Or how I learned to give a middle finger to the establishment in this country and do what was necessary for my baby.
Warning: If the words nipple or breast make you uncomfortable, stop reading now!
I almost wish I had experienced having a baby in the US, because I just don’t have any comparison about what the institutions or culture is like around childbirth and caring for your baby once you are home. I’ve had an incredibly positive experience in the UK for the most part – in fact I am often in awe of the services and support available for parents, most for free (for another post).
But, like everything in life, it’s not perfect here. There is one area that really, deeply bothered me and I just need to get it off my chest.
Breast v bottle.
I will say it. The UK is downright militant about breastfeeding. Breast is best and is considered the “healthy choice” (their words, not mine) for your baby. So much so that formula feeding as an option isn’t discussed at all before you have a baby, formula companies aren’t allowed to advertise their products, and formula isn’t allowed, by law, to be part of any promotions at shops – so if you get free parking if you spend X pounds, it doesn’t count if you just buy formula.
When you are a couple of months away from your due date, you are given literature by your midwife about breastfeeding and its benefits. Some include protecting your baby from infections and diseases, reducing the likelihood of obesity in older age, and building a strong emotion bond between you and your baby.
Honestly, it’s that last one that pissed me off the most. Here’s my story.
I tried breastfeeding. I really did. I completely accept that breast milk is good for babies and if I could do it, I would. And I so admire and respect women who feed their babies that way. From the start, Freddy wasn’t able to latch. At all. Here we are in the hospital and after two days midwives and ‘lactation specialists’ are man-handling my newborn trying to get him to latch and it wasn’t happening. He was crying. I was crying. Eventually, a friendly midwife realised he had a very bad tongue tie. Why this took so long to discover, I don’t know.
It was very, very hot when I gave birth in July. We had a room that was sun-facing, and it felt like a sauna in our room. Freddy had not had much to drink since he was born, apart from the colostrum I was able to hand-express (ouch).
I was worried he might get dehydrated in the heat. I asked for a little bit of formula. “Why don’t you keep trying to get him on the breast.” Never mind he had tongue tie. I tried again. Over and over. Different positions. When he seemed really hungry. When he seemed relax. Nothing worked. I begged for some formula. I demanded formula.
“The formula is for premature babies only, but we’ll bring you some as long as you replenish our supply.”
Finally we had a bottle of formula, Freddy had a few sips, and my exhausted husband went out to Tesco in the middle of the night to buy some bottles to replace the ones we used.
I am not even exaggerating.
We had been in the hospital for two and a half days now, and I was ready to go home. My husband was sleeping on a thin mat on the floor and was tired. The midwives didn’t want us to go – Freddy hadn’t breastfed yet. They seemed worried. We had already scheduled an appointment to get his tongue-tie fixed, but it wasn’t for five days.
The midwives finally relented and agreed that, yes, Freddy would need formula over the next several days ahead of his tongue-tie procedure. But I had to say out loud and assure them that I would keep trying and that I would attend the breastfeeding clinic at my local children’s centre as soon as I could muster up the energy to go.
So my discharge paperwork said just that – supplementing with formula, will continue to try breastfeeding, tongue-tie procedure scheduled, will attend breastfeeding clinic. Mind you, I wasn’t pushing breastfeeding. At that point I was anxious and tired. I just wanted my baby fed.
We get home and, to no surprise, Freddy still couldn’t latch. But I kept trying. I bought nipple shields; I sat up all night with him; I expressed what I could. He was becoming distressed. I was definitely distressed. We continued to supplement with formula.
Five days later, Freddy had his tongue-tie procedure and immediately after they are supposed to be able to latch with ease. Nope.
A few days after that, I went to the breastfeeding clinic. I walked into a room full of women with their breasts out, fathers trying not to look, a few ladies taking turns speaking to the women, and a couple of weary, sleep-deprived mothers crying. It was a weird, stressful, and uncomfortable environment.
I am a modest person, and I was not prepared to take my top off in front of strangers. I was not prepared to speak about my issues in front of strangers. Yes, yes, solidarity with other mothers and women yadda yadda, but when you are two weeks into caring for a newborn, running on fumes, ashamed you can’t breastfed, and worried about your child’s health, you’re not really in the ‘ra ra ra super mums unite’ mood.
Well I did it anyway, staving off a panic attack in the process, and the lactation specialists thought I could maybe breastfeed on one side and maybe if I used a nipple shield on the other. It was hurting. A lot. Like searing pain. I asked them if this was normal. One woman said she wasn’t sure. The other said, yes a bit of pain is normal. This wasn’t normal breastfeeding pain. He wasn’t able to latch correctly and was hurting me. It wasn’t his fault. It’s just the way his mouth was made and the way my boobs were made.
So, I gave it a go for another week, but then called it quits. It was making me feel unworthy and inadequate. And I had to realise that Freddy and I were developing an emotional bond just fine, and in our own way. Mind you, I wasn’t breastfed and neither was my husband. We seem to be ok. Not obese, not sickly, and our relationships with our mothers didn’t suffer for it.
Sometimes I really think the institutions here in the UK need to back off a little. Because there is such a strong anti-formula movement, I didn’t really know how to feed Freddy formula. I had to google and ask around how to make up bottles properly. And I didn’t know there were different teat sizes. I had to teach myself about sterilisation.
I think if a woman can breastfeed, there is no better place for her to have a baby, but if you can’t, you’re a bit on your own here. Just my two cents. And for the record, if Freddy was born in 1816 and not 2016, you better believe I’d have had a wet-nurse!