I discovered the Baby Greenhouse forum after I had suffered two miscarriages. I was 22 and didn’t know much about babies or pregnancy. I had no particular opinion on whether I intended to breastfeed or not, when (and if) I had a successful pregnancy.
One night there was a thread on Baby Greenhouse discussing the Nestle boycott. I read with interest and someone posted a link to a document containing official World Health Organisation research on breast-feeding and their policy on advertising and marketing of formula milk. It describes in detail the *actual* benefits of breastfeeding and the shocking statistics about the health effects of ‘not’ breastfeeding, according to the WHO research. It explains that due to pressure from American formula companies, some of the ‘scarier’ statistics were removed from a health campaign heightening awareness of the risks of ‘not’ breastfeeding. The reason given was that it “..might make (formula-feeding) mothers feel guilty..”
From the second I read the stats I knew I wanted to breastfeed. Up until that point all I’d really heard was ‘Breast is best’. I’d read all the usual stuff that you read in magazines, NHS leaflets etc. None of it really had that much of an impact. But this did. I was shocked. That this vital information would be down-played for fear of upsetting people…?? I couldn’t get my head around it.
With my third pregnancy I researched online and in books for information on breastfeeding. I read all the breastfeeding posts on BGH that I could find! I felt strongly that I wanted to do this for my baby and for myself.
Finally in December last year my dream came true and my baby girl was born. Unfortunately she was very ill. She had risky but life-saving surgery performed in the womb at 32 weeks gestation, causing me to go into premature labour and she was born by emergency c-section at 34+4. At this point I wasn’t really thinking about how I’d feed her – I was more concerned whether she would live or die .
When it became clear that she was going to recover and come home, I started to think again about the reality of caring for her. I knew that I still wanted to breastfeed, but the odds were against us. We had been separated for the vital first few days of her life (she on a ventilator, me immobilised from the section). We were unable to have skin-to-skin contact because she had a chest drain inserted which meant that she couldn’t leave the incubator. I was able only to hold her head and stroke her skin through the ‘port-holes’. I couldn’t smell her. I couldn’t hear her cries without bending myself at a 45 degree angle (!).
I looked into ways I could *try* and get breastfeeding established. I expressed milk every 3 hours to feed to the baby through her nasal-gastric tube. Beginning to express milk when I had no baby to stimulate me naturally was hard. And painful. I found the act of expressing more painful than the seven hours of contractions I’d had whilst in labour. At points I felt like giving up. But I kept going and eventually got used to the electric pump.
The premature baby charity Bliss had information about using a dummy to stimulate the baby’s sucking reflex whilst they received their tube feeds. The baby would hopefully begin to associate the ‘sucking’ with the feeling of a full tummy. I spent every day at the hospital, using the dummy with every feed. 12 hours from 9am – 9pm until my feet were sore and my back ached. I was completely exhausted, people kept asking me to take a break, have a morning off. I couldn’t bear to.. Every minute that I was awake and not there I felt ill. I had asked the nurses to use the dummy when they did her tube feeds overnight but I knew from observing them that they are often very busy, and doing this every hour on the hour might not be practical for them.
She spent 2 weeks in Intensive Care with some terrifying moments, including a collapsed lung before she was finally able to move out of an incubator into a cot. On the 21st December at 16 days old she was ‘allowed’ out to try sucking at the breast. I was over the moon when she began rooting around and after a few attempts she latched on. That night at home I cried with relief. The weeks of pain and emotion and uncertainty had been worth it. It is one thing to try breastfeeding and have it not work out: at least you know that you *tried*; it is quite another to not even have the *chance* to do it.
I was allowed to stay over at the hospital for the next two days with the baby in order to get breastfeeding established. Again it was difficult because suddenly I had the responsibility all to myself – DP wasn’t allowed to stay and I felt under incredible pressure. Of course I had put *myself* under this pressure but I knew that my reasons were good. After two days and nights of this, she had gained weight. Clinically she was given the OK to go home and that meant we could have her home with us on Christmas Eve.
Breastfeeding at home was harder than it had been in hospital. As she gained weight she needed to feed for longer. Her sucking became practised and STRONG! I had a cracked nipple on both sides for about two weeks. The pain of feeding through a cracked nipple was almost unbearable. I screamed and shouted and gripped the couch, but somehow we managed it. Through all of this, the only thing that kept me going was my determination. A determination which was brought about not by any health advice I’d received from doctors or nurses or midwives or friends or family, but from reading a post one night on Baby Greenhouse!!
My opinion on breastfeeding now is that more should be done in this country to encourage women to try it. I am sure there are thousands of women / girls who choose to bottle-feed because they investigate the options and bottle-feeding seems the easiest and most practical. The health benefits of breast-feeding *as advertised* by our health authorities are simply not ‘strong’ enough to outweigh the practical benefits of bottle-feeding. Even the midwife simply said “We don’t ask how you’re going to feed your baby, we only say that breast is best. It’s your decision.” This, of course, is true. But my personal opinion is that there is a responsibility on our healthcare providers to properly advise on the pros and cons of both methods. My honest opinion is that bottle-feeding *seems* to be easier because I like the idea of the baby’s Dad and other family members being able to do some (or all!) of the feeds. If I hadn’t read this document I would probably have decided to bottle-feed. And I do *not* blame anyone else who thinks this way. I blame the Government or NHS or whoever it is that doesn’t provide sufficient information for us to make a properly informed choice!
Please please please let me stress that in no way do I think formula is “poison”. I think formula is a perfectly acceptable substitute for breast-milk, when breast-feeding has not happened. Particularly if for medical reasons – HIV, milk doesn’t come in, low pain threshold etc. But I do believe that we should be encouraged to *try* it.
copyright Mhairu Hamilton