Fed Up

Confession time.

One time, I left a mum and baby class without staying to feed my son even though I knew he was about due one.

He woke up when we left, as he normally does if he hasn’t taken a feed in a few hours. I hurriedly said my goodbyes and made haste for the door. We trundled through the park to the post office, that I had to get to before 5. It was half 4. I could see him gurning, prayed that it wouldn’t escalate before we got home. Of course it did though. He started screaming right at that point where I was closer to my destination than to home.

“Aw, someone’s hungry”, commented the woman who served me in the post office, as he spat out his dummy and screamed.

The woman who held the door for me gave me a sympathising glance as I hustled him into the cold, hoping that might calm him down. But no. He continued screaming.

He screamed as I pushed the pram in the wrong direction and had to stand in the street with my phone out trying to figure out how to get home. He kept screaming as I hit upon the brainwave of feeding him in the safe, neon foyer of the New Victoria Hospital, a safe space, where I’d attended my midwife appointments and antenatal classes. I knew I could sit and feed him comfortably and without judgement. It was one of those piercing, sore-sounding, slightly pathetic screams that only newborn babies have. People tutted, gave us the side eye, dodged the pram to get by us without making eye contact. We made it to the hospital, he had his feed and we could make our way home.

The reason I didn’t want to feed him in the mum and baby class left me feeling ashamed. I didn’t want to feed him because he takes a bottle, the mum and baby class was a breastfeeding workshop and I was embarrassed. Lucas slept all the way through it while I tried to explain how hard and frustrating and tiring feeding had been. The other mums nodded and said yes, they were exhausted too, their precious darlings breastfed too much. One mum dominated the conversation humble-bragging about how tiring it was feeding a newborn and a twenty month old at once. I had to stop myself from telling her it clearly hadn’t had any positive effects on her twenty month old’s behaviour, as the little shit wrenched a succession of toys from the hands of an eight month old baby.

Some mums were nice, but they still had their own judgements. I said that our midwife had advised me to give Lucas pre-mixed formula as a top up. They tutted, turned up their noses, they shouldn’t be telling you that. They overlooked the fact that we’d been told this because Lucas had lost 13% of his body weight and had to be readmitted to hospital. It didn’t take into account his as-then-undetected tongue tie which meant he couldn’t latch on to breastfeed and was pretty much starving. This group felt like a last lifeline, though. All of the mum and baby workshops, baby cafés and support groups were for breastfeeding. There was no bottle-feeding support. If I couldn’t breastfeed him, where was I going to go? How would I meet other mums?

It turns out there are plenty of other options- it just didn’t feel like it at the time.

My post about Lucas’s first month, and a post on Instagram, detailed our experience with feeding and the tongue tie clinic and I got a lot of feedback from mums who’d been through similar. I still couldn’t find a lot of support for bottle feeding, though. Even buying formula online had a “breastfeeding is best!!!!” disclaimer slapped on it. Sure, the NHS website had a step-by-step guide to covering the basics, but the support is notable by its absence. The difference in menu options says a lot…

There’s bottle-feeding information, yeah, but look how- pardon the pun- formulaic it is. How to sterilise bottles, how to make up formula, what types are available. On the topic of breastfeeding, there’s a wealth of information about how to feed, what positions are best, feeding your baby in public, trouble-shooting, even testimonies from other mums. There are no testimonies from bottle-feeding mums.

I know, I know. I’ve seen the posters, read the literature, spoken with health professionals. I know “breast is best”. Bottle-feeding was never my first choice. For one thing, well, the health benefits. For another, the convenience. Like I could take my baby out for hours and not have to worry about making up feeds because they were right there. And yeah, the crucial factor for me, it’s free. Formula is EXPENSIVE and you only go through more of it because, let’s face it, your baby’s only going to get bigger.

What message does it send, though, that bottle-feeding is treated like such an afterthought even by our health service? I don’t mean this to descend into a breast vs. bottle debate, and it shouldn’t be. However, the drop in mums who breastfeed goes from 81% in hospital to 55% after six weeks. Surely they can’t all be ‘just lazy’? A study on baby café services in the UK concluded that unrealistic expectations from antenatal services left mums unprepared for the reality of feeding.

In my experience this was absolutely true. I wanted to breastfeed, so I never felt pushed into it by antenatal services. However, at no point did they say just how hard it’d be. I seem to remember there being talk of it being a new skill that you had to learn, but it revolved around the first couple of days in hospital. Lucas’s first feed, in the hour after he was born, went without a hitch. I mistakenly thought that was it. It was a different story at home. He couldn’t feed or get the energy to feed and so he cried. The more he cried, I cried, and the whole process just felt torturous.

We took him to the tongue tie clinic at the Royal Hospital for Children, in the hopes that it’d help him latch on. It didn’t, and we went back to the same routine. In between this he was happily taking formula. He was steadily putting on weight and the health visitor commented on how alert he was. I tried to express but got less and less each time. It came to a head when he screamed even before he tried to latch on. “What the fuck DO YOU WANT?” I yelled. Then it hit me. I was shouting at a baby for something that he couldn’t help or understand. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

This post by the brilliant Not So Smug Now was really eye-opening. I didn’t know that it was illegal to advertise formula. The government, it seems, views formula in the same regard as tobacco. The World Health Organisation isn’t too keen on it either, believing that its use should only be considered following an informed and impartial decision.

It’s a good thing that breastfeeding is being encouraged, as is the push to normalise it in public. Studies have shown that a woman’s decision to feed can be based on environmental factors, and that young mums are more likely to bottle-feed as it’s deemed as socially acceptable (although a big part of me thinks this is due to a confidence issue as much as societal). Expectant mums should absolutely encouraged to breastfeed, or at least be made aware of its benefits. However, if mums do choose (or have) to bottle feed, similar information and support should be offered.

MP Alison Thewliss published a bill last week on the marketing of formula feeding. She’s done a lot of work in promoting breastfeeding, and I agree with many of the points, but I do have some concerns. I definitely think it should be tested independently under scrutiny, and companies should be held accountable for misleading promotion. Independent findings should also take precedence over formula-sponsored ‘research’. It’ll allow mums to make a more informed decision regarding feeding choices, which can only be a good thing. I think follow-on and ‘hungry baby’ milks are a complete con, and shouldn’t be marketed as a supplement to weaning (we bought Lucas ‘hungry baby’ milk only to be told that it’s not more dense in nutrients. It just bulks up more).

Plain packaging feels like an easy target, like formula should be something that’s hidden away out of sight- much like tobacco products. Same goes for not allowing it to be discussed in mum and baby clubs. Excluding support for mums because of their feeding choices isn’t going to help them feel included and supported. I doubt that’s the intent, but who knows. You can read the bill here and make up your own mind. These measures aren’t going to increase breastfeeding awareness. That can only happen through education, continued research into feeding choices and better access to feeding consultants and postnatal care.

What I do know is that we need to refocus our own scrutiny. 50% of new mums in England and Wales feel that their mental and emotional wellbeing was overlooked due to a lack of access to midwifery care. In 2016, Citizens’ Advice reported a 58% increase in expectant mums raising concerns over employee rights. There is still a gulf between maternity pay and maternity allowance that can cause anguish for mums on zero hour contracts or who are self-employed.

Instead of shaming mums for their feeding choices, let’s direct that energy elsewhere. It’s a crazy notion, but let’s support them instead. Being a new mum can be an extremely lonely, vulnerable and emotional time. Lucas was referred to the tongue tie clinic a second time, but they said there wasn’t really much to be done. “If the bottle works for you, keep doing that- just enjoy him”. That’s exactly what we’ve done. As long as a baby is fed, clothed and loved, it’s no one else’s business what teat it prefers.

Useful Links

The NCT’s advice on bottle feeding includes how to prepare feeds and deal with common feeding problems.

The fantastically funny (and honest) ladies over at Frank About Feeding talk about all things breast and bottle- no prejudice here.

Fearless Formula Feeder, aka author Suzanne Barston, offers a refreshing look at formula feeding, with enough support and information to help you make an informed decision.

You can keep up with official developments from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding.

NHS Scotland has a with lots of resources.