Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Baby Feeding Minefield

Before Walter came along I used to stumble across child-rearing articles in the paper and find myself amused & surprised by the amount of vitriol that the comments section collected. I was always surprised that people got so passionate about various theories. I naively assumed that how one chose to raise their children, provided they were not causing them abusive harm, was their own business and I didn’t see why the media was always harping on about various theories and studies. The breastfeeding debate was one that I found particularly silly, as it always seemed fairly obvious to me that breastfeeding was the best way to feed a baby, since it is a natural function. Then I had Walter and many things changed.

It didn’t take me much time after his birth to see why people get so passionate about feeding their babies. The debate seems to be designed to separate good mothers (those who breastfeed) from bad mothers (those who give their babies formula). It’s that old human need to win the “competition” rearing its ugly head, and it arms itself from the best motives (I hope!) but has a really horrible effect. What I mean is this:

I don’t think it takes much to see that breastfeeding really is the ideal way for feeding a baby. It’s natural, it’s right there, and our bodies create a milk specifically to meet a human baby’s needs. If something natural can do the trick, then I don’t think that mucking about with unnatural means is the way to go. But knowing this, there are still a lot of mothers who either choose to, or who have to, feed their babies on formula. And this is where it starts to get tricky. The breastfeeding movement has led to the distortion of certain ‘facts’ about formula, has sugar-coated the practice of breastfeeding, and has negatively used the media against those of us who need to feed our children with formula. It is no wonder that women like myself who planned to breastfeed but have had to resort to formula get so passionately upset.

Distortion of Facts

We are given all sorts of reasons that breast-feeding is better for babies. One thing that was often emphasized is just how inexpensive it is compared to formula. That is true, but what I do have a quarrel with is that the pamphlets on the subject seem to have lit onto a rather high figure for calculating the costs of raising a formula-baby. In fact it seemed to be about £200 higher than what I would expect the maximum to be for Walter if we stayed in the UK, and he drinks the most expensive brand of formula. Yes, it does increase the grocery bill by about £10/week, but he’s going to increase my grocery bill once he starts on solids anyway. I find this to be a rather cheap shot.

Formula is often portrayed as the easy way out, which spins off into all sorts of tangents about mothers who just don’t care enough to put that extra effort into their baby. Bollocks. Yes, establishing breastfeeding is difficult. I know so many mothers who breastfeed and complain that no one warned them that they would have to dedicate the first six weeks of their baby's life to just trying to get enough food into it. Formula is certainly easy compared to those first six weeks. But that doesn't mean that it's easy, and that doesn't mean that it is easier than established breastfeeding. Anyone who has had to listen to me complain about Walter’s eating habits should clue in that it’s not as simple as just giving him a bottle. He doesn’t necessarily eat according to the suggested amounts for his age group and it’s a constant guessing game of trying to ensure he is getting enough to eat. And, because no one seems to actually know anything about babies, it’s difficult to even get advice on how to tell if he’s eating too much, too little, or just enough. For example, I can read in a book that babies will stop eating when they’re full. But this same book will then say that one reason babies spit up is that they’re eating too much. Which is it? Why is the media always telling us that formula babies have a tendency towards obesity because they're easy to overfeed if they'll stop eating when they're full?And, because babies keep gaining weight, it's a constant game of trying to guess what size of bottle to make him.

It is also a challenge because I, of course, cannot just produce food for him when he needs it. I always need to plan ahead and I carry packets of emergency formula powder in his diaper bag just in case. I have had many an anxious moment wondering where I will get water from to mix up his meal when we’re out, or worrying when I cannot get to the store and his powder is running low. Feeding a baby a bottle in public may, unfortunately, be more socially acceptable than flagrantly breastfeeding, but going out with a formula baby poses its own sets of challenges.

A Rosy View of Breastfeeding

The sugar-coating begins in ante-natal classes, where at least in my experience any supposed ‘barriers’ to breastfeeding were seen as inconsequential, simply the result of maternal ignorance and a problem easily sorted. I still wonder why, if it is quite so simple as all that, none of the midwives at the hospital, or the lactation consultant, or the health visitor could figure out why Walter would only drink from a bottle. Perhaps my experience was worse than others – exhausted from labour & surgery, unable to move from bed to even pick up my crying baby, and then being told that I wouldn’t be discharged until he could successfully breastfeed even when it was clear that no one could figure out why he wasn’t eating. I was in tears before anyone bothered to tell me that if I bought him some formula I could leave the hospital.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the first couple of weeks where I had to resign myself to giving Walter formula were rough. I wanted to breastfeed. I planned to breastfeed. I tried to breastfeed. And all to no avail. I felt let down by my own body and, until we got the hang of a feeding routine that helped him, frustrated with my stubborn little boy who either turned into a screaming red-faced monster or latched on and refused to suck when given the option of breastfeeding. Some of the health visitors I saw were amazing. They encouraged me to try different ways of getting breastmilk into him but also gave me free reign to supplement his diet with formula. That was a blessing, because the flip side of the coin are the disapproving looks and the glossing over my difficulties with the idea that it will happen in time. One day I took Walter to the doctor’s for a routine appointment and I sat across from a woman who was feeding her newborn from a bottle. As soon as she saw me looking in her direction she began trying to justify why her daughter was eating from a bottle. I was saddened by the fact that she would feel so judged for her actions that she needed to defend them without me even saying a word.

I think you need to be a pretty strong-minded woman to choose to feed your baby formula from the start, without exploring breastfeeding. If you’re that strong does the disapproval of others bother you? I don’t know, but I do know that the inability of health care professionals to hide their disapproval is a blow to those who are already feeling like a failure because they are forced to choose the option they didn’t want.

The Media Impact

And now we get to the part that really bothers me, and which prompted me to finally get all these thoughts down on paper. Formula feeding is such a perceived problem that it has become very difficult to get any actual information on it. Formula companies are not supposed to advertise their “from birth” products, which is so wrong! You walk into the store and are confronted with a number of different products. How do you know which one to choose? Walter drinks the brand recommend by the hospital, but sometimes that isn’t available so in this situations he drinks a different brand that is made by the same company. I prefer this latter brand, but I can’t discover what the difference between the two is, aside from price. I don’t want to switch him completely unless I know what the difference is, but it’s hard to find this info without advertising!

All of the packaging has to have statements that “breastfeeding is best for infants”, statements which echo the “breast is best” posters in the lobbies of various baby-care units. I am thus constantly given reminders that I am choosing a lesser option. Before I had trouble feeding him I didn’t see any problem with these slogans, because they speak the truth. But now that I know how difficult it can be, and how painful it is to be told that formula needs to be part of the feeding routine, I find their prominence quite offensive.

These are just a few examples of my experiences. I am by no means against breastfeeding, and I hope to be able to successfully breastfeed our next child, but I think that it is important to see the other side of the issue. I know that I found comfort in reading stories similar to mine, and I also think that it is important that we treat each other with respect and be able to commiserate with each other’s difficulties whether we give our babies breast or bottle.

1 comment:

  1. A good treatise! When I was waiting to see my doctor in November, a woman with her baby started explaining to me that she had to feed him with formula even though she wanted to breastfeed. I was surprised that she felt the need to volunteer an explanation to a total stranger, but I understand better now the sorts of pressures she's probably faced.