Debate has again arisen in the battle between the bottle and breast.
Joanne Rowe’s two children are precociously bright and healthy. At three-and-a-half, Elisabeth can count to 100 and is learning to tell the time. She’s hardly ever been ill and, like her 14-month-old brother, James, the only time she’s been to a doctor is for routine immunisations. Still, Rowe is haunted by guilt.
The 31-year-old full-time mother didn’t abandon or abuse her children. She didn’t smoke or drink alcohol while pregnant. Her great sin, as she sees it, was to feed her children baby formula instead of breast milk. “I feel guilty that I failed my children, that I didn’t give them the best start in life,” she says.
Like most Australian mothers, Rowe was keenly aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. She’d heard the ‘breast is best’ mantra and knew scientific research indicated breastfed babies are likely to have higher IQs and suffer fewer illnesses. “I knew it was best for them. I hoped to breastfeed for at least a year.”
So, when things didn’t go to plan with Elisabeth, she was devastated. “It turned out, my nipples were flat, which meant she was constantly biting and pulling – I was in tears, almost vomiting in pain.”
After five weeks of agony and sleeplessness, and teetering on the brink of depression, she gave up the struggle and fed Elisabeth formula, instead. “I cried and cried,” she recalls. “I still feel mourning and loss, even though it was a long time ago.”
But if Rowe was hard on herself, it was nothing compared to the backlash she received from others. “It still makes me angry when I think of all the stuff that was thrown at me. I’d go online to mothers’ forums and all these women would be having a go at formula-feeding mums, calling us uneducated, lazy, careless, abusive. There was always an insinuation that we didn’t try hard enough, that we couldn’t be bothered. But I couldn’t have tried any harder.”
In her shame, Rowe avoided feeding her baby in public. “I felt people were looking at me, judging me.”
In an age when almost every aspect of parenting is debated and dissected in minute detail, few issues generate as much angst as the way we feed our babies. In August, model Gisele Bündchen caused international outrage when she commented that there should be a law requiring mothers to breastfeed for at least six months. A month later, Melbourne midwifery lecturer Dr Jennifer James suggested formula shoud be available only by prescription. On the flip side, just weeks earlier, reality TV starlet Kim Kardashian raised the ire of lactating mothers around the world when she Tweeted her disgust at a woman brazenly breastfeeding at a nearby restaurant table.
It seems mothers can’t win. Those who don’t or can’t breastfeed are vilified as weak, choosing personal comfort and convenience over the good of their children. Those who do are told they shouldn’t do it in public or for too long. Last year, a Newspoll survey found more than one in four people felt breastfeeding in public was unacceptable. The same survey found one-third of us believe babies shouldn’t breastfeed beyond six months.
Despite all this, breastfeeding has seldom been more in vogue. After slumping to record lows in the ’50s and ’60s, with the post-war popularity of ‘scientifically advanced’ formula, breastfeeding has rebounded over the past 40 years. The latest figures show 92 per cent of Australian mothers initiate breastfeeding.
Much of this can be put down to the efforts of the Australian Breastfeeding Association and, more recently, the federal government. Messages extolling its benefits are everywhere, from hospital waiting rooms to railway platform advertising. Government dietary guidelines, in line with World Health Organisation edicts, recommend babies are fed nothing but breast milk for the first six months, and breast milk along with solid food until at least 12 months.
But while we have one of the highest initiation rates in the world, breastfeeding drops off sharply with each passing week of a baby’s life. At week one, 80 per cent are fully breastfed, by three months it’s 56 per cent and by six months, only 14 per cent.
“Eighty per cent of
women struggle with it,” explains Melissa Macdonald, author of
Breastfeeding: Real Mums Tell You How. “What everyone is missing is that
a learned skill. It takes six weeks to learn.”
That was what moved Macdonald, 33, a former marketing executive and now mother of two, to write her book, after struggling to breastfeed her first child, Cameron, now five. “My nipples were bleeding and cracked, I was expressing blood. I was tired and crying all the time. My husband didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know if my child was getting enough milk. I didn’t have any friends who had babies and I just didn’t have any support.”
At six weeks, she decided to give up the breast for a bottle. “I felt really down on myself. And when I fed him in public, people would come up and say, ‘Oh, you’re bottle-feeding,’ as if I was giving him cyanide.”
To make matters worse, she struggled to find information on alternatives, since a government-sanctioned voluntary agreement prohibits advertising and promotion of formula for infants under 12 months. “No one wants to talk about formula or tell you what’s in it, and the tins have to carry a warning saying breast milk is better. It’s like this conspiracy against women. We’re made to feel like we’re poisoning our babies and we end up with all this guilt.”
It wasn’t until Macdonald joined a mothers’ group that she received the support she needed. “There were three or four women in the same situation, and it really helped to know I wasn’t alone. But, by that time, I’d already been to hell and back. That’s why I wanted to do this book – some of the best information you can get is from other mothers sharing their experiences.”
As well as advice about breastfeeding and combination feeding, and a run-down of different types of formula, Macdonald’s book features first-person stories from some of the 500 mothers she interviewed. “A lot of them had been working, juggling responsibilities, and they’d never experienced failure before. They thought, it’s meant to be natural. Animals do it. Why can’t I do it?”
“Breastfeeding has always been an emotional issue,” says Dr Alison Bartlett, director of the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of Western Australia and author of Breastwork. “It connects with something strong in what we understand it is to be a woman and a mother. If you’re breastfeeding, you’re successful as a mother; if you’re not, well, the opposite must be true.”
But while she acknowledges a groundswell of disdain towards those who don’t breastfeed, we’re not entirely comfortable as a society with those who do. In a recent Queensland University of Technology survey of 18- to 29-year-olds, 75 per cent said it was unlikely their future children would be breastfed exclusively for six months. The majority said they wouldn’t breastfeed in public for fear of embarrassment.
Bartlett puts this squeamishness down to the increasing sexualisation of women’s bodies. “We’re becoming so used to seeing breasts used for advertising and commerce that seeing them used for feeding babies seems strange now. People find it hard not to see it as sexual.”
This is particularly true when it comes to breastfeeding older children. Bartlett breastfed her own daughter until the age of three, mostly in secret because of the negative attention it attracted. “It’s still quite taboo,” she says. “The message seems to be that we should breastfeed up to a point, and then stop. In developing countries where breast milk is the main form of nutrition, breastfeeding older kids is the norm. But, here, there’s a repulsion.”
Jennifer Hurrell, a community health nurse in Bendigo, experienced this first-hand while breastfeeding her daughter, Sarah, until she self-weaned a few months shy of her fourth birthday. While Hurrell’s immediate family were supportive, her in-laws and some of her friends were clearly uncomfortable with it once Sarah turned two. “They wouldn’t say anything directly, but they’d leave the house when I fed her.”
Acquaintances and colleagues were more vocal. “They’d constantly ask me when I was going to wean, or they’d make jokes saying I’d end up like that ‘Bitty’ sketch on Little Britain.”
Hurrell, 37, attributes much of the prejudice to the lack of information. “A lot of people believe that once a child is over the age of 12 months, there’s no benefit, but research shows there are benefits up to the age of seven. There’s also this idea that when you breastfeed older children, you’re going to sexualise them, which is ridiculous – you’re nourishing your child.” Rowe says she would have given anything to have breastfed her children for as long as they wanted. But three-and-a-half years on, time and watching her children thrive has helped put things into perspective. “We all do things that are bad for our children,” she says. “Children eat white bread, they stay in the sun too long and spend too much time in front of the TV. Certainly, breast is best, but no one ever does the best all the time.”
Breastfeeding: Real Mums Tell You How ($34.95) by Melissa Macdonald is out now.
Solurce: Herald Sun - http://goo.gl/eoPpj