The ‘Breast Is Best’ Myth

Alex baby foto
Alex March 2010

Last week was breastfeeding awareness week, and the irritation I feel when I see strong pro-breastfeeding messaging flared. I usually bite my tongue and suppress my politically incorrect opinions about this emotive subject. I don’t care about how anyone chooses to feed their baby. But I do care that the ‘breast is best’ myth is still being drip fed to (especially first time) mothers like a sugary subtle poison.

Fourteen years ago I had my first baby. I lapped up all the breastfeeding propaganda from the hospital antenatal classes and my antenatal yoga classes. Because I trusted these sources.

And they didn’t exactly feed me falsehoods. But they did imply a mother who switched to formula before she had exhausted every possible option to keep breast feeding was not doing the best for her baby. Posters in the maternity hospital told me that exhaustion, blood streaming from cracked nipples and tears streaming down your face were all worthwhile prices to pay to feed your baby this liquid gold.

After going into thirty three hours of labour on two hours sleep, my daughter was delivered by caesarean. I fell asleep as I was being stitched up. The midwives wasted no time. I woke with a start, in recovery to find my baby attached to my left breast. It was so important to these midwives that my baby attached ‘immediatley’ that they didn’t even do me the courtesy of allowing me to wake up before making this most intimate of introductions.

The focus on the holy grail of establishing breastfeeding in the maternity hospital was so strong that I sat up for three hours at a time thinking I was feeding my baby, when she was comfort sucking for most of that time. It left me exhausted and my back a wall of pain from sitting in the ‘feeding chair’.

Now, if that were the worst of it, I would have probably gullibly pushed through all further discomfort to establish and continue breastfeeding. Had I succeeded, I would have probably felt proud of myself. And after being told time and time again children who are breastfeed are healthier, smarter, more empathetic, and more likely to poop rainbows, I may even have been arrogant enough  to attribute all of my daughter’s future, health, smarts, and empathy to my valiant efforts to persist with breastfeeding. (She has yet to poop out a rainbow – but I can live with that.)

But within a week of her birth, whether or not I breastfed was injected with some desperately needed perspective. She was at home with her father, contentedly guzzling formula while I was tipping my breastmilk, tainted with antipsychotics, down the sink in the Special Care Unit of a private psychiatric hospital. I had come down with postnatal psychosis and I was clinging to my life with my fingernails.

To my credit, I quickly forgave myself for ceasing my ‘breastfeeding journey’ 7 days into motherhood. And I didn’t look back. I had been too sick to ever be riddled with the guilt I saw in other mothers who had been less unwell but had also made the smart choice (for them) to stop.

But we shouldn’t need extreme circumstances to justify feeding our baby formula to anyone. Breastfeeding is a personal choice. Nothing more. Nothing less. But our society has turned it into a religion. And it’s opt out not opt in.  We are all automatically given anti formula education classes antenatally and then baptised in breastfeeding once the baby is born.

The high priests of this religion are lactation consultants and midwives who set ironclad commandments and rule with fear. The fear of harming our babies with our actions.

The pressure to breastfeed is a known contributor to and risk factor for developing perinatal mental illness. Mental illness that can leave a baby motherless if it is severe. Unlike the maternity hospital midwives, the nurses in the mother baby unit in the private psychiatric hospital I was an inpatient in don’t pressure new mothers about how to feed their babies.

But they do spend a lot of time undoing the damage done by overzealous midwives and lactation consultants who have bullied new mothers into believing they will hurt their baby if they consider formula anytime earlier than as a last resort.

For my second baby I had one breastfeeding aim: Get some colostrum into him. He went onto formula at day 7, just like my daughter. And just like my daughter, now you wouldn’t be able to pick what he was fed as a baby.

Breastfeeding is cheaper than formula feeding. It is more environmentally friendly. It is the safest and most convenient way of feeding a baby in a third world country and/or if you don’t have regular access to clean water or formula. If your baby is premature and/or has underlying health conditions for which a paediatrician has recommended breastfeeding or expressed breast milk, then – for that baby – breast is best.

But if your baby is full term, healthy, you have access to clean water and can afford to buy formula, then (beyond the first few days’ worth of colostrum) whether you choose to formula feed or breastfeed is as irrelevant to your baby’s wellbeing as the colour of your underwear while you’re doing it.

 

You may also like to check out:

World Maternal Mental Health Day: It’s Not All Postnatal Depression

Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility

Modern Martyrdom

My First Time

World Maternal Mental Health Day: It’s Not All Postnatal Depression

Alex pregnancy and Elsa
End of 2009

My mental illness was born with my first baby.

I never considered my mental health as part of the decision to have a baby, because when I first fell pregnant within a month of trying, I had never experienced mental illness.

The pregnancy was uneventful.

Then I went into a thirty-three hour labour on two hours sleep. This severe sleep deprivation and the swirling hormone levels woke a slumbering monster, a genetic predisposition, which ensured that by the time my baby was one week old, psychosis had wrenched me away from reality. I found myself in the Special Care Unit of a private psychiatric hospital trying to explain my way out of my delusions, while my husband and mother cared for my daughter at home.

Welcome to motherhood.

Continue reading “World Maternal Mental Health Day: It’s Not All Postnatal Depression”

My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System

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Have you ever had a moment when your answer to a question determined whether your life imploded?

I have.

It came five days into parenthood. I was lying on the floor in my maternity hospital room crying because I was trying to outrun a jaguar chasing me towards a cliff. Things were starting to go very wrong in my brain.

In the following months, when my mind warped and writhed in the grip of psychosis and later catatonic depression, and when what started out as postnatal psychosis turned out to be a first episode of bipolar 1 disorder, I could not imagine things being worse.

But they could have been.

Continue reading “My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System”

Who Holds You When You’re Broken?

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I’ve been told the first time we met I was shuffling slowly up and down a blue carpeted corridor. Slumped body. Empty eyes. I barely registered being asked how I was with a slowly exhaled

‘Not so good.’ before moving on with my pram.

I say ‘I’ve been told’, because I don’t remember our first meeting or the following weeks. I was sicker than I’d ever been. Not many people would have repeatedly made friendly conversation with someone as unresponsive as I was.

She did. At a time when she wasn’t well herself.

When I finally re-emerged after several months of illness, I was delighted to find I had a new friend. A friend I never would have met in my geographical or professional circles. A friend who, like me, had spent the early months of first-time motherhood in a psychiatric hospital instead of at home.

Continue reading “Who Holds You When You’re Broken?”

As Mothers Of Daughters

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(Some Confronting Content Ahead)

The day I found out my first baby was a girl, I cried. Until that moment I hadn’t thought much about gender. So, the heaviness that settled on my shoulders when the ultrasound revealed it, was unexpected. The weight of believing I had to be the perfect female role model for a daughter momentarily choked the joy of having one out of me.

I could have saved myself my perfectionist’s tears. We started out in a fire, my girl and I. And all my irrelevant worries were incinerated, in the ferocious blaze. Continue reading “As Mothers Of Daughters”

Media-Made Monsters

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Day six

(Confronting Content Ahead)

I don’t dwell on what might have happened had I been sent home on day five after my daughter was born. But whenever the news throws up sensational stories reporting murder, infanticide, or suicide, and there is even a slim possibility the perpetrator might have been psychotic – then I think about it. Because that could have been me.

Continue reading “Media-Made Monsters”

Making Sense Of It

 

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How do you learn to live with the difficult truths of your life? The ones you can’t just step over and leave behind?

Confirmation of my Bipolar 1 diagnosis was one of those truths for me. For several years after my first episodes of illness, we didn’t know whether we were dealing with Postnatal Psychosis or Bipolar Disorder. In my mind one was transient, the other a life sentence. Each time I’d press my psychiatrist for a definitive diagnosis he’d say:

‘We’ll have to wait three to five years to see if you have another episode.’

This answer frustrated me immensely. I wanted to put the whole experience of being mentally ill behind me.

Continue reading “Making Sense Of It”

My First Time

Postnatal Mental Illness

I was laden with milk, my arms filled with the incredible warm softness of my five-day old baby. Snuffling, and startling into starfish arms every now and then. Pink velvet skin, translucent enough in places to see the faint network of blood vessels sustaining a life that a week ago had been completely reliant on me. My first entry into a psychiatric hospital was like many people’s first-time admissions. I felt I didn’t belong there.

Continue reading “My First Time”