As I begin, let me state plainly – I am an advocate for Perinatal Mental Health, I am not here to be an advocate for Breast Feeding or Formula Feeding. I am “pro” whatever is best for you and your family – only you, and yours, will know the right answer to that.
I have no interest in adding to the debate on “Breast is Best’, as I’m not sure it ever does anything other than draw in those who agree or disagree, firmly, with one side or the other.
My disclaimer is, I formula fed Reuben. For me, it was a lifeline. With that said, I stand for your rights, your hopes, your dream, and for whatever you deem best and most suitable for your circumstances.
I had no plans to formula feed (FF), perhaps in the same way I didn’t plan to have Post Natal Depression (PND, and also known as Postpartum Depression/PPD). It’s something I never gave much thought to, assuming that I would ‘just’ breast feed (BF), in the same way I assumed I would ‘just’ be emotionally well. We had no formula in the house, to plan for Reuben’s birth, and only owned a couple of bottles – that had come in some sort of set. I think I had mentioned once, to Gavin, that maybe we should think about having some formula in the cupboard. But in a sort of “do you think we need it?” way. I recall thinking it might be important for an ’emergency’ or because I’d read somewhere about mixed feeding. It was much more to do with me feeling unprepared and over-anxious, than it was about me making a choice between breast and bottle. That’s not to say I thought BF would be straightforward – I’d read and heard enough to know that wasn’t the case – but I think I imagined that we’d work it out when we got there. I could not have been more wrong, but more on that a little later.
The more I have connected with mums, particularly over the last few months, the more I realize that BF is never an easy story. I have yet to meet anyone who says “oh yes, my baby just latched on and never once did we have any issue”! If that’s you, then I’d love to know your secret!
For most mums, BF comes with its up and downs. For what it’s worth, so does FF! I’m not sure we should be surprised by that – of course it’s a natural experience (in that out bodies are made for it) but being natural does not mean it always ‘comes naturally’ or easily. Just like birthing a baby – it’s ‘natural’ for a baby to be born from a mummy, but it’s not without its pain, complications and emergencies. That’s life.
I know there are lots of campaigns to ‘Get Britain Breastfeeding’ with some good ideas on how this could and should become a greater reality. I tend not to spend much time reading or commenting on them. This article from the Daily Mail is an interesting read but bothers me with some of its content, none more so than this phrase –
“child obesity, diabetes and infections could all be significantly reduced if more mothers could be persuaded to breastfeed.”
It’s the word ‘persuaded’ that bothers me that most. I’m not convinced that’s the right turn of phrase. I’m not sure mums are really looking to be ‘persuaded’ to BF, in terms of incentives, powerful tales, or “oh go on then, you’ve twisted my arm”, kind of way. In fact, I think many mums don’t want to be persuaded but they need to be supported, encouraged, nurtured, taught and loved along the journey. Those words don’t bring the image of ‘handing out the rewarded jelly tots’ in the same way ‘persuaded’ does, but perhaps I am just being pedantic.
Anyway, I firmly believe it was PND/PPD that caused me to give up on BF. Of course, I can’t be 100% sure, but I have a good hunch I’m right. I know there are many mummies for whom BF has been an important lifeline in PND/PPD and I’m so delighted to hear that. If that’s you and you want so share your story – I’d love to hear more about it. For me that wasn’t the case. Let me share why:
Straight after Reuben was born, in the recovery ward, a nurse said “Are you hoping to breastfeed?”, and I said “Yeah, I guess I am”.
And that’s where my hopes/dreams began and ended. After being wheeled into the Maternity Ward, my Midwife was introduced and I was instructed that she’d be back soon to get me started on the journey. Back she came, as promised, but the journey never really began.
She wasn’t the warmest or most compassionate in nature – I accept she had a busy job – but I do think those attributes are key, when dealing with mums who have just given birth. The first time she gave Reuben to me there was A LOT of tutting and signing, as I didn’t seem to “grasping the concept”.
That continued, as she began to ‘man handle’ me, to get Reuben into the right position.
Turns out, both Gavin [my husband] and my Mum where annoyed by her manner and nature, as they didn’t think her approach was helping, but neither felt they had the authority to say so – which I understand. That approach wrecked my confidence and heaped fuel onto the fire, with all I was already feeling PND/PPD-wise. It didn’t get better – as they began to ‘manually’ get “something” from me, into the syringe, to give to Reuben. This continued all night – on and off – with someone new sent each time to “retry” my technique.
I dreaded their visits, which always ended with the syringe being produced.
Thankfully, the following day a new midwife was assigned and she was lovely. I honestly think I was traumatized by the previous efforts – feeling like a major failure and guilty that I was starving my baby. When she said I could give him some formula AND continue to try to BF, I almost jumped at the chance.
I cannot tell you the relief that came over me when I put the bottle in his mouth and he sucked, drank and slept immediately. Finally, I had got something right! It was such a pleasure to feel I had given my little one something he needed. I never looked back. Gavin and my Dad headed to Asda [the market] to stock up on supplies, and I discharged myself, 36 hours after my c-section, and walked home.
If you’d like to shame me, go right ahead and give it your best shot. I’ve heard it all where FF is concerned. From being told how “selfish” I am, to how “disgusting” my choice was. I’m not honestly sure I ever felt that I had a real choice, but that’s another argument. I don’t regret FFing Reuben. But I do believe that PND/PPD meant, that even in those early hours, I was not myself and did not possess the strength of character to pursue what it was I really wanted or hoped for. I regret that. It’s led me to wonder – how many other mums are there in the world, who feel like I do?
PND/PPD statistics are pretty useless, as far as I’m concerned. I honestly doubt that half of the mums who struggle ever get properly diagnosed, though not for want of trying. So there are many, many more mums suffering than we will ever really know.
So what about PND/PPD and breastfeeding? I can’t help but wonder if there is some sort of correlation. I’m not, for one minute, suggesting that everyone with PND/PPD decides to FF, or that PND/PPD interrupts BF, for all mums. But I reckon it must affect many. Maybe it’s not that a mum does as I did, and FF’s right away. Maybe their journey with BF is just so much harder, than it needs to be, with PND/PPD in the mix as well. Perhaps a mum gives up much quicker than she’d hoped, because BF on top of PND/PPD is just too much to cope with, for months and months on end. I wonder if milk supply can reduce, if a mummy is very unwell and struggling very deeply. Alone, exhausted, desperate, heart-broken, sad, guilty, ashamed, self-loathing, frightened and fighting for survival…surely all those emotions must have some sort of impact on the practical aspects of mothering?
Even if I am only slightly correct, and even if it’s only a small percentage of mums, for whom PND/PPD and BF is not a good mix, should the [UK] Government not be even more keen to improve our Perinatal Mental Health services? If the UK’s BF record is not as it should be, and the Government really wants to get behind improving it, is Perinatal Mental Health not a great place to start?
It strikes me that if we really want to improve BF rates then we must improve Perinatal Mental Health care. Is that link too tedious? I don’t think so.
If I had be given proper support in pregnancy, so that someone (me or another) had realized that I had antenatal depression, I may well have made every different choices. If I had been given meaningful support when Reuben was born and someone had asked a few in-depth questions, which pointed to the very deep struggle I was waging against PND, I think my BF journey would have been a different one. I know I can’t be the only one, for whom that must be true.
Again, this isn’t pro BF or pro FF. I would never seek to tell you what choice you should make. But as the Government and Health Service would like to tell me what choice they believe I should have made, should they not be putting every effort into making sure that what they promote, can actually become a reality for all, not just for some?
If you really want to make me, or any other mum, feel empowered to BF then you must make sure you hit the issue where it really matters. For me that would absolutely have been addressing, diagnosing and treating my PND/PPD and Perinatal Mental Health.
Lindsay Robinson is founder of the blog, haveyouseenthatgirl.com, which shares tales of life, motherhood, and recovering from Postnatal Depression. Wife to Gavin and Mum to 3-year-old Reuben, Lindsay and her family live in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is active in the Maternal Mental Health arena in her region, actively campaigning to improve Perinatal Maternal Health services in Northern Ireland. You can read more about PND/PPD advocacy work on her blog, or visit her on Facebook or Twitter at @Robinson_Linds.