We have a breastfeeding problem: Mental health, support and the stigma around bottle feeding

A huge part of my post-natal depression was the guilt and feeling of total failure for choosing to give up breastfeeding at 6 weeks.

Bub had a rather dramatic emergency exit through the sunroof to come into this world, which he wasn’t pleased about. Which is fair enough really, but a tad demoralising when he wouldn’t latch onto me and have a drink in recovery. The midwife sighed after trying to shove a livid Bub on my boobs for a bit, said ‘failure to latch’ and scribbled something on a clipboard.

I’d just been through major surgery, had a lifetime of responsibility placed on my chest and within 20 minutes – feverish, arms heavy and numb from the spinal tap – we had already failed? Shiiiiiiit man, this was harder than I thought.

Bub was also supplemented with formula from birth as he was so massive (11lbs4/5kg)  and everyone was a bit worried about his blood sugar dropping quickly which would have been dangerous. There was also a tongue tie (sigh) and even after that was sorted, he would rather scream at my boobs then latch on to them. Apparently he was a 0-60mph baby, according to my amazing and kind lactation consultant.

After 6 weeks of that, and 2 bouts of mastitis, and not finding the time to pump exclusively cos errrr… I had a baby to look after, I quit.

By then my mental health was in a bin somewhere and I had no idea how to dig it out.

“Breast being best” made me feel like total, total shit and there were people along the way that made me feel like a horrible mum for giving up. There were also a lot of people who were dead supportive, but it’s always the criticism that’s the most sticky, isn’t it?

The huge weight you feel of wanting to do the very best you can for your child is partly why ‘breast is best’ hits you so hard. So early on in your relationship with your baby you are already having to admit defeat. You can’t give them the ‘best’, you’ve settled. Will this be the shape of stuff to come?

I was a mess trying to breastfeed. Unbeknownst to me at the time I had Post Natal Depression. One of the main symptoms for me was that Bub’s cries would rip through me. I can’t explain it well but every time he cried it was like some hideous combination of air raid siren or nails down a chalkboard, plus the emotionally crushing feeling that every sad wail meant I was failing him all over again (which, in hindsight actually made me a fantastic mother. I barely let him cry for the first 9 months of his life, it made me SO ON THE BALL, ha).

I am massively supportive of breastfeeding (I have a boycott Nestlé poster framed in my kitchen, by the kettle for all and sundry to see), which is probably why it hit me so hard when I stopped.

I fed him his last bottle of my expressed milk in some sort of tiny random ceremonial way, crying all over him (pleasant) and explaining that this was the last of the good stuff. Actually, it wasn’t, as I had another bottle of expressed boob milk in the fridge so I did the ceremony again – take two for the drama queen, not ridiculous at all!

So what to do? The figures for prolonged breastfeeding in the UK are abysmal, but you’ve either got to invest the time and money in helping women (not expecting them to work miracles whilst also keeping the house tidy) or accept it and be nicer to people who bottle feed.

The countries that have really high breastfeeding rates have a number of factors that contribute to this. Norway, for example, has paid maternity leave for around 49 weeks and extended paternity leave too, allowing women to stay home and be available without getting super poor or having to tidy up all the time. They have a load of help in the hospital, there is a massive breastfeeding culture there.

It makes for interesting reading, but it would definitely be difficult to replicate here.

Bub is no worse off from being bottle fed, that I can tell. He’s vibrant, annoyingly active and only has the constant snots because he goes to nursery (aka the Petri Dish).  Formula is a modern miracle of science, no doubt about it.

I don’t know what the solutions are (or how we would fund them), but there has to be a meaningful and kind way to encourage and support women on their journey, that protects their mental health whatever happens.



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