The issue of whether breast or bottle is best is one of the most hotly debated topics amongst parents and childcare professionals, with just about everyone else, from grandparents to staff at Claridge’s Hotel, happy to chip in with their opinions.
Now if you’ve been paying attention as you read our blog, you may have noticed that I, the writer of this piece, am not a woman. Indeed, you could even go as far as to say that I am a man - take a look at the pic at the top if the page if you don’t believe me. Lacking breasts myself, I cannot speak directly about the experience of breastfeeding, although as a husband and a former child myself, I do feel that I have at least some knowledge of the subject. There is of course, plenty of information out there about the pros and cons of breast and bottle, and I’m certainly not qualified to dispense advice on the subject, so I thought I’d share a personal experience instead.
I remember clearly the ante-natal classes my wife and I attended when she was pregnant with our first. In particular, I recall the very friendly midwife, who terrified every woman in the room by absent-mindedly waving around a pair of large forceps as she introduced herself at our first session. As it happened, she was a wonderful source of advice and really helped everyone to understand what to expect and how to prepare. But there was one subject about which she was very enthusiastic, almost evangelical in fact, and that was breast feeding. Formula milk was portrayed as markedly inferior and after listening we felt that we would be doing a dis-service to our child if we were to choose this option. At the time, this didn’t seem contentious – we were all inexperienced, first-time parents and breast was the obvious way to go. However, as it turned out, our baby struggled to feed from the breast. The first couple of days after the birth were a real trial for my wife and new baby as she tried time and again to feed, all to little avail. So instead she tried to express milk and use a bottle to feed our child, and although this worked, it quickly became very painful. Before long, we were at our wits’ end, our baby was unable to settle properly and my wife felt like a failure. Yet despite all of this, it didn’t occur to us to simply buy some formula milk, fill up a bottle and solve the problem. It was only when a relative suggested it that the penny suddenly dropped. It seems daft now, but looking back, we were so keen to do the ‘right’ thing that we simply hadn’t thought of the alternative. I’m sure that the midwife at the ante-natal class did not intend her advice about always breastfeeding wherever possible to be taken quite so literally, but it is a message that a lot of women seem to encounter and it is not always a helpful one.
The problem is that for some, the issue is black and white and there’s no room for shades of grey. It’s hard to disagree with the idea that ‘breast is best’, but it’s also surely not right to argue that ‘breast is the only way’. I’m sure it would be both kinder and more effective for the whole debate to be a bit less emotive and a little more focused on the needs of individual women and their babies.