Radio 4’s Food Programme launched a season about formula milk today. The first programme was about the contents of milk formula and so interesting that I was glad I hadn’t immediately reached for the remote control to switch the radio off.
I get twitchy about formula milk, you see. Around here it seems to be universally considered a BAD THING. Breastmilk is best for babies, of course, being specifically designed for human children and packaged and delivered in an efficient and sterile way. It contains all the nutrients and antibodies and new and growing child needs and breastfeeding is an important way for mothers and babies to bond. We all know this. It is self-evident. Every woman can breastfeed, goes the orthodoxy, and therefore mothers who don’t are making the wrong choice for their baby.
Except that the orthodoxy is a sweeping statement that fails to take account of individual circumstances and is therefore unfair and wrong. Not every woman can breastfeed. Some of us wish that we had been able to sit in Claridges and breastfeed ostentatiously. (Actually, I imagine very few women would ever want to breastfeed their babies ostentatiously. Not many of us want to show off our boobs to all and sundry.)
There are some mothers and babies who take to it relatively easily and manage very well but others of us don’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, so to speak, my feeling is that the larger a woman’s assets, the more difficult it is to find a good latching on position without the risk of suffocating the baby.
When I gave birth to the Boywonder I had a haemorrhage, and was quite ill for a while. In a country with less developed healthcare, my life would have been at risk. I did manage to produce milk for him but we moved house a week after he was born and the stress of this and the complications of his birth meant that my milk dried up. I tried so hard to breastfeed him, but the harder I tried the more stressed I became. The first seed of doubt planted in my mind by the normal dip in a baby’s weight in the first couple of weeks grew to this dark cloud of inadequacy. As usual, everyone expected me to be able to do it and I felt like a total underachiever. The Boywonder screamed and screamed and I screamed too when I latched him on to my sore, cracked nipples, devoid of milk. I felt that I had failed him.
That unique and special time a new mother has with her baby became truly one of the worst experiences of my life. At his 6 week check, my GP ordered me to buy feeding bottles and formula on the way home because my good intentions were starving my baby. Once he had some milk inside him, the Boywonder changed overnight into a happy, contented, growing infant.
The thing is, in order to breastfeed successfully, you need support. Many cultures look after new mothers carefully for weeks to make sure they establish a good milk supply. We are expected to be up and about and doing the washing and the cooking and cleaning and the dishwasher and all that stuff that needs to be done on our own, against the clock, just waiting for the baby to wake up a couple of hours later to demand the next feed. As my GP said, “Yes, it’s natural, but we don’t live natural lives anymore.”
In history, rich mothers who could not breastfeed their children employed wet nurses and babies of poor mothers simply died.
It was only at my booking-in visit three years later when I was pregnant with MsDD, that I was told that it was no wonder I didn’t have any milk, after the Boywonder’s difficult birth. The trauma of being an inadequate mother, of not being able to provide my own baby with the most natural food in the world was deep and I burst into tears. Even now, almost 19 years later, I feel the tears welling as I think of it.
I was a little more successful with feeding MsDD but she had this habit of falling asleep mid-feed, which meant that it was difficult to establish an adequate meal for her and I often ended up in terrible pain from undispensed milk that accumulated in hard, hot lumps. And the less milk you dispense, the less you make so in the end we switched her to formula milk too. Being MsDD, of course, she had expensive Aptamil rather than the Boywonder’s basic SMA brand.
With both of my babies, for different reasons, I had to go back to work within three months of their birth, and expressing milk isn’t as easy as they make it sound in the media. The breast pump I bought was yet another device of slow, painful torture.
We as a society demand so much of mothers often without providing support for them to meet these expectations. There are so many out there who still take it upon themselves to make a woman feel like the worst person in the world if she cannot, or will not breastfeed. It is utterly unfair to judge women in this way and it is often just the first excuse to condemn mothers for some reason or other, that carries on throughout their lives for all the decisions they make for their children.
Without formula milk, my son was starving. Formula milk has not stunted my offspring’s intellectual growth: they have both turned out as healthy, happy and intelligent young people where in another century they might have died.
I do hope that the Food Programme is not intending to demonise or sneer fashionably at formula milk or the people who use it without first putting themselves in their shoes.