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Breastfeeding is not a choice!

As my pregnancy continues, my thoughts are naturally drifting back to when Little Man was born. I find myself especially thinking about the difficulties I had getting breastfeeding established. Looking back, I was just so naive and so uninformed starting out with it. I assumed that because it’s natural, breastfeeding would be easy. But unfortunately that wasn’t my experience at all in those first few weeks. I didn’t understand that breastfeeding may be natural, but it is still a “learned” skill.

Last week, I read two very different articles about breastfeeding. The first was a UK-based report commissioned by UNICEF, which found that 90% of mothers who stopped breastfeeding and switched to formula, didn’t want to switch. 90 per cent! I know those are UK figures and not Irish figures, but I think it’s likely the figures here are similar.

The second article was published on TheJournal.ie, and was called “Breastfeeding? Nobody tells you about the bleeding nipples.” Written by Siobhan Corcoran, a junior doctor in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, it’s a personal account of switching to formula feeding following breastfeeding difficulties including bleeding nipples. Siobhan recounts with regret the type of support that her pre-baby self used to offer to mothers experiencing breastfeeding difficulties in hospital:

When I rounded on tearful mums asking for a bottle for their baby in the postnatal ward I rebuffed their complaints and questions about breast feeding with the stock answers we’d been given by the lactation consultants: “You need to feed on demand”; “Sleep when your baby sleeps”; “Your breasts will make as much milk as your baby needs”; “ It’s not sore if you do it right, if your attachment is right”.

And she concludes that it’s important to let mums for whom breastfeeding just doesn’t work know that it’s okay, because the guilt heaped on “deserters” is unfair and unnecessary in a country where excellent sanitation means that formula-feeding won’t scar your child for life.

But Siobhan is looking at the problem in the wrong way. In fact she’s looking at the wrong problem. She’s feeling guilty and trying to find ways to ensure that other mothers don’t feel the same guilt. But the real problem is that she wanted to breastfeed and didn’t receive enough support and help to resolve any breastfeeding difficulties that she encountered, so she was forced to switch to formula before she intended to. She didn’t get to choose.

I made the following comment on Siobhan’s article:

I remember that pain all too well. But I also remember the unhelpful platitudes being passed off as advice in the hospital. My son was eight weeks old before we figured out latching without pain or damage. And in the end, I had to resort to the internet to find the solutions I needed to the breastfeeding issues I encountered. That to me is the real problem when it comes to the breastfeeding debate in Ireland. Plenty of enforced guilt, and no real educated medical support when you need help.

I couldn’t care less whether someone chooses to breastfeed or to bottlefeed their child. But what I do care about is that if someone chooses to breastfeed, she gets the help she needs to make that happen. As I learned the hard way, there are lots of potential causes, and plenty of solutions for bleeding nipples. And if our medical professionals who are so keen to hand out breastfeeding “advice” were properly educated about feeding issues, then they could actually help the women who come to them for help, instead of doing as you say you did, and piling on the guilt without any real understanding or practical solutions to go with it.


I don’t care whether someone chooses to formula-feed or breastfeed their child, but I do care about those who aren’t getting a choice.
Because switching to formula before you want to isn’t a choice. So why do we persist in framing it as such? Why does the media persist in framing the discussion in terms of “breastfeeders vs. formula-feeders”, as though there are two distinct camps both determined in their feeding preferences? Framing the discussion in that way is failing all of the women who really didn’t get a choice. But of course, it’s far easier to rile up your readers and generate interest by painting a picture of “bullying breastfeeding hippies vs. regular people who just want to feed their babies” rather than discussing the real issue, which to my mind is “Why are so many women – maybe as many as 90% of those who want to breastfeed – switching to formula before they want to?”

And I think that many of the answers lie in Siobhan Corcoran’s article. Generations of Irish women bottle-fed rather than breast-fed their babies, so a significant amount of breastfeeding knowledge has been lost, or replaced by myths about breastfeeding. So many Irish women turn to their medical professionals rather than their mothers or grandmothers for advice when they run into problems. And as Siobhan readily admits, those professionals respond with stock answers – but no real knowledge or understanding of the issues they’re supposed to resolve.

I believe it’s time we stopped focusing so much on breastfeeding campaigns to encourage women to try breastfeeding, and instead put our efforts into helping those who have chosen to breastfeed to achieve their feeding goals. If a woman switches to formula-feeding, it should be because she chooses to do so, and not because she has encountered a breastfeeding problem she can’t overcome.

When covering breastfeeding in antenatal classes, spend a bit less time extolling the virtues of breastfeeding, and a bit more time teaching women about the key stumbling blocks that they may need to be aware of. How many women sit crying in their hospital beds on their baby’s second night, crying because their milk hasn’t come in and they think their baby is starving? Would it be so difficult to explain that constant feeding on the second night is normal, and will help their milk come in?

What about giving practical advice on how to deal with bleeding nipples – or how to prevent them in the first place, rather than trying to pretend they don’t happen in case it puts people off?

Yes, the numbers initiating breastfeeding in hospitals may drop at first, which would of course reflect badly on the hospitals. But if the women who still choose to breastfeed receive the support they need to continue and to establish feeding, I suspect that slowly, slowly, the body of knowledge held by society about breastfeeding would start to grow again, countering the established myths. And if more women are helped to continue feeding for longer, then inevitably more women will be seen in society feeding, more women will share positive stories with their friends, and maybe when those friends come to choose whether to breastfeed or formula feed, they will have a real choice to make. And then we might see some real growth in the numbers who breastfeed in Ireland.

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15 Responses to “Breastfeeding is not a choice!”

  1. Michelle says:

    A really good read Lisa, thoroughly enjoyed it! ….And agree with you 100% :)

  2. Spot on Lisa! My baby was eight months old before I actually read that “baby’s second night” was a “thing”. If only I had known in advance. My baby’s second night was a really frightening experience. We were at home with a screaming baby who wanted to do nothing but feed, feed, feed and I felt I couldn’t satisfy him and I was convinced he was turning me into a “soother” because of an off the cuff remark a midwife had made to me. It was really awful!
    Why, why, why don’t they take you aside at the end of your pregnancy and say “listen! baby’s second night – this is what is going to happen and it’s fine.”? I’d say that small piece of advice alone would ease the anxiety of thousands of new mothers.
    mind the baby recently posted..The fourth trimester: Take it easy mamaMy Profile

  3. Maud says:

    Amen.
    Maud recently posted..Oncoming fourMy Profile

  4. Great post.
    I breastfed my first with very few problems, within two weeks we were flying along. The first few days in hospital my life was made easier by a wonderful midwife who had breastfed her kids. She cup fed my baby occasionaly to give me a rest, even took the baby away for a few hours to let me sleep and gave me advice on feeding.
    Second baby was a different story. A big feeder who drained me dry and kept going. In the first few days I was shot down for asking, through my tears and bleeding, for a cup feed to give me a break and fill her up. None of the midwives were any help- told me I was doing it all wrong and it “wont hurt when you are doing it right”. Worst of all was the “lactation consultant” who had no kids and was going by the book. 6 days later I gave up and started on bottles and the guilt trip.
    If it was now, I would have asked my OH to go out and buy formula and I would have cup fed her myself but I didnt realise then that feeding babies could be so different.
    Its important to remember its your baby, you can feed it however you want, bottle or breast or both. And you are so right when you say we need experienced people giving advice and assistance.
    Ellie at Emerald Pie recently posted..Halloween Here We ComeMy Profile

    • One of the things I’m relying on this time around is that different babies feed differently!! If this new baby refuses to latch at first and then latches badly, I honestly don’t know if I could do it all again, with a toddler to take care of as well this time.

      I am hoping to be as prepared as possible. But mainly I am hoping that the baby is just a good feeder!!

  5. Louise says:

    Great post! I agree with you that mums need to be making informed choices but it is difficult with health professionals stretched. Just read your comment above and if it helps my 2nd was a zillion times easier to feed than my first. I think the key was that the 2nd time you know what to do (you were both learning the first time around!) and so are more confident with latching on etc. You can use the feeding time to have special moments with your toddler reading or doing sticker books. That helped us anyway! x
    Louise recently posted..Breastfeeding: do we get the right support?My Profile

    • I’m really hoping that’s the case Louise. I’m certainly doing everything I can to inform myself this time around – my sister in law loaned me Dr Jack Newman’s book and I’ve been reading it for the past few days. It answers so many of the questions I had about what went wrong last time around and how we could have fixed it.

      Hopefully though I’ll just get one of those easy babies who latches no problem and feeds brilliantly! :)

  6. Mamascarf says:

    Hi Lisa, I enjoyed reading your post you make a lot of good points. I think there are lots of similarities in the UK. Hopefully things will be easier this time around. Good luck.
    Keira x
    Mamascarf recently posted..The Breastfeeding doll: my viewMy Profile

  7. Cara says:

    I have breastfed my son for the past year and easy it was not. But as opposed to your story my first few weeks feeding were a dream, he latched on well,gained plenty of weight and there were no bleeding nipples!! Our problems began at around 5 weeks when colic/reflux kicked in. I often felt unable to satisfy his feeding needs and because of the colic I was reluctant to give him formula. I was drained; literally. I also felt very alone as none of my friends or family around me had breastfed for any length of time so even though I had plenty of support, the help and and advice that I needed just wasn’t there. The well meaning advice from my female relations was “just give him a bottle” I persisted with the feeding and I did supplement with formula at times, mostly to rule out hunger as the source of his crying. A year on and i am proud of my achievement. But I still feel like a bit of a hippie for breastfeeding long term. I can see the horror in people’s eyes when they learn I’m still feeding my son myself. Breastfeeding is just not conducive to our busy modern lives, the goal seems to be to have a robot baby that sleeps and eats on a perfectly worked out schedule. Baby seems to have to fit in around our lives rather than our lives changing to meet the needs of this new life. Breastfeeding is tough going and I have to say I have a love/hate relationship with it, but if you asked me am I ready to wean my son yet I would have to say no as I see the comfort it gives him and the bond that it gives us aside from the health benefits for both of us.

    • I think you’re right Cara. People’s expectations of how babies should behave have become very prescriptive. I remember reading lots of books about scheduling babies before Little Man was born and planning how I would organise our day… I laugh now looking back at it because I’ve come to believe that those books should come with a disclaimer at the beginning “please note, your baby has not read this book, and the author has not met your baby.” Certainly life, and unsolicited advice, would be a lot easier if people had realistic expectations for how many babies behave.

  8. Breastfeeding is a choice for those who choose to do so, and they should receive all the support they need/want. I chose not to breastfeed all of my three children, and don’t have any regrets.
    AlwaysARedhead recently posted..Small town friendliness and politenessMy Profile

  9. Londubh says:

    I completely agree with you, I really wanted to breastfeed but I just couldn’t get it to work. I ended up exclusively expressing for both my girls. It broke my heart. All the time in the hospital I was told my inverted nipples were no obstacle to breastfeeding and yet no midwife ever successfully helped my babies to latch.
    Londubh recently posted..Breast is Best; how I found out I couldn’t breastfeed.My Profile

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