Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Breastfeeding Nazis

Breastfeeding Jack was a nightmare. The Mrs was nervous about breastfeeding from the start. She’d not been breastfed as a baby because her Mum ‘couldn’t do it’. But the Mrs had read up about it and was determined to give it a try. Breast is best, the books all chanted. Breast is best, the leaflets replied. All hail the breast.

Jack was born mid-August 2003, slap bang in the middle of the worst heat wave we’ve ever had. All the babies were sleeping in just their nappies and each one had a desk fan playing over their cot to try and keep them cool.

They all did a lot of sleeping. The last thing they wanted to do was to be held next to their mum’s hot and heaving bosoms for a feed.

It’s quite a palaver trying to manoeuvre a tiny and angry baby into the right position for feeding. The angle of dangle is crucial. But whatever The Mrs did and however much instruction she had, Jack didn’t want to ‘latch on’. All he wanted to do was to be left alone. I can’t honestly say I blame him.

Stress levels ran high. Only at night did the Mrs have any success. The nurses on the recovery ward finally resorted to a giving Jack bottle from the ‘milk bank’, a supply donated by caring mums who had more milk than they needed.

The heat wave continued for four days, by which time the Mrs was deemed fit enough to come home. Breastfeeding was only intermittently successful. It hurt her to do it and it seemed to take hours and hours of patient struggling for Jack to get enough milk. Every single feed ended with a screaming baby and a distraught Mrs. Joyful it wasn’t.

A week on, Jack was loosing weight. He had jaundice. We were worried. Unsympathetic health visitors didn’t help. This wasn’t how we’d imagined the first week at home with our baby.

The Mrs eventually asked me to take her back to the maternity ward for another breastfeeding lesson. Maybe there was something we were doing wrong. Back in the ward, under the watchful eye of the Breastapo, Jack fed quite well for quite a while. We’d cracked it.

But no. Back home, things were still the same. By this time I was getting to be quite an expert. Put a stool beneath her feet. Make sure she has a glass of water. Support the baby’s head. Brush the baby’s nose. Wait for him to open his mouth really wide. Get him on quick. If it’s not working, try the underarm method. Tickle his feet or blow on his cheeks to keep him awake. Don’t let him get too hot….

My advice was well-meaning, but really didn’t help. Jack would tense up his arms and legs and push himself away from my wife’s body. He wasn’t having any of it.

Then came the milking machine. Rather than resort to formula, the maternity nurses supplied us with a silver monstrosity with yards of rubber tubing and two funnels, to which The Mrs could be attached. Half an hour of sitting at the machine would produce half a bottle of pale yellow fluid. It worked, but it was hideous. The Mrs felt like a cow as she sat at the infernal pumping machine, its little silver cylinders going up and down in monotonous succession.

I felt terrible for her. But nothing I said could persuade her to give up. The breastfeeding Nazis had brainwashed her. The tin of formula milk, bought for emergencies, sat unopened in the cupboard. Even the sensation of ‘hot needles’ in her breasts every time she started feeding Jack couldn’t dissuade her from carrying on.

Worse was to follow. I won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say the pain of cracked nipples got insufferably bad. The Mrs began to get seriously depressed.

The crunch came after about six weeks. She began to get mastitis, which was threatening to make her quite ill.

Crying, feeling like a complete failure, she finally decided to give Jack a bottle of formula.

The effect on Jack was almost instantaneous. He became calmer. He was getting enough food, so when breastfeeding time came, there was less desperation. The battle was over.

‘Mix feeding’, half bottle-feeding, half breastfeeding was the way forward. We’ve since discovered that loads of people mix feed. It works brilliantly. The baby still gets lots of goodness from the mum’s milk, even if that’s not his exclusive diet, and can fill up on formula feeds.

So why don’t the health services tell you about mix feeding? Maybe they want to give out a clear message that just breastfeeding really is the best thing for a baby. But of the dozen or so health professionals we met, not one suggested that it could help. It seems they’d rather my wife went through mental and physical agonies than deviate from the ideology. Breast probably is best. But there are limits, ladies.

Eventually the bottle took over completely. My wife’s mastitis came back, as did the cracked nipples, and with a sigh of resignation, she decided she’d had enough. Incredibly, she’d been breast feeding through the agony for fourteen weeks.

I told her then that I thought she was amazing, and I still do.

Strange to tell, our second baby breastfed really well from the very first time. I don’t know if it was because the Mrs was less worried, or if the fact Nancy was born in December meant that she rather enjoyed snuggling up to her warm mum for a feed. Maybe both.

I don’t know who was happier about how easy it was this time: Nancy, the Mrs or me.

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