Mum Guilt: Here's Why It's OK Not To Breastfeed
Discover the empowering perspective on motherhood in this insightful article. Dive into the discussion surrounding the often-debated topic of breastfeeding and unravel the layers of "mum guilt." Gain a fresh understanding of parenting choices, as we explore the reasons behind the societal pressure and expectations.
By Sophie Bronstein / Jan 26 2024
Let me guess… you’re an exhausted, overwhelmed, over-demanded new mama - with nipples that feel like they have been sliced off - scrolling through the internet at an absurd hour of the morning, yearning for some reassurance that your mental health is just as important as the way that you nourish your baby.
I hear you - and I’m here to tell you that that is perfectly OK. It’s perfectly fine to wonder when your ‘newborn love bubble’ feeling is going to kick in, it’s absolutely normal to wince and cringe every time your baby latches onto your nipple. And it’s certainly common to feel like you are just a machine working on auto-pilot, trying to keep this tiny new human of yours alive.
My own experience of breastfeeding was an interesting one. In 2021, I gave birth to my daughter Madison by C-section. Due to breathing difficulties at birth she was immediately rushed to NICU. Even though she was weighing in at a hefty 9lb 3oz and looked perfectly healthy, her oxygen supply wasn’t quite up to scratch.
This meant that I missed having ‘skin-to-skin’ with her as soon as she was born, I couldn’t put her straight on the breast, and instead of having those magical first few hours with her, I had my partner glamorously hand-expressing colostrum out of my nipples into a syringe before rushing it over to the other side of the hospital to be shot into my baby’s mouth by a stranger. Needless to say, there was no ‘newborn bubble’.
We were very blessed that within a few days, Madison had recovered and we were able to take her home. I had been expressing my milk while she was in intensive care to build up my milk supply, and just figured I would be able to put her on the breast as soon as I had her back and that everything would go well. I was wrong.
Madison hated breastfeeding. She liked milk but that’s because she was so chunky, and honestly didn’t care what she was being fed, as long as she was getting a substantial amount of it. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Why was the ‘most natural thing in the world’ feeling so unnatural to me? I wanted to breastfeed. I wanted to build that unbreakable bond with her.
She cried. I cried. And we scrolled endlessly through Google at the small hours of the morning trying to find a solution.
But, I wasn’t giving up.
Every health professional I had seen over the first few weeks of Madison’s life seemed to just expect me to be breastfeeding her. I booked an appointment with a lactation consultant. I constantly cried out for help from midwives.
I sat and squirmed in pain while my baby latched on incorrectly (if you know, you know…), and when I wasn’t doing this, I was sitting in my living room for hours with both of my boobs attached to a hospital-grade breast pump, trying to get enough milk out of myself to fill a full bottle for Madison’s next feed. I wont go into how soul-destroying it was when she vomited it all up on the carpet anyway – that’s a story for another day…
I had been given so much professional advice, I’d had midwives manually hold my child against my body trying to get her to feed and I tried every last thing I could think of, but it still wasn’t enough.
I felt like a failure – not only as a mum, but as a woman. I was struggling mentally, and I knew it. I knew the toll that trying (and failing) to breastfeed was taking on my mental health, and so did those around me.
While family members and friends would encourage me to give up trying for my own sanity, I still felt the guilt and determination to urge me to keep trying every time I went to a midwife appointment or check-up. ‘Breast is best’ was the attitude of pretty much every health professional I’d see.
Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my struggles – although I felt it, both physically and mentally.
According to a study* 81% of mothers try to breastfeed straight away after birth. However, this first stage of breastfeeding tends to be the most challenging and after just one week, breastfeeding rates drop to 69%, and down again to 55% at six weeks. 90% of these women reportedly said that they didn’t want to stop.
As a consequence, research also shows that 7%** of women experience trauma symptoms following a negative breastfeeding experience. Breastfeeding trauma can feel like grief, guilt, failure and feelings of inadequacy. Trust me, you are not alone.
Make no mistake - I am not here to tell anyone how to feed their baby. I am not anti-breastfeeding or pro-formula feeding. I think simply just being able to keep your baby healthy and thriving is amazing, no matter how you achieve it.
I am pro choice. And what I do know, is that when you’re on the brink of a mental breakdown because you can’t breastfeed your child and have tried everything in your power to – it’s OK to stop. It’s OK to give in. It’s OK to think that your own mental health is just as important as the health requirements of your baby.
Yes, your baby may come first. But without you, your baby is lost. We, as women, need to be kinder to ourselves.
We need to prioritise our mental health. And we need to know it’s OK to say we’ve reached the end of our tether when it comes to breastfeeding.
I’ve watched my children even at an extremely young age pick up on and mirror my emotions and stress, and it’s so true what they say – a happy mum, is a happy baby.
*McAndrew, F., et al (2012). ‘Infant Feeding Survey 2010’ Leeds Health and Social Care Information Centre
**Brown, A. (2019) Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter. Pinter & Martin.