This is an appeal and in no way an attempt to open up the debate around bottle or breast. Personally, I am really only concerned with how I feed my own baby. I am appealing however, to the people who occasionally complain about the attitude of long term breastfeeders, to think about what it actually means to breastfeed in Ireland.
My own son is four months old so I am a long way off being a long term breastfeeder but this has been my experience so far.
From the moment I announced my pregnancy people asked me whether I would bottle or breastfeed and as soon as I admitted my intention to breast feed the unilateral response was – ‘well I hope you are not going to turn into one of those breast feeding fascists!’ And to be honest, at the time, I was secretly referring to my own few friends who breastfed in this light. They had joined groups, were posting things on Facebook and defiantly breast feeding their toddlers in public – some of them even had stickers! For the remainder of my pregnancy my breastfeeding friends, delighted that I was about to join their club sent me articles about how amazing breastfeeding was, how good it was for my baby, for me etc… And I read them carefully, but to be honest I chose to breastfeed simply because I thought that’s what my body is made for and I’ll see how long I can handle it.
The rest of my friends, family and colleagues spent my pregnancy warning me that I was setting myself up for a fall. It wouldn’t work, it would wear me out, it wouldn’t be enough for my baby, I wouldn’t be able to do anything for myself, go on a night out, get any sleep, get a break, my baby would be spoiled if I fed on demand… and then when it transpired I was having a boy, it was perverted, weird and the root of all evils when it comes to Irish men! These are honestly the comments that I got on a daily basis and its not that I surround myself with negative ninnies – anyone who has ever been pregnant knows that you are public property and strangers on the bus have no qualms in telling you how to raise your future bundle of joy.
After the birth, when my husband slowly started to allow a steady trickle of visitors into our cocoon – the first question on everyone’s lips after my son’s birth weight was , “When are you going to move on to bottles? How long are you going to feed him yourself?” (I particularly don’t like that expression because every mother feeds her own child!).
Breastfeeding is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. From the moment he latched on it was the most agonising experience. I had cracked nipples and then contracted thrush of the breast, which took six weeks to sort. I would burst into tears before DS would even latch on. But I didn’t want to give up. I had and have a perfectly contented baby who loved to feed and within five days had regained his birth weight. Breastfeeding suited him and because we co-sleep I was getting more sleep than before and during my pregnancy. The breastfeeders told me to hang on, it would get better, I would soon enjoy it and it would become a pleasure like no other. Mothers on Rollercoaster told me never quit on a bad day – but every day was a bad day. I had real trouble believing that it would ever get better and I started giving myself deadlines – another two weeks, another month etc….. My midwife and public health nurse checked up on me regularly and slowly and surely it began to get better.
While I struggled to keep my own faith well meaning friends and family started to work on my husband. It’s not meant to be that hard, she should give up, it’s not good for her or the baby. She needs to give you a chance to look after him, When is she going to give up this farce?
Then one day after six weeks it all changed – the pain was gone and I started to thoroughly enjoy it. I won’t go into how wonderful it is – though it was pretty wonderful – but even as my breastfeeding relationship improved so dramatically those around me continued to struggle with my choice. Not a day goes by without someone asking me when I’m going to stop or without someone trying to conceal their contempt. I haven’t posted things on Facebook yet or gotten myself a sticker but I completely understand why people become so militant about it because it feels like a war sometimes.
People are obsessed with how often I feed him. I feed on demand and he’s a big baby. Recently, I was in hospital visiting a relative and within earshot of a doctor my aunt gave me a lecture on how my baby needed night feeds like a hole in the head and that at this age he should be on bottles of water. Luckily for me the doc intervened and explained that it was an old fashioned idea to give breast fed babies water or rusks. I felt bad for my aunt then because thats how she was told to do it and it was a bit of a slap in the face. But I felt like I’d dodged a bullet because I find my day has become about endlessly defending my choices and my baby is only four months old – if I continue to breast feed it will only get worse. I am afraid that I will end up posting things on Facebook and telling people why I am right! I am growing increasingly defensive. I don’t know how long I will breastfeed for. I don’t know how long it will remain practical to do so. I have a job to go back to. But I am nervous. If I continue to follow our National recommendations and those of the WHO – I will feed my baby exclusively until he is six months old and possibly up until he is two years old.
Only 2% of mothers in Ireland are still breastfeeding at six months. We have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the EU. Many people feel that breastfeeding mothers are pushy and smug but they have had a mountain to climb here in Ireland. I don’t think anyone wants to be smug but I think long term breastfeeders have the right to feel their views count and to feel a certain amount of self satisfaction.
I don’t resent people caring about me but the road to hell is paved with good intentions and what I needed when I was struggling was someone to listen to me, agree that it can be tough and hold my hand (figuratively) until things began to improve. The problem is that the people who urged me to give up for ‘my own sake’ knew very little about breastfeeding and made no attempt to find out. And so like many other mothers, I stopped telling anyone I was struggling.
I know that parenting requires a thick skin and like others I am good at nodding, white lies and even agreeing for a bit of peace! But I am 100% confident in all the other parenting decisions I make and so many of them are in the privacy of my own home and no one will ever know…but I feel especially vulnerable when it is about something that involves getting my boobs out in public!!
Breastfeeding in Ireland is not easy, so please spare a thought for well meaning breastfeeders who think their advice re: breastfeeding is useful because you can be sure that somewhere along the line someone gave them the push they needed to keep going and they just want to pass that on.