Fed is best
Up there with the amount of time new mums spend talking about sleep is the also common, and somewhat associated subject; feeding.
I entirely agree that back in the 1970s, the formula companies were in the wrong and were pushing for profit over health; benefitting from selling it to parents who didn’t need it.
However, I also wonder if we’ve gone too far with the “breast is best” diatribe and it’s affecting maternal mental health.
This is in no ways an anti-breastfeeding post; I am instead wanting to balance the thinking.
We see too often mothers who are at their wits’ end or have had their ability to bond with their babies compromised.
They’ve been so obsessed with breastfeeding at whatever cost, that they look back on the first six months of their babies lives as a battle, riddled with anxiety and guilt.
“Fed is best” has gained in popularity to counter this, and can help us to bring some healthy balance back.
In the Western world, where we have access to clean water, formula need not be viewed as subpar; it is merely an alternative food source. However, that’s still not the prevailing opinion…
Mums matter too
I saw a mum recently for a home consult for her 9 month old. As it often does, the conversation strayed towards this mother’s mental health. She had suffered terribly from depression before having her baby and was experiencing postnatal depression presently. Her doctor was urging her to go back on the medication that she needed, but it was one that wasn’t safe to take while breastfeeding.
This mum was struggling to get her head around the idea and didn’t want to quit breastfeeding for the sake of the medication, despite it being what she needed to thrive. Unfortunately, this mother who knew that she was not well, was being forced to make a decision. Not only was she struggling to look at it objectively, she was honest about feeling the weight of other people’s opinions. She knew she needed to do this, for her health, but was confronted by a real barrier around “quitting”.
Unfortunately, this struggle is not uncommon…
A mental shift
One family that I went to see recently had a baby who was suffering from milk intolerances and struggling to breastfeed. This mother was full-time expressing, while also trying to get her baby back on the breast, and spending any remaining time trying to settle him to sleep. She was so stretched! What’s more, she was also suffering from post-natal depression and anxiety.
However, this client was really struggling to get her head around the idea of topping up with formula. We talked through all of the options – gently reminding her that her own well-being mattered too – and she eventually decided to persevere with feeding her son at the breast and utilize formula for top ups. Being able to take a few minutes to eat or rest when she did manage to get her son down to sleep, now that she was no longer spending all day on the pump, made a huge difference to her well-being.
My own experience
Soon after my third child was born, he was diagnosed with a posterior tongue tie. Our feeding had been derailed and I had taken to pumping and bottle-feeding him – a decision that I maintained, even after his tongue tie was addressed. Lactation consultants urged me to try to relatch him to the breast following his procedure, but I believed it would be too stressful for me to do that and I was happy to continue with what I was doing.
Understanding that ‘fed is best’ and that what mattered, above all, was that both him and I were happy, I made a decision that I believe was right for me and my mental health. My son was a good sleeper and my supply was good, so I was able to pump easily while he slept; it worked for us. I can, of course, appreciate that this approach isn’t for everyone though. There are different courses of action that are best for each and every situation – the common element being that, in all cases, we’re ensuring the baby is fed.
It’s not all or nothing
Obviously, I talk to lots of parents every day, and many of them have babies under six months of age – a time when feeding is very intrinsically linked to sleep. We often ask to look at a baby’s growth chart and can quickly see the ones where quantity of milk may be influencing their sleep. Unfortunately these babies are not ready for solids, as they’re still too little, but very few parents have ever had it suggested that they might offer one extra formula top up to help fill their babies tummies.
I’m in no way suggesting here that a formula bottle is a magical sleep cure – that’s simply not the case – but what I’m calling for is a mindset shift. Sometimes it can be the thing that breaks the cycle and gets you back on even footing, enabling your baby to fill their tummy for a good, solid sleep. After a good sleep, most babies feed better, as they are not too tired to drain the breast.
What’s important to remember is that it’s not all or nothing. There really are only three options; your baby is either breastfed, mixed fed, or formula fed – and all of them are OK.
Unfortunately, mindset shifts are slow in coming – and I predict we will still be having some of these conversations with mums for some time. However, we can all start thinking more about the way we conduct our conversations around feeding our babies, to help with the much-needed shift.
One of the terms that I think absolutely needs to go is “exclusively breastfed”, as it’s only working to perpetuate the problems. As it stands, the word exclusive implies something special and unique. It also signals that you’ve opted for something to the exclusion of something less favourable. Not to mention how it makes other women, who may have struggled with feeding, or had to make a decision to use formula – for whatever reason – feel.
It may appear that I am being sensitive, but consider this quote that I think sums it up best:
“Words reflect and influence our attitudes and behaviours in ways we are not always conscious of; they convey layers of meaning, and subtly – or not so subtly – define the power balance in conversations and relationships.”
There has been a shift, in the world of midwifery, around words and phrases that should and shouldn’t be used. “Normal birth” has been replaced with the term “physiological birth” to reflect the fact that anything other than a narrow percentage of experiences are not ‘abnormal’. Similarly, “failure to progress” is now referred to only as “slow labour”. After all, no labouring woman wants to hear they are failing at anything at that point!
I believe that “exclusively breastfed” should be similarly dismissed. I’ve said it before, all babies are simply either breastfed, mixed fed, or formula fed – it needn’t be more loaded than that. For all our sakes.
Tell me abut your breastfeeding or formula feeding or mixed feeding experience in the comments, we love to hear your stories.
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