I would like to have an honest, non- judgemental chat about breastfeeding – a topic that can evoke a lot of anxiety and judgement.
I feel I can speak with some standing on this topic being a GP who sees lots of mothers and their babies but also as a mother who has breastfed and ridden the engorged, leaking rollercoaster. My own experiences have given me a deeper level of empathy for my patients and all mothers.
As a doctor I am aware of the numerous health benefits of breast feeding – both to mother and baby. A breastfed child has a reduced risk of being overweight or obese. The child also has a reduced risk of middle ear infections and a gut infection called necrotising enterocolitis. The rates of conditions such as childhood inflammatory bowel disease and coeliac disease are also lower in breastfed infants.
The breastfeeding mother also reaps rewards; she can reduce her risk of breast and ovarian cancer and evidence also suggests that by breastfeeding a woman can reduce her risk of heart disease in later life. Sadly, despite all the health benefits, an Australian survey in 2010 found that whilst 90 per cent of women initiate breastfeeding, only 15 per cent exclusively breastfeed their infant to the five-month mark.
My job as a GP is to support pregnant women/new mothers/families to make an informed decision that suits them when it comes to feeding their baby; I am not in the business of forcing my patients to do anything. So, whilst I am pro-breast feeding given the evidence-based benefits, I am also a realist and know that for some women, and some families, it simply isn’t feasible.
Let me take you back to two years ago, and you really need to envision this moment in your mind. I was a new mum, a GP and I had my own expectations weighing heavily on my shoulders. We had a traumatic birth with an emergency C-section and the psychological scars were far more gruelling than the physical ones.
I was lucky my daughter (in the beginning at least) was great at feeding on the breast. We did it our way – she fed sitting on me in an upright position, we introduced a bottle with expressed breast milk early so that my husband could help with the feeds overnight whilst I recovered physically, and emotionally.
Prior to becoming a mother, I had spouted the recommendations I had seen in some of the literature to my patients about not introducing a bottle early due to risk of nipple confusion, avoiding a dummy due to the same issues. Within several days I realised that survival was crucial; with the severe sleep deprivation, ongoing vaginal bleeding, engorged breasts, cracked nipples and constipation – I was doing what I could for both my baby and I to survive and the literature could quite frankly get stuffed.
Thankfully, though, breastfeeding worked really well for us. For a while.