can’t discharge you”. A nineteen-year-old postnatal woman with a hospital phobia and very little practical breastfeeding support on offer? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what I chose. The greatest indignity of all? Being forced to sign a waiver saying I understood the “risks” of formula, and was signing of my own free will. I’d never hated my boobs more in that moment.
My daughter thrived on formula. She’s happy and healthy, very rarely ill, and strides ahead in terms of her development. Formula hasn’t hindered her at all – but it wasn’t what I wanted for her.
With the benefit of two and a half years of hindsight, I now know about lactation consultants and breastfeeding support groups. I know that giving a bottle of formula in hospital didn’t have to be the end of our breastfeeding journey – but the HCA presented it in that way, and I listened. Therein lies the single biggest issue behind the UK’s low rates of breastfeeding.
My boobs aren’t to blame. It’s not about society, or the urge to get into a good sleep routine, or the idea that breasts are a sexual object. Some people still hold those views, but when less than half of all women breastfeed beyond six weeks, and eighty percent of these aren’t ready to stop, it suggests there’s a little more at play than just negative attitudes towards breastfeeding.
It’s not a lack of information and awareness. The posters are everywhere. It’s a lack of decent, practical support. I don’t blame the frontline NHS staff for that at all. The midwives were fantastic, and HCAs are stretched beyond belief. Somewhere up the chain, funding decisions are being made – and they’re not making the best choices.
And yes, every aspect of the NHS is being squeezed. But if we can afford to fill every doctors’ surgery and health centre with posters and leaflets and countless pictures of happy breastfed babies and endless lists of formula risks, why can’t we channel a little more of that effort into practical support.
Why are we trying to convince women who don’t want to breastfeed, when we don’t support the ones who do? Plenty of women happily make an informed choice to formula feed. We should respect that, and instead of throwing money and leaflets at them, fund breastfeeding consultants. Fund more HCAs; more training; more comprehensive practical support.
It seems that for now, it’s easier to stick up posters and hand out a few leaflets. Meanwhile, women up and down the country wonder why their boobs and their babies don’t matter as much as others.