SO I’M JUST going to go ahead and say it… Breast feeding ain’t all that. I should know, I’ve done it. Or should I say survived it. Now, with a few weeks of blissful formula-fed perspective under my belt, I feel I can express my opinion and not just my milk.
I laugh and shake my head when I think of my pre-baby stance on breast feeding. As a junior doctor working in Obstetrics and Gynaecology I was smugly camped on the “breast is best” bandwagon for years. I pursed my lips and shook my head when pregnant women informed me they weren’t even planning to try breastfeeding. I rhymed off the mantra – all the benefits for mother and baby’s health.
When I rounded on tearful mums asking for a bottle for their baby in the postnatal ward I rebuffed their complaints and questions about breast feeding with the stock answers we’d been given by the lactation consultants: “You need to feed on demand”; “Sleep when your baby sleeps”; “Your breasts will make as much milk as your baby needs”; “ It’s not sore if you do it right, if your attachment is right”.
Well, I have news for the pre-baby me. It is bloody sore, it is phenomenally exhausting and in a first world country with excellent sanitation you are not going to scar your baby for life if you formula feed.
Don’t get me wrong. If breast feeding works for you, great! Well done you! It’s the guilt and condemnation suffered by the deserters that bothers me. Having your first baby is the steepest learning curve I’ve ever been on. Those first few days and weeks, no matter how prepared you are antenatally, can only be described as traumatic.
‘I lasted two weeks’
Now I’m well used to sleep deprivation – as a junior doctor in our crazy health system I routinely work 30-hour straight shifts and upwards of 70-hour weeks. But breast feeding a hungry baby is sleep deprivation on another scale. Previously after a day and night on call I would come home and collapse into bed (usually still in my clothes) for a 12-hour undisturbed slumber. However breastfeeding doesn’t work like that. The baby doesn’t just sleep when you’re a physical wreck. No-one can just take over for a couple of hours while you doze. You’ve got the boobs. You’re it. Always.
No matter what anyone says, it is painful. Those first few moments when the baby latches are excruciating. No matter how good your “attachment technique”, your nipples still crack and bleed. Nobody tells you about the bleeding nipples. No matter what kind of breast pads you use there will be times when you leak – usually in public, or in front of a very embarrassed old man. I lasted two weeks.
Last week was National Breastfeeding Week, otherwise known as National Irish Mammy Guilt week. The doctor in me realises the importance of this public health message. With rising obesity levels and obesity having its roots in childhood, it is important to get the ‘breast is best’ message out there. But it’s also important to say to mums for whom it just doesn’t work that it’s OK.
Once I started formula feeding, my husband could take a feed or two and this allowed me to sleep, finally. I was much less tearful , crazy and anxious about my little baby after a few hours of undisturbed sleep. Dare I say, it I even started to enjoy her.
Listening to a male expert commenting on the radio last week on the importance of breast feeding and how Irish women need to “wake up” and realise they must do it made me laugh. Get back to me when you’ve had the bleeding nipples mate.
Siobhan Corcoran is a specialist registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology.