Before the birth

drawing of stork carrying baby

As a responsible mother-to-be, I went along to the last ‘parent craft’ class at my local health centre as a matter of course. The main theme of the class was feeding your baby. Or, more precisely, breastfeeding your baby.

Breastfeeding, as anyone who has recently had a baby will know, is STRONGLY ENCOURAGED by the National Health Service, World Health Organization, National Childbirth Trust, Unicef … in fact, pretty much any health/baby-related organization you can think of. As the midwife taking the class pointed out, she officially isn’t allowed to say anything that might encourage you to start on the formula instead.

I wasn’t worried. For me, there was no question about it: my mother and mother-in-law had both breastfed, and obviously, I would do the same. As the other conscientious first-time mothers and I sat in the class and discussed the copious advantages of breastfeeding, and disadvantages of formula, we all smugly agreed that it was the obvious option. So cheap and convenient, not to mention fantastically healthy for both you and your baby. This was all provided you got your baby to ‘latch on’ properly, but really, how hard could it be?

‘I did actually find breastfeeding quite difficult,’ said my mother. Well, I can understand that, I thought. In those days, women were actually discouraged from breastfeeding, and as Mum had frequently reminded me, she was the only woman on the whole ward who did it. Given this complete lack of support, it isn’t surprising she had a bit of trouble. I had NHS leaflets and helplines coming out of my ears, so I was obviously well equipped to deal with any of the minor difficulties that might arise. My friend Zara had mentioned a few problems too, with bleeding nipples etc. Well, that sounded pretty extreme – hardly likely to be an issue for many people!

And so I naïvely began my journey into the world of pain and paranoia that constitutes the early days (or should that be weeks?) of breastfeeding. Ultimately, with incessant, dedicated research into what was going wrong, and stubbornly gritted teeth, I made it through to the happy point where feeding no longer hurt, and was a genuinely convenient alternative to the bottle. What I discovered along the way however, was a society ill-equipped to support breastfeeding mothers, and a patronizing health service unwilling to be honest with them.