Thoughtful comment on gender and politics

Breast is good. Fed is best.

Baby Albert, 2-hours old. Credit:

I received a lovely email from a reader yesterday thanking me for my advice about weddings, which has inspired me to come back to writing this blog. Things have moved on a little since I wrote that post and I’m now the mum of a beautiful boy called Albert.

Since having Albert I’ve thought a lot about the crossroads of where motherhood meets feminism. One issue has stood out: breastfeeding, which is why it’s the subject of my first post on this new intersection in my life.

When I was pregnant a few people asked me if I was planning to breastfeed. After 15 years of feeling uncomfortable about my breasts I finally saw motherhood as a chance to put them to good use. After more than a decade of going to specialist bra shops, struggling into ill-fitting shirts and trying to find tops that were modest but not matronly, I thought breastfeeding would finally be a time when I would be grateful for my ample bosom.

During pregnancy I trotted off to a breastfeeding class feeling smug that I would be doing the ‘best’ for my baby.

I learnt in the class that a new born baby’s tummy is about the size of a marble, so I didn’t worry in the hospital when Albert took a few sucks and then went back to sleep. The two hospital lactation consultants that visited came when my babe was snoozing and took my word for it that ‘breastfeeding was going fine’, instead of coming to witness for themselves what was happening.

I was discharged from hospital less than two days after giving birth with no inkling that any problems would arise. On day three a nurse came to visit and delivered the bombshell that Albert had lost more than 10 per cent of his body weight and needed to see a pediatrician within hours. She marched my husband off to buy formula and left me in a heaving mess, feeling that less than 72 hours after bringing him into this world I had already failed my son.

What followed was a whirlwind of pumping, tears, supplementing, more tears, doctors appointments, lactation consultant appointments, a few more tears, a tongue tie diagnosis (a deluge of tears), a nipple shield (don’t ask), and… you guessed it, more tears.

When I look back with hindsight there’s no doubt this period coincided with the baby blues, but not one of the practitioners I saw mentioned the hormonal roller coaster I was riding, amplifying my feelings of loneliness and desolation.

So, what does all this have to do with feminism or politics? Well, firstly it’s a comment on how postpartum care in the US is a patchwork of services that you have to sew together (and often pay for) yourself. But secondly, it’s about the messages we send to pregnant women and new mums.

During those early days and weeks one motto played like a tape in my head: ‘breast is best’. I felt like a failure for supplementing with formula and I think it’s a phrase that haunts many new mums that are struggling with breastfeeding.

And there are a lot of mums that don’t find it easy. In fact, once I started meeting other new mums, the MAJORITY of them said they’d found breastfeeding an unexpected struggle.

The problem is we never talk about this aspect of motherhood so women aren’t prepared for challenges when they arise. We don’t speak about low supply, oversupply, chapped and bleeding nipples, pain, engorged breasts, mastitis, flat and inverted nipples, tongue tie, posterior tongue tie, poor latch, feeding after a mastectomy, or any of the other issues women face as they try to do the ‘best’ for their baby.

We don’t speak about how these problems often coincide with the baby blues, which are a confusing phenomena when you’re meant to be feeling ecstatic about your bundle of joy. We continue to spread the lie that ‘breast is best’ creating a sense of judgment for bottle-feeding mums.

The reality is breast isn’t best. Fed is best. Feeding your baby (whether with a bottle or the breast or a mix of the two) is hard and often a deeply emotional process and we need to recognise that and give new parents a high five for keeping these little people alive. Because while having children is fascinating and beautiful and awe-inspiring, it can also be very, very tough. And while breast is good for baby it’s not always physically possible or good for mum’s mental health.

With a lot of help, support and money (I’ve lost hope that my insurance company will reimburse me) we were able to tackle our breastfeeding issues one by one and by six weeks Albert and I had figured out the whole feeding thing. I consider myself very lucky: not everyone can access so much support and for many parents bottle feeding (whether with formula or pumped milk) is either the right or only decision.

Funnily enough, when Albert was six-weeks old was when Jamie Oliver was criticised by Adele for saying: “It’s (breastfeeding) easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free.”

Only a man, right?!

While most of us don’t have the fame of Adele we can all create a better society for new parents. Next time you see someone with a new baby tell them they’re doing a great job and that their little one is the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. And if someone says ‘breast is best’, challenge him or her. Tell them that ‘breast is good, but fed is what’s best’, because that’s the truth, for both parents and baby.

8 Responses to “Breast is good. Fed is best.”

  1. romainedennistoun

    Excellent! Should be published in all Mother & Baby mags everywhere!

  2. Sue Boudreau

    I had a really similar experience. It is refreshing to see this in print and I agree, it’s time for this to be published more broadly. The tyranny of breast-feeding is ridiculous and one more thing for new mothers to feel guilty about. Yes, fed is best. Of course, obviously. All part of the bigger picture of being kind before judging others.

  3. marvelouslykate

    This is so true. I had every intention of breastfeeding. Latch and supply issues, coupled with horrible postpartum vomiting that lasted weeks, left me dry and unable to feed my baby. I felt like such a failure, and spent many miserable hours pumping, then crying when there was no output. Formula has been a godsend for my family. It saved my sanity and allowed me to enjoy feeding my baby.

  4. Sophie

    Felicity, this is such a well written, truthful and helpful article. Well done! And for getting through it with Albert! He is a gorgeous bundle! I’m going to share it now! Xxx

  5. Laura

    This is so similar to my experience. Our feeding issues weren’t diagnosed until day 5 at which point my baby had lost 18% of her body weight and was severely dehydrated. We ended up in hospital for three days. I have struggled with post traumatic stress symptoms for 18 months. I hate that I was so smug that I would have no problems breastfeeding and that I thought that parents who use formula are somehow not trying hard enough.

  6. Alison

    Thank you for writing this, I had a similar experience but never ended up managing the breast and ended up pumping for the first 3 months. I’m sure all this pressure added to my postpartum depression and changed the way I felt about having another child. The more people who write about it honestly the better off we will all be.

  7. Sarah

    This just shows how women aren’t getting the support they need with breastfeeding, and that’s such a shame.
    Our health visitors only mention of breastfeeding was that it was ‘very difficult and you probably won’t manage it’.
    All women do what is right for their baby but tongue tie and losing weight don’t have to always equal formula feeding.
    Our baby was born early, and was sleepy due to being in antibiotics, so was extremely slow to feed. My wife expressed colostrum and syringed it into his mouth, and like mentioned here, when our baby lost 12% of their body weight, a midwife told my wife her milk wasn’t good enough, and gave her a bottle of formula.( She refused it, but completely understand how many women would autumatically follow advice from a midwife) Our baby also had a tongue tie, and my wife used nipple shields as breastfeeding was the most painful thing she has ever experienced. She did however seek out help from breastfeeding groups and community midwives, who are the reason at five months old our son is still solely breastfed. It’s still painful however, and is the hardest thing my wife has ever done, and we can completely understand why women turn to formula, as we’ve considered it ourselves many times. Of course breastfeeding is not for everyone, but the support to overcome issues like losing birth weight and tongue tie needs to be made more widely available.

  8. Kathryn

    Here here.There is such a stigma attached to bottle feeding. I’ve seen mothers and babies struggle on, neither thriving, due to the pressure they feel to exclusively breastfeed. As if having a newborn isn’t tough enough already! There needs to be more objective support regardless of the mother’s choice. Babies clearly do well with either path, as history has shown us. I recently read an article stating that clinical evidence of breastfeeding benefits are also methodologically fraught. It asserted that truly randomised controlled trials are not forming the data picture, as mother’s do not wish to be randomnly assigned to a group when it comes to such an important and personal choice. But as breast feeding mothers typically come from a demographically diverse group to bottle feeders, it is unclear what is due to these already different variables between the two groups, and what is due to the different feeding styles. I would like to see more focus on what is best for each scenario rather than a guilt-laced policy of ‘breast is always best.’


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