Breaking The Bottle Barrier

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THE BABYMILK ISSUE[image, unknown] Women's breastfeeding experiences

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Breaking the bottle barrier
Four mothers tell of feeding their babies: the mistakes,
successes and strains of the first few months of life.
Illustration: Derek Matthews
Illustration: Derek Matthews

It was difficult to breastfeed. The baby was far from me in a nursery, coming to me in fixed hours. Someone told me that the baby was receiving Nestogen in a bottle, so I needn’t be concerned about the baby, I didn’t need to force to breastfeed.

My grandmother said, when I came home, that I didn’t need to breastfeed because I am weak, with small breasts, ‘so I don’t have milk’. And my husband thinks bottle is the modern way to feed.

After eight weeks of paid leave, giving breast and bottle, I decided to give up breastfeeding because my job is very important for money and is far from home. We don’t have a nursery near the workplace though the law says that we should. I leave the baby with my mother, who thinks the bottle is good.

I breastfed my baby for two months, then I fed him on powdered milk. Our village stocks two kinds. By the time my baby was four months old, he weighed only three kilos. (A healthy baby of this age should weigh around 6½ kilos.) He was vomiting and had diarrhoea.

I took him to a health centre. It was two hours drive away and it cost a lot to get there (£6 or $11 ). I was told he had marasmus, very badly. But he had a good chance of surviving if I followed the advice very carefully.

I wasn’t to use a bottle any more. But my breastmilk had dried up. So I had to buy pure water in bottles (40 pence or 75 cents per bottle) for mixing the food, because it took too long each time to boil and cool the dirty water we have in our village. I had to feed my baby at least eight or ten times a day with a cup and a spoon.

I was thirty when I gave birth to my first child. The doctor who saw me was not interested in whether I breastfed or not He did not even ask me!

When my baby was born, I wanted to hold him close to me but before I could ask, the nurse had whisked him off to be bathed, clothed and labelled.

Two of the nurses were genuinely pleased when I told them I wanted to breastfeed my child. The others remained quite indifferent.

My baby was given to me every four hours to be breastfed. On the first day, no milk came but I didn’t worry because I knew if I kept on putting the baby to the breast the milk would come.

I asked for my baby to be brought to me more frequently but that did not work out well. I had a feeling many of the nurses found it an extra chore they could do without.

I doubted very much if they instructed their colleagues who took over at the next shift to comply with my request However I kept insisting and making my demand very clear at every shift at every available opportunity.

Some of them must have really thought me a nuisance but I didn’t care. I knew what was best for my baby even if they did not.

On the second and third day the milk had still not arrived, only a little yellow cobstrum showed. I was getting very anxious, more so when some of the nurses kept telling me to ‘give up. You don’t have any milk.’

The nurses would come with stories that my baby was screaming his lungs out in the nursery because he was hungry. ‘He can’t be drinking water all the time, you know.’

I was made to feel inadequate, worse, they made me feel that I had deprived my child of the food he so needed. ‘You have to top it up with powdered milk,’ they kept saying, to change my mind.

One particular nurse would even snigger everytime I put my baby to my breast I was feeling so hurt, angry and miserable, but I did not change my mind.

It was not easy when I went home either. The old matriarchs at home were near hysterics with my obstinacy. I became so weepy and every feeding time was such an ordeal. I nearly gave up trying after the first week had gone and still only colostrum showed.

Meanwhile I began to develop a sore nipple because I was not holding my baby properly. The nipple started to bleed and hurt very badly. I went to see the doctor who wanted to give me antibiotics but I refused and gave my other breast for my baby to suckle instead.

It was due to my husband that I didn’t give up the struggle. He was my pillar of strength during this period, helping me with the hot compress, the breast pump and keeping the disbelievers at bay. With his encouragement, understanding and support, I persevered.

Finally on the tenth day, the milk came. I was so happy and relieved I could only cry.

After this, I began to look forward eagerly to breastfeeding my little one. It was such a delight to see him drinking greedily from my breasts and falling off to sleep when he was satisfied.

I was so proud and contented. Breast-feeding had become a joy and a pleasure. And seeing him grow and develop week after week made all my earlier frustrations worthwhile, both for baby and for me.

I was sure I wanted to breastfeed, and my husband was keen that I should. I had been to childbirth classes; my doctor and even my mother were pro-breastfeeding.

But it still wasn’t easy. I made a lot of mistakes from simply having the wrong information. For instance, at the hospital I was always given a ‘top-up’ bottle for the baby — a ‘complementary feed’. All the breastfeeding mothers were given it automatically. At night, the babies were put in a nursery and bottlefed by the nurses. I had no idea that this was detrimental to my breast-feeding, that little Mary’s sucking stimulated my breasts to produce milk, and if she sucked less from me, I would produce less. I thought ‘demand feeding’ was an optional extra, a trendy alternative. I didn’t realise it was essential for establishing breastfeeding, and that the top-up bottle set up a vicious circle. So, poor idiot that I was, to make sure that my baby wasn’t being ‘deprived’, I topped her up with the artificial stuff every few hours. Once I knocked the ‘complementary feed’ over by accident and the nurse was furious with me.

When I got home, the first thing I did was to organise the bottle steriliser and help my husband to make up a bottle for the night He was working in another town at the time and got home very late. But he still wanted to help. So he volunteered to do the night-feed with a bottle, like the nurses. It was a terrible mistake!

The baby hated the bottle and would gasp and scream and choke. My husband didn’t know what to do and he would get frustrated and angry. If I came in to help, he would feel even more of a failure and shout at me to get back to bed. I would lie there trembling while Mary screamed. Eventually he gave up.

I know he was upset and felt left out but it was better for all of us. After that, I used to sleep with the baby and breastfeed on demand. It was company for me and feeding was much easier. I half-slept through the feeds: I didn’t sit up, she just lay cradled in one arm. It was so comfortable I used to do this in the afternoons too. If I had a baby now I would definitely have her near my bed in the first few weeks, so I could reach out easily to snuggle her, rather than have her in a room across a cold house.

Another mistake I made was to forget to eat and drink regularly. I got very tired till a friend reminded me to eat: the baby needed me to be well and happy too.

My mother put a lot of pressure on me to stop breastfeeding — quite unconsciously. First, she wanted me to feed strictly to a four-hour schedule: she said it was ‘a universal truth’ that babies should be fed like that Even the times were prechosen by an expert it had to be 6-10-2-6 o’clock. And then she made the whole business such a chore. She used to wake me up an hour before the ‘official’ time ‘to prepare myself! As the baby grew older my mother grew more embarrassed. By the time my daughter was nine months old my mother was urging me to stop even the single, evening feed time at the breast I knew my baby wasn’t getting much milk from me by then, but we both loved the comfort time which made her go to sleep in my arms. I think my mother found breast-feeding for pleasure rather nasty, because it was too sensuous, too uncivilised — maybe even ‘incestuous’. But love and pleasurable touch do go together, don’t they? I know some women derive very strong sexual feelings from breastfeeding, even orgasms. Others are shocked by the idea I think we should at least be aware of the changing feelings that go on during pregnancy and in the months after. To deny these feelings, to refuse to experience them, is like refusing to fall in love. It may be safer, but what an experience to miss!

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The National Childbirth Trust has a network of breastfeeding counsellors who offer support and advice for nursing mothers. Their phone number is London 01-221 3833 and they can put you in touch with your local counsellor.

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New Internationalist issue 110 magazine cover This article is from the April 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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