Talk about hitting a raw nerve. The news that 130 new mums in the Derbyshire and South Yorkshire areas of Britain will be paid up to £200 in shopping vouchers to breastfeed their children has sent internet mums’ groups into apoplexy – and no wonder.
In November I will become a father for the third time. My wife breastfed our first two children, and the plan is for her to do it again.
I may be genetically unequipped to feed my newborn without a little plastic help, but I’m far from a disinterested bystander. In fact, the report not only prompted much debate between me and my heavily pregnant wife, it also brought back memories of our desperate – and almost tragically futile – efforts to breastfeed our first child.
Our daughter almost died when she was a few days old because, try as we might, she simply couldn’t feed. We turned to all the experts, from support groups to various midwives (one of whom came armed with a knitted breast), who told us time and again to be patient and that she’d ‘get it’.
But our little girl was starving. My suggestion that my wife could, maybe, express some of her milk into a bottle and we’d feed our baby that way was rejected out of hand because ‘it would confuse her’.
We should have trusted our instincts. We’d rather she was confused than dead. But as first-time parents, we trusted the people around us who we thought knew better and so, we were persuaded to persevere.
But, after four days, she was back in hospital, a small, greying bag of flaky, dry skin on a drip that seemed far too big for such a tiny body; her sodium levels were dangerously high and the consultant feared for her kidneys.
Check out many parenting forums and, almost inevitably, where there’s a discussion about breastfeeding, this terrifying scenario crops up again and again, especially among first-time mums. While the majority of cases have happy and healthy endings (ours included), nothing seems to change, despite many people on both sides of the ‘breast is best’ argument crying out for more education.
Which begs the question: is a £33-a-month bribe really the best way to persuade new mums to breastfeed? The chances are it’s not.
I think a much simpler solution is needed, and it should kick in straight after birth.
The one thing my wife hadn’t received at any point before it was almost too late was any sensible, practical advice on what to do when breastfeeding doesn’t work straightaway.
I understand terms like ‘latching on’ and ‘letting down’. I can even talk reasonably knowledgeably about them, but they will be forever theoretical to me. My wife, however, knows how they feel, thanks to a young nurse who had just been on a breastfeeding course and – the second time we were in hospital – sat patiently and calmly, guiding, explaining, talking to my wife. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she finally managed to successfully feed our little girl. Speaking as the one who gave our daughter her first-ever feed (expressed milk from a bottle, ironically), it was a moment of pure magic.
We’ll be forever in that nurse’s debt, and we have often wondered why more isn’t done to provide the same level of post-natal care and attention, particularly to new mothers who want to breastfeed but struggle with it.
Every parent knows breast is best, but waving a handful of coupons at an new mum or beating them over the head with the notion of breastfeeding, while giving scant attention to equally acceptable alternatives, is not only misleading, it’s downright dangerous.
Surely it’s far kinder, and more practical, to ensure there’s enough information, education and practical help out there, to support parents through what can be at best an emotional, at worst a thoroughly terrifying, experience?
My wife and I think so.