If I hear “happy mum, happy baby” one more time I may scream. Like many bromides it is designed to soothe the nerves, but upon closer examination we find nothing more than the maternal version of “do what you like if it makes you feel good,” where the feeling good comes not only before your own welfare, but that of a certain, helpless someone else.
Of course, like many of these concepts, if taken to certain extremes it makes sense. I think we all would agree that an untreated, clinically depressed mum does not typically a happy baby make. But that’s not really what we mean when we bandy about the expression. What we mean is that maternal preference comes first, and that the very exercise of maternal preference will lead to a happy child. Every mum does have the right to put herself first, but let’s stop pretending that this right supersedes her responsibility to her baby.
Let’s use a concrete example to dismantle this notion, and why not jump right into the deep end and talk about breastfeeding, an unfortunately contentious topic. Breastfeeding provides countless benefits for babies, not to mention mothers: nourishment, which changes both daily and over time, antibodies, tailored to the baby’s current needs, as detected by receptors inside the nipples, microbes to colonise the baby’s gut, nurture and comfort at the breast – the list goes on.
I won’t detail the countless benefits to the mother here, but they include significant improvements in health outcomes around cancer and heart disease. Formula provides a static approximation of the nourishment found in breast milk, period. Now, that approximation is the best thing we have for babies after breast milk, meaning that after breastfeeding, expressing, and donor milk, it is a wonderful thing to have available for babies in need. But to pretend that choosing formula for any reason other than true necessity is a casual choice, or to believe that you are making this choice in a vacuum, is untrue.
Now, all of us, when making our choices, are doing so in a cultural context, and sadly our current, modern, Western context is one that elevates convenience and consumption. We also live in the brave new world of rights without responsibilities, so it is no surprise that mums are encouraged to exercise their right to choose, i.e. buy formula, and then expect the rest of us to be compelled to celebrate that choice. We are all guilty of choosing consumption at times in order to facilitate perceived convenience. In this case, however, someone else’s welfare is at stake. Aptamil, Adele’s favourite, spends countless millions on marketing. Your baby cannot.
Breastfeeding is a learned skill. We modern women have lost shared family and community wisdom, which used to facilitate mastering this skill when it was required. Many new mums have never even seen a woman breastfeed until it is time for them to do so. As a result, breastfeeding is challenging for many women, who assume when things don’t go smoothly that something must be wrong with them or their babies.
Formula companies are very happy to step in quickly to save the day. “Low milk supply,” must be one of the most common, most inaccurate diagnoses for new, nursing mothers. If breastfeeding is painful or difficult, find the support you need to make it happen. This support may well need to come from outside the NHS. Many midwives and health visitors, even the well-meaning ones, do not have sufficient skills or resources. There are many, many organisations available that do: La Leche League and the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, to name two.
Also, there are Internationally Certified Breastfeeding and Lactation Consultants (ICBLCs) and numerous online support groups. Many of these entities offer support and guidance for free. It is a good idea to identify resources before giving birth, so you know whom to call right away if you encounter any issues. And if you don’t have any problems, but simply find that breastfeeding doesn’t fit your lifestyle… well, let’s just say that being a mama is your new lifestyle. Remember that this is a priceless investment. Remember that you are doing something that benefits your child physically and emotionally – for life.
Breastfeeding is hard for many, many women at the beginning. Hard, like excruciating pain, hard. Hard like cracked bleeding nipples, mastitis, and screaming in pain each time your baby attempts to latch on. And when you have a newborn feeding around the clock, each day feels like a lifetime. But, with the right support, it gets better, so much better. Feeding an older baby is very easy. And you will be glad, and proud, that you worked hard and stuck it out. As will your baby. And pride in a good accomplishment well done brings a happiness that is worth waiting for. And that really feels good.
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