“You are starving your child.” Five words no parent ever wants to hear. Five words that can shake you to your very core. Five words that transform you from a confident, stable being into an irrational, blubbering mess. Well at least that is what those five words did to me…
About a month ago Boy Wonder and I ventured out to our local Maternal and Child Health Centre for his 4-month check-up. Over the weeks, Mr Wonderful and I had come to look forward to having our little boy weighed and measured so that we could track his growth and marvel in the miracle of what we created. During this visit, I discovered that my baby had dropped a percentile for weight. I was shocked by the news. How could this have happened? What have I done wrong? Will my baby be okay? The nurse’s response to my questions, “YOU ARE STARVING YOUR CHILD!”
I left my appointment that day a broken woman. What sort of mother starves her baby? I had done everything that was expected of me hadn’t I? For 17 long weeks I acted as a 24-hour milkbar for my baby, breastfeeding him on demand. I had been terrified about breastfeeding throughout my pregnancy. I wasn’t sure I’d be both physically and emotionally capable of doing it. After extensive reading of available literature, interrogating my friends and family members and lengthy discussions with Mr Wonderful, I decided I would give breastfeeding a red-hot go for either the first six months, or until Boy Wonder’s first teeth showed up – whichever came first.
Well as it turned out, Boy Wonder fed well from the moment he was born and I took to breastfeeding like a duck to water. I absolutely loved it! The closeness, the cuddling, the feeling that I was the only one in the world who could do this for him. I was so proud of myself and Mr Wonderful was so supportive. As the weeks went by though, I discovered that breastfeeding was making me feel exhausted. I was constantly hungry and always on call. To be perfectly honest, sometimes I wished I wasn’t the only one who could feed Boy Wonder. I was too scared to ask for help with my growing feelings of exhaustion and resentment, because when you are a ‘good breastfeeder’ you get put on a pedestal. I thought I would get fed the same old line of “keep up the good work” and “breast is best”. These were in fact the very same words the nurse said to me right after telling me that I was starving my baby. So while we all know that breast is best, what happens when things don’t work out?
A few days after my incident with the nurse, a news story caught my eye.
“BREASTFEEDING figures are in steady decline, even though national health guidelines recommend feeding infants the old-fashioned way.
A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found only 40 per cent of mothers still exclusively breastfeed their babies at three months and 15 per cent of mothers are still breastfeeding at five months.
This is despite health guidelines that recommend breastfeeding for the first six months.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare surveyed more than 28,000 parents, with the data to be fed into the national breastfeeding strategy.
According to the survey, the biggest reasons for using formula were a previously unsuccessful experience (38 per cent), wanting to share feeding with a partner (28.5 per cent) and the belief that it was as good as breast milk (26 per cent).
Only 7.8 per cent of mothers said they used formula because they wanted to return to work.”
As a pharmacist I was astounded that only 15 per cent of babies were exclusively breastfed by 5 months. As a mother though, I totally understand. Most women want to breastfeed. According to this report breastfeeding was initiated in 96 per cent of children. Unfortunately, despite our greatest efforts and wishes, sometimes breastfeeding just doesn’t work out.
Breastfeeding is an exceptionally emotive topic. Breast milk is obviously designed for babies, but sometimes women find it difficult or impossible to breastfeed. Sometimes, women don’t even try, because it’s painful, incompatible with family life or they simply don’t want to. Who are we to judge? I know many lovely ladies who have struggled with breastfeeding for differing periods of time and then moved on to bottle-feeding because it just didn’t work out for them. A lot of these lovely ladies were left feeling like they’d failed. Many mothers feel a deep sense of loss when they are unable to breastfeed, either at all or for as long as they had planned. Once you become a parent it’s amazing how much guilt you can feel over a huge range of things. But instead of feeling guilty, perhaps we should be feeling indignant. If ‘the powers that be’ recommend breastfeeding exclusively until 6 months, why is it that less than half of babies in Australia are exclusively breastfed at 4 months? In many cases, I believe that it is because their mothers did not receive the right support and/or information at the right time. Being told by a nurse that breastfeeding is best is just not good enough.
There are plenty of resources available to parents seeking information and support:
The Maternal and Child Health Line (13 22 29) is a 24-hour telephone service staffed by maternal and child health nurses for families of children aged from birth to school age
Your GP or paediatrician
Your friendly, local pharmacist
After lengthy discussions with my GP, a nurse from the Maternal and Child Health Line, and a consultant from the ABA, I decided to continue breastfeeding and supplement with one formula-feed every night. I found that I was able to receive the support that I needed to make the decision that was right for me and my baby rather than feeling pressured into following the guidelines. As a side note, Boy Wonder gained 600 grams the following week and continues to thrive.
So, while I do believe that from a medical and scientific perspective breast is best, I also recognise that there are a host of other factors at play. My advice to expectant mothers is to give breastfeeding a shot. If it works out, good for you. If you switch to formula, good for you. You cannot fail your child when you have given all that you could give.