Have we gone too far with ‘breast is best’?

Kinderling News & Features

When I had my daughter I was determined to breastfeed. I’d read about all the benefits and I wanted the best for her. It was also in line with the prevailing wisdom of science; that breastfeeding has multiple benefits for a baby and helps to create a connection between mother and child. But, looking back, I think there was something else going on.

I found breastfeeding incredibly painful with both of my children. Neither of them suffered; they both gained weight steadily while I gritted my teeth and dragged my sleep-deprived body to a multitude of lactation consultants. I lost count of the amount of times I reattached my babies, often at 2am, while they screamed their little lungs out.

Unbelievably (to me at least) it was even harder to breastfeed my second baby. Every time my son fed I was almost gagging in pain. I was very put out, given my body was still aching from childbirth.

Still, I pushed through it, though now I wonder what got me through. I don’t have a very high pain threshold. I believe that breastfeeding is the best option for babies but I also believe in making sure that mums feel well and healthy.

To be honest, part of the reason I kept trying is that I felt it was what I was supposed to do as a ‘good mother’. That is, ‘good mothers’ breastfeed, don’t co-sleep and make organic pureed vegetables for their children.

I was already failing on the last two points, so breastfeeding was something I just expected myself to do.

Perhaps the message about breastfeeding has been lost in translation. Is it possible that while trying to encourage women that ‘breast is best’ we’ve gone too far and now women feel ashamed if they’re unable to breastfeed, or don’t want to?

Louise Duursma from the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) says the problem is women aren’t getting the right support.

"Our counsellors are trained to say to mothers, ‘How do you feel about breastfeeding? Do you want to keep breastfeeding?’ And if they say no, I don’t, then they help them to wean. Our counsellors are trained to support mothers in whatever they want to do, help them find the answers that they need,” Louisa explains.

When I was nursing my children I felt like an idiot. Then, as now, you will be told, “breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt”. For three months I breastfed with a running commentary in my head: “why am I not getting this? Why am I so dumb?”

Listen to Louise:

If someone had told me that, for some women, it just hurts for the first three months, I would have been kinder to myself.

If just one expert I had spoken to had been honest I would have felt so much better.

Louise says that women should feel comfortable calling the ABA helpline, even if they want to stop breastfeeding.

“People should feel fine about calling and knowing they’ll get unconditional positive regard, that’s what we teach our volunteers. It’s about meeting a mother where she is and supporting her in what she wants to do.”

Had I been asked what I wanted to do, through gritted teeth I would have said, “keep going”. With both my children, the pain subsided by three months and I was able to feed them to 10 months and a year. In the end it was a great experience. I loved breastfeeding them and I was sad when it came to an end.

ABS data shows that 97% of women start breastfeeding when their babies are born but that number drops to 15% at 6 months. Louise says that most women start out wanting to breastfeed but give up because they don’t get the right support.

I agree with that, but I think honesty is a part of it too. That is, ‘breast is best’ but there are other options too. ‘Breast is best’ but sometimes it hurts like hell. I thought I was stupid, but I wasn’t – sometimes it just hurts no matter how many times you reattach.

Knowing that would have lessened the emotional pain, if not the physical pain. And I imagine that the emotional pain of breastfeeding (and thinking you’re doing it wrong all the time) is a factor in why many women stop trying.

If we want to encourage women to breastfeed we need to treat them like adults and give them all the options.

I know that kind of honesty would have helped me.