Monday, 20 June 2011

Breastfeeding V Formula feeding. A parent’s greatest debate. But why does it stir up so much controversy? And why do there appear to be “sides”?

One of the things constantly drummed in to you when you fall pregnant are those three vital words: Breast is best. Of course this is a statement that very little can argue against. Because all of us logical thinkers know that this is very much the case. Breast milk is full of nutrition that just simply cannot be given via formula. There’s a study here and statistics there that prove that breast milk, on the whole, is amazing. But IS breast always best? Breast MILK perhaps. But often, the physical aspect of putting a baby to feed on the breast is far from best.
When I fell pregnant, it wasn’t planned. Infact, I had never wanted children. So the decision as to whether I would breastfeed or formula feed wasn’t really made. I was convinced by numerous people that I should breastfeed and, feeling pressured to do so, I decided I would try. Nine months later and out Grace popped, all slimy and gross. She was given straight to me and I had my first experience of breastfeeding. I was still quite high off the gas and air I’d been sucking on for the last hour (which I had to have almost surgically removed from my hands) and so the experience is vague to me now and probably was then. It wasn’t until the next day when I really got the full experience. A midwife checked her latch and told me it was perfect. I wasn’t so sure, it didn’t feel right to me but several other midwives agreed so I carried on.
I went home that same day and that’s when it really hit me. She started crying to be fed and she latched on just as before. But I had never been in so much pain in my life. It made me feel physically sick. From then on, every time I fed her, I cried. I had to go into another room, away from visitors so they didn’t see me sobbing. Of course, the health visitor told me it was just “the baby blues” and it would be ok. It wasn’t and 2 weeks on I was getting worse. Her latch was perfect but she was the greediest baby in existence and when there was no milk left she would scream and scream and I would cry and then she would try feeding again and nothing would come out and I would be in agony and she would scream a bit more. I got to a point where every time I heard her cry for food I wanted to just run away and every time I fed her I felt like I resented her. In the end, I took the decision to stop breastfeeding. I had tried it and it hadn’t worked. I stopped partly for her as she simply wasn’t getting the amount of food she wanted and partly to stop me from going insane, packing my bags and leaving on a midnight train to Georgia. Or thereabouts.
Because I had stopped breastfeeding, I had to move onto the other alternative. The dreaded F word.  Formula.  Within a week or so I was starting to feel better about the whole baby feeding situation and was able to start bonding properly now I wasn’t sat in floods of tears. I had a few people look down their noses at me. And at the time, it hurt. But after a while I realised that nobody had any right to judge me for my decision. It was my child, my responsibility and if I chose to stop breastfeeding then that was my choice and nobody else’s. Which was just as well because, being a member of a popular parenting forum, I had to be made of tough stuff when reading what some people had to say about formula and those parents who formula feed. Certain words that were thrown about were “lazy”, “selfish” even “rat poison” to which someone compared formula to.  
Many complain about the advertising of formula on TV, in magazines etc. It’s believed that some people think that these adverts somehow encourage mothers to use formula and not breastfeed. I find this assumption ridiculous.  For one, formula is not allowed to be advertised until the follow on milk stage. In other words, formula companies are not allowed to promote first stage formula for newborns for the very reason that it doesn’t discourage mothers to breastfeed. In any formula advert I have ever seen, they always state that breast milk is best for a baby and that the formula is just there if, for whatever reason, you decide to move on. I would like to think that there are not hundreds of pregnant women, sitting watching TV, who see adverts like these and think “Wow, formula looks good. I’m not going to bother breastfeeding.”
I think even the suggestion that a woman can be that easily influenced over such a huge parental decision seems absurd. And to be honest, compared to amount of promotion of breastfeeding that I’ve seen (albeit not on TV but posted all over hospital waiting rooms and leaflets, to midwives drumming it into your head) there isn’t all that much around about formula. At none of my ante-natal classes was the “F” word ever mentioned. But breastfeeding was a topic covered in most, if not all classes. Of course, breastfeeding mothers do need support as it is physically and emotionally demanding. But for formula feeding mothers there is nothing. To me, that would make me more likely to consider breastfeeding than formula feeding because there is help available for you (in most cases) in those first few weeks when you’re adjusting to parenthood.
Formula companies are just that. A company.  A company aims to produce, promote and sell their product, trying to show that their product is better than anyone else’s or anything similar. Formula companies work this way, they have to sell their product so they have to promote it. But not only are they under a number of restrictions but they also mention in their advertising, that their product, is in fact, only second best. I don’t think they are “money hungry monsters” as some see them. They offer an alternative to something they say is better than their product, should you wish to settle for second best. Perhaps if the restrictions were not in place, they would operate like any other company does, but the fact is, this is not allowed and so I don’t see how these adverts could reach out to an expectant mother from a TV screen and brainwash her into believing that formula is best for her child.

I have gotten to know a lot of ladies who breastfeed or have breastfed in the past. And I have to say, a lot of them I admire. It’s not easy by any means and I absolutely take my hat off to them. I have never seen a woman breastfeeding her child in public and felt uncomfortable. Infact, I think it’s fantastic and I only wish that my experience had gone smoother. But there are a very select few individuals that take the whole situation far too seriously.
So, briefly, the benefits of breastfeeding for the child: Decreased risk from certain illnesses such as childhood leukaemia, diabetes and various infections such as ear and gastro-intestinal. It is also said to perhaps increase greater neurological development. Not to mention that it is cheap and there is no real effort needed to prepare a feed. Plus the bond you have with your child with the skin to skin contact is the most important thing for most breastfeeding mothers, it seems and is something that you simply cannot replicate using a bottle. It also benefits the mother, as breastfeeding contracts the uterus and helps them get back to their pre-pregnancy shape. So it’s really a wonder why anyone would choose not to breastfeed. Formula is expensive and preparing a feed is extremely time consuming. Sterilising, boiling water, measuring powder, cooling... All at 3am when you have a screaming, hungry child is not the easiest thing in the world. And the health benefits nowhere near compare to that of breast milk.
So is it misinformation? Is there not enough support out there? Is it that some people, like myself, couldn’t breastfeed. Or is it that they simply don’t want to?
Many people would argue that there is no such thing as “can’t” when it comes to breastfeeding. And I suppose that maybe some people do make up excuses. But most of the people that insist that breastfeeding is always possible no matter what are those who have had a fairly easy ride compared to some. And I totally sympathise with any woman who went through the same situation as I did.
I, personally, would always encourage women to at least give breastfeeding a go. If they don’t like it, at least they have tried. I’m always up for trying anything once. Unfortunately, after my previous experience, if I was ever to have another child I would not breastfeed. I wish I could but I don’t think I could bring myself to do it again. Maybe when I’m in that situation I will change my mind but as it stands, I will be formula feeding again. However, I don’t believe that makes me a failure. And I think it is unfair of anybody to call someone such just because they stopped breastfeeding.

So what about those who just choose not to breastfeed? Can we judge them? Because they have never actually tried it so how could they make any kind of informed decision? Easy. Because THEY are the parent. As much as I, and I’m sure all breastfeeding mothers and others besides, would encourage people to give it a go, some people just feel that formula is the way for them. For whatever reason, and I’m sure there are many. I don’t believe branding them as selfish is in any way helpful. It is a decision they have made for themselves and their own children. Nobody else’s. Therefore it is their choice and I strongly believe that nobody should be judged on their parenting skills.
We know breast milk is best. But is formula as bad as people make out? Of course there are the “experts” who say this and that and the infamous statistics. Statistically, breastfed children are more likely to have fewer allergies, be ill less often, not be as “weighty” and be more intelligent than formula fed children. Is this really the case? At least on an individual basis? My daughter is almost 3. She is very intelligent, not just by my standards but those of her playschool teachers and anyone else that ever meets her. She could speak in full sentences before she was 2, she has known all her colours and shapes since she then also, amongst many other things. You only have to spend 5 minutes with her to know that, for her age, she is very bright and aware. She has also never been overweight. She has no allergies and is very rarely ill. Yet she was formula fed from 2 weeks old. Of course, that is only one child out of millions but, the statistics given out about breastfeeding are not based on individual cases. Just as my formula fed child is bright and healthy, a breastfed child could be overweight with countless allergies.
Do I think breast is best? Yes, I do. Do I think breast is always best? No, I don’t. As I say about every parenting choice, it is just that. A choice. Women are told about the huge benefits breast milk has for babies from the minute they fall pregnant, sometimes even before. The doctor’s surgery is full of posters and leaflets, your Midwife tells you at practically every appointment. It’s then up to you as a parent to make that informed decision. Some will choose not to breastfeed. That is their right and nobody has a right to judge them. Others will choose to breastfeed. That is their right and nobody has a right to judge them either. Because it’s not just formula feeding parents who are judged for the way they feed their child. Breastfeeding mothers often have to put up with criticism when feeding their baby in a public place which is completely unacceptable. Every mother has the right to feed her child how and where she wants without judgement. As long as you and your baby are happy and healthy and safe in the knowledge that whatever decision you came to is the right one for you, then there IS no controversy. There are women up and down the country who don’t feed their children at all. THEY are the ones who should be judged.
At the end of the day, nobody will be able to pick out a breastfed child from a formula fed child in the school playground. And I, for one, will always praise a mother on raising her child whichever way their child is fed. Because bringing up a baby is hard enough without everybody else’s judgements looming over you, trying to make you feel like you’re always doing the wrong thing. Women should be supporting each other, not sniping at anyone who chooses a different parenting path to them. In an ideal world, everyone would breastfeed and it would be easy. But unfortunately, our world is far from ideal and so we all have to move on and do the best we can for our families, and as mothers, we should always be proud of what we do.

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