Features

Breast-feeding isn't always best

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

How should a new mother feed her baby? You might well imagine that was up to her. While some mothers take to breast-feeding as if their bosoms have been waiting all their lives for it, others find it exhausting, excruciating and demoralising. Sacrificing every waking hour to nature’s cause, they still produce a mere soupçon of milk, not nearly enough to satisfy a ravenous baby. So isn’t it sometimes better to bottle-feed, with formula milk?

Beware. To do such a thing, in our guilt-ridden, competitive age, is seen as stepping into an abyss of last resort. Never mind that your baby will stop crying at last, fall blissfully asleep: the goody-goody breast-feeding mothers in your NCT group will mentally vilify you as a slovenly baby-poisoner.

The La Leche League, the NCT, the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers and the National Breastfeeding Helpline try hard these days not to sound too judgmental. They do not like being nicknamed ‘the Breastapo’, although some of the NCT’s bossier members can be terrifyingly dogmatic. ‘We support all mothers, however they decide to feed their baby,’ they insist. But their websites also explain that if you choose formula rather than breast milk, your baby is more likely to suffer from gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, respiratory, urinary, gut and ear infections, asthma, pneumonia, diabetes, obesity, leukaemia and a low IQ. Anna Burbidge, a spokesperson for La Leche League, quoted a recent Unicef survey saying that a baby will be more likely to be hospitalised during its first year if not exclusively breast-fed for the first six months.

No wonder so many mothers, struggling to teach their baby to breast-feed in its first week of hungry, bawling, weight-losing life, are so scared. They would do anything to avoid the drop of formula milk that would ruin their babies’ chances of getting into Oxbridge and might be tantamount to infanticide.

Breast-feeding has become one of the ‘halo’ achievements a woman longs to add to her collection of lifetime virtues — along with not having an epidural, only eating organic, getting a 2.1, passing the driving test first go and only marrying once.


But it’s the middle of the night, and the baby is screaming because it can’t ‘latch on’, and the mother is crying and the husband is desperate, so they ring the breast-feeding counsellor, who says, ‘You will get the hang of it… keep persevering… remember, nose to nipple… whatever you do, don’t give formula…’ It doesn’t work. And downstairs there’s a carton of formula milk given as a promotion to pregnant mothers by a wicked corporation.

The weird thing is that many breast-feeding counsellors were themselves bottle-fed as babies, but have nonetheless gone on to live long, healthy lives, with a rewarding career. Can formula milk really be that bad, then? In the 1960s and ’70s, bottle-feeding was the norm: mothers were routinely given an injection after giving birth to ‘stop the milk’ and maternity wards contained boxes of bottles and formula. That, to the current breast-feeding mafia, is a vision of hell: a dystopian scenario in which thousands of innocent babies were force-fed on processed skimmed cow’s milk and denied the vital enzymes and antibodies with which to fight off the diseases life would throw at them. How could anyone do that to a baby? Emotions run high. And once I mention the person I’m about to mention, they’ll run even higher. Breast-feeding counsellors all over the country will clutch their foreheads. This person gets far too much publicity already and has somehow got on to the celebrity new mothers circuit. How dare she?

She is Clare Byam-Cook, loathed by NCT breast-feeding counsellors and adored by countless mothers she’s rescued from baby-feeding misery. Kate Winslet swears by her. Richard Curtis and Emma Freud ‘give’ a visit from Clare (£140 an hour) as a present to friends of theirs who have just had a baby. There are long vitriolic threads about her on Mumsnet, ranting about how dreadful she is.

Her supposed crimes? Well, there are a few. She has a posh voice and a double-barrelled surname, and is not a qualified lactation consultant but instead a trained nurse and midwife. Her latest DVD is entitled Breastfeeding Without Tears, not a rose-tinted name such as The Joy of Breastfeeding. She believes that the currently favoured ‘nose-to-nipple’ method simply doesn’t work. If you hold your baby’s nose to your nipple, waiting for it to open its mouth wide and clamp on, you may wait for eternity. Clare suggests the mouth-to-nipple, ‘shape-and-shove’ method, which works. (Shape and shove. You can imagine it.)

Most shocking of all, her book contains this sentence: ‘If everything is going wrong, and you and your baby are permanently in tears; if your husband has started finding excuses to stay away from home, it is probably best to give up the whole idea and restore peace and calm to the household — even if it means giving a bottle!’ The exclamation mark acknowledges the heretical nature of that suggestion. A bottle! But she believes it:

Breast milk is wonderful stuff, and all mothers owe it to their baby at least to have a go at breast-feeding. But a study I’ve read suggests that giving a baby formula can actually make its immunities stronger: the gut learns early on to tolerate different things. And bottle-fed babies do not grow up fat, ill or stupid.

When I visited Clare, she brought out an exhibit: a silver nipple shield, 200 years old, which proves that mothers have had trouble breast-feeding for a long time — hence the village wet nurse. Clare’s other firm belief is that some mothers are good milk producers, while others aren’t — in the same way that not all cows are good milk producers. ‘It’s nonsense that everyone has enough milk,’ she said. The La Leche League says only 3 per cent of mothers are not able to produce enough. In Clare’s experience, it’s far more.

Guilt has swamped the whole subject, ruining the experience of new motherhood. Beatific public breast-feeding does not help. Remember the fuss last year when a mother was asked to cover up with a napkin while breast-feeding in Claridge’s? Outraged mothers held a feed-in outside the hotel.

Then there are the breast-feeding selfies posted by celebrities like supermodel Gisele, nursing while assistants attend to her hair, make-up and nails. A worn-out mother, already anxious about a baby who cannot latch on, is hardly comforted by such images.

So enshrined is the supremacy of breast that a recent celebrity client of Clare’s was terrified at the idea of giving a bottle, not so much because of the health implications as because of the dread of being seen in Hello! with a bottle of formula sticking out of the pushchair. Worse than Coca-Cola, in today’s increasingly fanatical world.

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Show comments
  • cartimandua

    The lie is that you have to choose.

  • Dominic Stockford

    Jolly good woman. Well done her.

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  • Tayles100

    Let’s not beat around the bush here: this is the same snobbery that a certain type of person has always demonstrated against modernity and convenience. They think industrialised goods are inherently gauche and tainted by the touch of man. They like to announce their moral superiority by sticking to a more natural method of feeding their child.

    As for the health benefits, I suspect they’re bullshit. It’s only anecdotal evidence, admittedly, but all our friends who breastfed their babies, ended up with sickly, needy children.

    • Mary Ann

      It’s not snobbery, I breast fed my babies and have bottle fed my grandson, anyone who thinks that bottle feeding is easy is crazy, all that phaffing around with bottles, washing, mixing, trying to get them to the right temperature, wasn’t for me, I’m far too lazy. Oh and 95% of babies admitted to hospital with gastro-enteritis are bottle fed.

      • CK

        Firstly, I’d be really interested in seeing the source for your stat.
        And secondly, correlation isn’t causation. Babies that struggle with latching and therefore need bottle feeding may well have underlying conditions that both prevent breast feeding and contribute to gastro-enteritis.
        Throwing stats around with no context just shows you don’t really understand statistics.

    • Jess Rose

      There’s no need to go so far the other way! Isn’t it alright to simply say that both methods often produce happy, well-rounded children?

  • kitten

    Honestly, how did women manage for those hundreds of thousands of years before man-made formula came along?

    It really is a conundrum.

    • JM McGill

      The honest answer is that they used wet nurses.

      No conundrum after all.

      • kitten

        When mothers were supported in Norway 99% of mothers breast fed:

        http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/21/world/norway-leads-industrial-nations-back-to-breast-feeding.html

        The use of wet nurses appear to be more of a cultural decision, overtaken now by made-made formula.

        • Vanessa

          You are comparing a country with only 5 million people to a country like the USA with over 300 million people. Obviously the more women there the more issues you will see. In Norway most breastfeeding mothers are already giving their baby solid foods by 4 months old. Just because they report as still breastfeeding doesn’t mean they are not having issues. The government pushes breastfeeding so I won’t be surprised if countless of those women are not being completely truthful about how much, if any breastmilk their babies are still getting. The fact is breastfeeding issues are not rare.

          • kitten

            Breastfeeding issues are obvious as soon as the baby is born.
            It actually gets far easier as time goes on; so your arguments based on early use of weaning on to solids are irrelevant, as are the number of women living in a country.

          • fearlessformulafeeder

            I’m not sure you have a solid understanding of how cultural differences affect human research.

            Also, I think Vanessa’s point is that exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months – what the UK and USA promote as the desired standard for all mothers – may not be feasible for many women. We can’t hold up Norway as evidence of its possibility, if most women are supplementing with food or formula by 4 months. That is entirely relevant, and a very good point, indeed.

          • Hamburger

            My wife’s experience would refute you there.

          • kitten

            Your wife was obviously doing something wrong, possibly not drinking enough.
            If she had proper support there’s rarely an issue. Also the west seems to have a warped idea of what a baby should look like; chubby babies are not normal, they’re the consequence of overfeeding.

          • Hamburger

            As you don’t know my wife’s history, I find your remarks appallingly arrogant.

          • kitten

            I find your attitude to breastfeeding appallingly complacent.

        • fearlessformulafeeder

          No, you misread the article. 99% breastfed in the hospital, otherwise known as breastfeeding initiation. Considering milk doesn’t come in for most women until 3-5 days postpartum, this could hardly be relevant for gauging insufficient milk disorder. At 6 months, 80% were still breastfeeding – meaning that 20% were not. That’s 1/5 women – in a place that had done everything “right” in becoming a breastfeeding friendly environment.

          Not to mention this quote from the same article: “‘Women who are not able to are very, very sad,” she added. ”They feel like failures if they cannot breast-feed.”

          • kitten

            Do you really think I’m going to take your post seriously when your username is ‘fearlessforumulafeeder’?

            What baby formula company do you work for?

          • fearlessformulafeeder

            I’m the author of an academic book on the sociology of infant feeding, actually. I do not work for the formula companies. Am I to assume you are 100% feline?

      • Mary Ann

        Apart from all those women who couldn’t afford it.

        • ì want to guíde you to amazíng* online work opportunity.. 3-5 h of work a day.. payment at the end of each week.. performance dependíng bonuses…earnings of six to nine thousand dollars /month – merely few hours of your free time, a computer, most elementary familiarìty wìth www and trusted web-connection is what is needed…learn more by headìng to my page

    • Vanessa

      Wet nursing, milk from other species such as goat and cow, pureed food from birth, homemade formulas. Alternatives to human milk have always existed because women and babies have always had difficulties breastfeeding.

      • kitten

        Even by a very sympathetic report the highest figures I saw for actual breastfeeding issues came out as 5% of the population.

        As I’ve already said, bottle feeding is mostly a cultural practice.

        • Clara Cando

          `Only` 5% of the population, that`s one in twenty women. Meaning 35.000 mothers every year in the UK alone who couldn`t breastfeed if their life depended on it. Insignificant and unimportant, right?

        • Mary Ann

          Breast feeding rates are much higher in Canada. How do the Canadians manage it?

          • dwarfpoo

            does it really matter?

        • eclair

          You really do have no idea of the difficulties there can be do you. I would have strolled down the High Street naked with the child on one arm and both breasts flopping about like water wings if that would help. It didnt and my children survived.

          • kitten

            I certainly how no idea what you’re rambling on about.

          • eclair

            Id guessed.

    • Clara Cando

      Simple. They either were wealthy enough to afford a wet nurse, or their babies died.

    • cartimandua

      They didn’t try to do anything else. Wealthy women hired wet nurses.

      • Mary Ann

        And the rest, the vast majority wouldn’t have been able to afford wet nurses.

        • Laura

          The vast majority farmed their kids off to relatives and a sizeable proportion sold them.

    • Mary Ann

      If they didn’t their babies died, a good incentive.

    • Laura

      With one in five children dying?

      • kitten

        Babies don’t die from breastfeeding.

        • Kathy Prendergast

          Well, actually they can, if they get AIDS or some other deadly virus from the mother which can be transmitted by breastfeeding. But they can also starve to death if they’re not getting enough milk, as many babies did in the past if there were no other options available for the mother to feed it. Sometimes moms just don’t produce enough milk, for no known reason, and it’s not their fault. A friend’s baby went into a coma (fortunately he recovered) due to dehydration and/or malnutrition because he wasn’t getting enough milk from her and she got so much pressure from the “Breastapo” not to give him formula, no matter what. In the distant past many women of the same family would be living either together or very close together and if you weren’t producing enough milk it would be easy enough for a sister, aunt, or even your own mother who was also nursing a baby to help out. And it’s a myth that only wealthy women have used the services of “wet nurses”. But not every mother had these options, so if they couldn’t feed their own babies, the babies died. This ridiculous idea that nature is always best and that before the twentieth century all mothers happily and successfully breastfed all their babies without needing formula or help from other nursing women is a load of nonsense.

        • Hamburger

          But hunger.

          • kitten

            Nonsense. Your post reads like the wailing of the hypochondriac.

          • Hamburger

            So no children die of hunger? Good God.

          • kitten

            You’re twisting what I said which leads me to wonder how childish you are as that’s a childish tactic.

          • Hamburger

            I think we should end it here. We obviously live n different planets.

          • kitten

            My point is, if women don’t want to breastfeed thats their choice, we allegedly live in a free country; but don’t try and pretend it’s because you can’t because in most instances this is simply not true.

          • Hamburger

            We are probably on the same planet after all. I think 5% is a significant minority and that the choice belongs to the mother.

          • kitten

            I agree, the choice belongs to the mother.

      • David S

        That is about right.

    • Hamburger

      Wet nurses or death probably.

  • Miss Darkside

    “Breast-feeding has become one of the ‘halo’ achievements a woman longs
    to add to her collection of lifetime virtues — along with not having an
    epidural, only eating organic, getting a 2.1, passing the driving test
    first go and only marrying once.” I’m very proud to have had an epidural (plus a TENS machine, gas & air, pethidine and eventually a spinal block for my caesarean), couldn’t give a stuff about eating organic & haven’t got a 2.1. Like my driving test pass and marriage, it’s a first (and only!). My son is very fit & healthy, very clever, rarely ill, has no allergies and is well adjusted – a perfect example of an exclusively formula fed kid. Stick that in your pump and squirt it.

  • jim

    Oh shut about it, can’t you? Besides,it’s bad for your t*ts.

    • Mary Ann

      It’s good for your breasts, it reduces the risk of breast cancer.

      • Callipygian

        Mary Ann: Not all of us live in fear of breast cancer (or any cancer, for that matter). I make life choices in the round, considering my entire and immediate and long-term good. I don’t do anything because some obsessive in a lab coat claims it’s ‘good for preventing piles’ or whatever he/she thinks is important!

        • Mary Ann

          We need to respect breast cancer it catches one in nine of us, and you can’t afford to ignore it, unless of course you don’t have a problem with mastectomy, I do, I also enjoy being fit and healthy and want to stay that way.

          • Callipygian

            Right, but the best way to stay healthy is to eat a diet full of veg, good fats, and protein, and to exercise (training is even better).

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    of course there’s something amiss if you think you have to teach your baby to breastfeed. better to let the baby teach you, I think.

    • eclair

      Thats great…if it works. Neither my sons or I had a clue despite a helpful nurse’s visits. So I bottle fed them as I did for all my kids who reached adulthood pretty well without the help of breast and who would blame them. Have you seen bleeding nipples? Not a good cocktail for a baby even if the milk does turn up.

  • jeremy Morfey

    Having had two children nursed by a superb milker, I was constantly reminded of my male inadequacy, particularly at night, and it was eventually grounds for divorce.

  • Barbara Higham

    What she fails to get, as the author of this rehashed rant always does, is that breastfeeding is not a chore or an act of self-sacrifice, it’s just the bog standard way to feed a baby. It’s interesting the preoccupation with guilt is always the focus in such features, because the same author won’t be too happy a little further down the line when the same precious offspring are old enough to be targeted by other unscrupulous manufacturers of unhealthy foods. The concept of guilt won’t come into then, you can bet. Breastfeeding might be a dying art, but there are some serious questions that need addressing as to why that’s the case. It’s a shame that the media prefers always to go for the cat fight and the ‘poor me, it’s too hard’ line.

    • Callipygian

      ‘an act of self-sacrifice’

      All early mothering is an act of sacrifice. And I doubt that the woman with chapped aching nipples and a desperate need for sleep would agree with you.

  • Precambrian

    Coming soon, train carriages filled with football fans chanting “Get your tits out for the babs, get your tits out for the babs”.

    Watching the left figure out whether shout approval or cry into their latte will almost be worth it.

  • James Chilton

    “Misery and shame” seem a tad over the top for women who don’t breast feed. Maybe, to use a vogue word, they could be just “disappointed”?

    • eclair

      Nope it causes misery. It is a failure if you want to do it and makes you doubt your ability to even raise children,especially with all the hooha about breast being best.

  • Callipygian

    Interesting. My first thought: reproduction is a period that many of us are not at yet, and even more of us are beyond — and I view it as if it were another planet. Planet Parenthood: I’m not on it and never was. From this distance, it doesn’t look that attractive. I believe myself much better off on Planet Puppy — but that’s parenthood of a different kind, of course.

    My second thought: one of the reasons that I never sojourned to Planet Parenthood is my early-20s revulsion at the thought of an infant literally sucking the nourishment out of me (yes, I would have survived, but in the abstract this was a horrifying thought). I think this abhorrence stemmed from a strong sense of self, coupled with an insecurity about my future and place in the world (lower-middle-class divorced parents; mother very flaky and poor, me not conventional and not a ‘career girl’). As far as I was concerned, my breasts were for my own enjoyment (and that of my boyfriend, though as I ended up marrying an asexual I couldn’t claim even that).

    • Mary Ann

      What you need is more self-confidence, it’s actually a wonderful feeling to be the best source of nurture for your baby, and after the first few weeks, it is so much easier.

      • Callipygian

        I have no doubt that you are right.

  • Callipygian

    A number of commenters below refer to wet nursing. I’ve never understood the whole concept. Why did certain mothers not breastfeed their own young? Was it something that went on far too long, i.e. beyond the natural run of a natural mother’s milk (in which case, they might have got the hint that the baby should be weaned now!)? Or were there other reasons? Who first thought of this? I cannot imagine being the first mother to say to another mother: ‘I’ve got a baby and my breasts are leaking milk, but I’d rather not — I’ll pay you to suckle instead’.
    I often think humans are weird. When it comes to reproduction, they seem even weirder.

    • Mary Ann

      The average length of time for breast feeding throughout the world is over 4 years, so there must be a awful lot of women breastfeeding for six or seven years.

      • Hamburger

        It makes the mind boggle.

    • Kathy Prendergast

      There have been various reasons for using the services of wet nurses in the past; we tend to think it was all vain, lazy wealthy women who couldn’t be bothered to feed their own babies but it was more complicated than that. Sometimes it was because there was no mother at all, as in the days before antibiotics many more women used to die from infections after childbirth, including one of my own great-grandmothers, who was only 18. Sometimes mothers were incapable of breastfeeding, for whatever reasons…too young, old, sick…and it may also be that aristocratic women, who were always expected to give birth to many (preferably male) children, refrained from breastfeeding because it has always been well-known that a woman is less likely to get pregnant when she is breastfeeding, although of course that doesn’t make it a reliable means of birth control. There would likely be pressure on her to get pregnant again as soon as possible after the birth, especially if she had given birth to a girl. Think of Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I’s mother, whose husband King Henry VIII was obsessed with having a male heir. The job of a married woman of that class was to produce babies, not to nurse or raise them. But people of lower classes have historically used the services of wet nurses too, just like they would use the services of other professionals like surgeons or barbers if they needed them and could afford them.

  • Liz

    Does this magazine ever have anything more interesting to say about the 52% of. The British population than attacking them for breast feeding or being raped?

  • Sheena T.

    At last..some common sense. As a baby/maternity nurse, to see in print what I’ve been advocating for years, is wonderful. Some mums can never produce enough milk, no matter how they try. Babies with allergies/reflux etc, and yes, they do exist, will react to everything she eats and the pain that accompanies this is an unacceptable price for any infant to have to pay. I am tired of seeing constantly hungry, whimpering babies who have never experienced the contentment and bliss of falling into a milk induced sleep, and guilt ridden, obsessed mothers who feel that giving their babies formula is somehow akin to feeding them arsenic. Breast feeding is wonderful, if you can do it, but failure to thrive and undernourished, underweight babies on starvation level feeds was never meant to be an alternative to formula. Babies aren’t being failed by not being able to breast-feed. They’re being failed by not being properly fed. Period. (mother of three, breast and formula fed).

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