Breast Feeding Pressure.
The term ‘Bressure’ has been coined to describe the pressure that society, media, and health officials are placing on new mums to breast feed their babies and, as a result of this breast feeding pressure, the mums may end up feeling guilt, anger frustration, failure, self-recrimination, shame, depression, loneliness, isolation, grief…the list goes on.
I know that some critics of projects that deal with the subject of breast feeding pressure say that it is creating a divide between breastfeeding and bottle feeding mums, that it is making a mountain out of a mole hill and that there is no real problem.
Let me tell you… that divide already exists, the ‘molehill’ is mountainous, and there is a very real and serious problem.
After working with new mums 24hrs a day, 6 days a week, for 23 years I can honestly claim to be very experienced in helping new mums feed their babies and I can tell you that not one single mum I have ever met has made an easy, stress/guilt free decision about this.
They struggle with their own feelings and those of their partners, they research, they ask for advice and opinions. They deal with the un-asked for advice from family, friends, work colleagues, acquaintances, and even random strangers !
Sometimes the pressure comes from within, from the mum’s own expectations. She may be sure she wants to breastfeed and certain that she will be able to then have to deal with her perceived ‘failure’ when something goes wrong.
It is not just a matter of pressure relating to whether or not you breast feed, there is also massive pressure to ‘do it right’ There is the ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude that suggests all bottles are evil, even if they are used for expressed milk, that if you give even one bottle you will ruin everything, and that you must breastfeed for at least 6 months.
Scare stories abound about all the terrible things that will happen. Your milk will dry up ! Your baby will get nipple confusion ! Nipple shields cause addiction!….all of which are either total fabrication or easily avoided.
For those that say ‘it is not that big a problem’, I can assure you there are thousands upon thousands of parents who will tell you that it is !
Although women may seem to shrug off comments or criticism (spoken or implied) the pain is often being hidden in an attempt to protect themselves or to save face. We in Britain are particularly bad for doing this, ‘putting on a brave face’, and ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ and so on.
Most women only reveal how they are really feeling to their very closest partner, family or friends so it is unlikely most people ever see just how much hurt and damage is being done, but I am in something of a unique position through my work, and am often part of this close circle.
I go in to these women’s homes as a stranger but, because I am there all the time, night and day, I see everything. I try to be discrete and give women their privacy but, as part of my job, I am there to help them with breast feeding so I see them naked, I see them unwashed and exhausted, emotional and sobbing, irritable and angry, confused, inexperienced and bewildered. Because of this, and because they know I am there purely for them, with no agenda of my own the barriers come down and they confide in me and I see the real pain.
These wonderful new mums experience the whole range of emotions from mild annoyance and confusion, to serious stress and agonising guilt and pain as they try to figure out how to do the most important thing of all…..to feed their baby.
However they are feeding, they suffer fear in case they can’t do it, or get it wrong, and worry in case their baby is not thriving.
This is the most difficult time for new parents (and Dads or partners suffer as well) but what angers me the most is that it is totally unnecessary.
No one needs to ever suffer like this and never would :
• If Health officials and organisations stopped being judgemental and ramming breastfeeding down people’s throats and demonising bottles and formula or other options which can make breastfeeding easier and less painful, such as nipple shields, combination feeding and top up bottles.
• If there was a network of ‘Feeding Clinics’ available to all, that gave advice and support equally about breast, bottle and combination feeding and reduce breast feeding pressure. If there was more of a ‘have-a-go’ attitude rather than the current ‘all-or-nothing’ more women would try breastfeeding instead of being too scared to try.
• If other people would mind their own business and refrain from pushing their own views onto anyone else.
• If women were more honest about their feeding experiences to give a truer picture of what feeding is really like instead of pretending everything is wonderful and easy in order to save face or avoid condemnation or criticism, or avoid facing up to the fact that things aren’t actually going very well. (though I do understand how difficult this is)
• If Health visitors, midwives and everyone else stopped asking ‘are you breastfeeding?’ and instead asked ‘How is the feeding going? Can I help with anything?’ This would be a simple change but would instantly reduce pressure and allow women to be truthful about how feeding is going, what problems they are experiencing, and how they are feeling.
• If other people would mind their own business. Yes, I know I have already said this but it is THE most crucial factor. Seriously….how someone chooses to feed their baby is no one else’s business !!! Leave them alone or offer support…nothing else is appropriate !
My advice to any prospective new parent is this :
- Think about feeding options and prepare, but don’t set your heart on any one way. Be prepared for breast, bottle or combination feeding, then wait and see what happens when baby arrives. Try whatever feels right at the time and that way there is no failure…only choice.
- Make sure you and your partner are ready to work as a team, and Dads/partners especially, be prepared to take on the role of protector for your new family. The new Mum will be exhausted, emotional and in pain in the first few days so is less likely to be able to stick up for herself when faced with pushy hospital staff or friends and family. Do not let her, or yourself, be bullied or pushed into doing something that feels wrong either for you or your baby.
- Whether you want to breast feed or bottle feed, ask for whatever help you need, and keep asking until you get it. Hospital staff are very busy but it is still their job to help you. If a particular member of staff is being pushy or unhelpful don’t just put up with it, ask for help from someone else, and someone else, and someone else….until you find the right person.
- Ignore your friends and family opinions if they are hurting you. Just remember, anyone who is not supporting you obviously cares more about their own opinions than they do about helping you and your baby, so they are not worth listening to.
- Cut guilt right out of your life. It is a destructive emotion and serves no purpose at all in this instance.
- Seek out support from other people going through the same thing. Try online and look for groups for whatever feeding method you are considering, but by the same token, leave any group that makes you feel unsupported or bad about your choices.
- Have faith in yourself. You know yourself, your lifestyle and your baby and you will do the right thing, whatever that is. Trust yourself.
Those first few weeks are the most precious, and fly by so quickly. Don’t waste the experience worrying and being upset. Make the choice that is right for you and your baby, stick to your guns and then relax and enjoy parenthood.
Sarah Norris is one of the UK’s most accomplished maternity nurses, with over 25 years experience caring for hundreds of babies and families in the UK and internationally.
She treats all babies and families as individuals, and respects all forms of parenting and feeding, aiming to help and empower new parents with sensible, practical tips and advice that is always non judgemental and non biased.
She is the author of ‘The Baby Detective’ with Orion Books, out now.