In 2018, I watched a C4 Dispatches documentary Breastfeeding Uncovered which shone a light on some of the frankly outrageous difficulties that many British women experience nursing in public. Presenter Kate Quilton, who gave birth just three months before, highlighted the fact that for 40% of mothers, the social stigma of breastfeeding actually forced them to quit. The U.K. continues to have the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world with only one in 200 women still breastfeeding to any degree at a year and only 34% of babies receiving any breast milk at six months of age, compared to 62% in Sweden. Speaking with Kate after the show aired, she explained, ‘So many women start out wanting to breastfeed, but because of a lack of support and social pressure, very few feel able to continue.’
Some of the most poignant moments of the documentary included footage of Kate breastfeeding on a busy high street with comments from onlookers suggesting that breastfeeding in public was indecent, inappropriate and should be a private thing between a mother and baby. Translation: something that takes place behind closed doors.
The lack of support for breastfeeding in certain areas of the country due to NHS budget cuts was also heart-breaking—one new mum had a four-hour round trip to get help, hardly realistic with a newborn. When we’re being drilled that breast is best, the patchy practical support to actually achieve it is something that we should all be furious about. Later in the show, the fact that women aren’t allowed to breastfeed in the House of Commons was another sucker punch—if our government doesn’t believe that women should be able to nurse in a public place of work, what hope have we got of changing cultural values?
But where I struggled with the documentary was in some of the ways that alternatives to breastfeeding were dealt with. Hands up, I have a particular bias here as I have a five-month-old and have just been through hell and back trying to breastfeed him, so I’ll admit that I *might be a little sensitive. However, I’m sure I’m not the only mum to have felt the sting of inadequacy while watching the show. One scene, for example, graphically conveyed the countless components that breastmilk contains. With people holding placards of the endless fats, minerals and other nutrients that make up the wonder elixir, you can’t fail to marvel at what the human body is capable of. But then we were presented with the significantly depleted components of formula milk as the placards dispersed. For any woman formula feeding— and as the statistics show, there’s a lot of us—how could you not feel guilty? Because, the point the documentary was making was clear: you’re providing your baby with sub-standard nutrition. When the truth is that babies can and do thrive on formula alone, so it felt unnecessary to so visually disparage it.
I’ve done my best over the last five months to come to terms with where we’re at on our personal feeding ‘journey’, one thing about the way Britain’s paltry breastfeeding statistics are presented continues to stick in my throat: that stopping breastfeeding is always a choice.
To take my example, just shy of four months after my son was born, my boobs stopped producing milk. As is in they were pumped dry. After four months of expressing mixed with still-tricky breastfeeding, the only choice was between formula or not feeding my baby—aka no choice at all. se of weight about it. I'm one of the women that make up the U.K’s low breastfeeding rate and I still feel a sense of weight about it
I was lucky enough to be living in an area with pretty good free breastfeeding support and I paid for independent lactation advice as well as having home calls from health visitors specialising in breastfeeding. Whether it was pumping 10 times a day, dealing with mastitis, struggling with nipple shields, coping with periods of oversupply and trying desperately to get a tongue-tied baby to learn to latch, there wasn’t one moment that I didn’t think that breast was best. In the many, many breastfeeding groups I went to, I was surrounded by women like me doing their utmost to make it work. While there might have been some who felt embarrassed to feed in public, most of them would have got their boobs out for page 3 if it had helped them feed their baby.
And yes, of course it is completely unacceptable that 40% of us have been shamed into quitting breastfeeding, but this means there’s another 60% of women who had other reasons - which, if they’re anything like me - they’re already beating themselves up enough about.
Because the NHS and NCT are so focused on encouraging breastfeeding, when my baby was born I had no idea how to make a formula bottle. So, when my 36-hour baby stopped latching, he went 11 hours without any food because I just didn’t know what to do. No-one had checked his latch—or his tongue—at the hospital and it would be another fortnight before he had a frenotomy (a cut to release the tongue). We didn’t have any emergency formula, there was a foot deep of snow outside and I was desperate, desperate to make breastfeeding work.
In all of my hours of hospital appointments and prenatal classes, I didn’t learn how to make a formula bottle. I didn’t learn how to pump, or how much expressed milk you should give a newborn. Not that it’s rocket science, but post-labour any new task, especially one which is vital to keeping your precious bundle alive, is hugely intimidating. I ended up remaking that first bottle 4 times because I was so worried I’d messed up the ratio or counted the scoops incorrectly. And I sobbed because I already felt like I’d let the heart outside my body down.
Don’t get me wrong – I entirely agree with the premise and intention of the documentary. I just don’t believe you can talk about nursing shame without mentioning formula shame too. In a similar way that Kate experienced judgement for breastfeeding in public, I’ve had critical looks for feeding my baby with a bottle (even when there was expressed breastmilk in it) and have been asked twice (both times on a bus…) why I’d given up on breastfeeding. One woman said it was ‘a pity I couldn’t keep it going.’ Which made me feel great.
And there’s a very good reason why new guidelines recommend that midwives respect a mother’s decision on how they feed their babies: women who plan to breastfeed but don’t manage it have double the chance of developing post-natal depression. The feeling that you’re not doing the very best for your baby is wrenching and any discussion about the low rates of breastfeeding have to have a sensitivity to the fact that not everyone can get to the magic six months of exclusive nursing, no matter how hard they try.
Discussing the issue with Kate, she agrees, that, ‘the judgements go both ways. I feel the media has a big part to play in pitting formula mums up against breastfeeding moms and being divisive about it. I know the whole topic is shrouded in guilt and shame however you feed your baby. And it has got to stop. As for the documentary, it’s really hard in 24 minutes to cover everything – so the question we really focused on was why our breastfeeding rates are so low here in the UK.’
The real issue then perhaps, is why such a huge and all-encompassing issue was only given 24 minutes of airtime by Channel 4? All new mums are under relentless pressure and deserve to know that there isn’t one right stripe or one size fits all solution to feeding a baby. We can’t just promote breastfeeding. We can’t just allow the formula industry to promote formula feeding. Why don’t we hear more about mixed feeding, something which the vast majority of women I know have ended up settling on? The only way we’re going to be able to park the guilt is if we hear the nuance in every discussion around feeding our babies. I may have contributed to the U.K’s dismal breastfeeding performance, but like every other woman trying to care for the new love of their life, my story is more than just a statistic