It occurred to me the other day, not for the first time - quite apart from how ridiculously unnecessary - how damaging the whispers and ‘Significant Looks’ approach to certain aspects of women health can be.
My cousin had a baby at the end of last year (her second corker of a little girl). As if the new born haze isn’t tricky enough, the poor things have spent much of their time since then struggling with assorted complications to do with breastfeeding which have resulted not just in tears of frustration and pain on both sides, but hospital stays and some weapons-grade antibiotics for my cousin.
The enthusiasm to encourage new mothers to breastfeed their babies is understandable - the benefits, not least among them convenience and cost-saving, are well documented. However, this evangelism seems bring with it a tendency for some antenatal classes, midwives and health visitors to minimise the learning curve. Emphasising that it is ‘the most natural thing in the world’ while glossing over the fact that it is a real skill that both participants must learn, and that - frankly - when you first start feeding it bloody hurts [crushed glass being expressed through your nipples anyone?], serves no one well. If women are not equipped with an appropriate understanding of what to expect it is very hard for them to tell the difference between normal discomfort and concerning pain.
The result of this fudging is that many women struggle valiantly on feeling like utter failures when establishing feeding has been challenging. Some give up, racked with guilt - sometimes castigated, silently or otherwise, by other new mothers and even by health professionals - for ‘letting their baby down’ by switching to formula. Some, like my cousin, have eventually found support through lactation specialists or networks of women who have helped them identify tongue ties (still too often overlooked in postnatal checks, it seems) and other common challenges. Others give up when better support may have made a fundamental difference, or struggle on and develop serious issues which end up taking the choice of how to feed out of their hands, putting their own health in peril in the process.
To be clear, I am firmly of the view that ‘fed is best’ and new parents should be free to decide how to feed their baby without judgement (within reason - a friends’ baby book noted how much her 10-week-old self had enjoyed steamed steak pudding, perhaps not the ideal approach in the light of more modern understanding of digestive development). However, for parents to make an informed choice they really do need to be just that: informed.
NHS breastfeeding support (includes a useful list of tools and support groups)