When I discovered an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor described formula as ‘a little bit like AIDS‘ to a class of impending parents, my first reaction was not one of surprise.
Australia has a very high breastfeeding initiation rate of 92%, a rate comparable with other OECD countries. But with rates dropping to 14% at six months there is the occasional impression that some breastfeeding advocates are on an ‘educate at all costs’ mission.
The Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy 2010 – 2015 sees the Australian government ‘working with communities to protect, promote, support and monitor breastfeeding in Australia’. Addressing key issues such as workplace flexibility, education, cultural and environmental factors the main objective is to rectify this drop off of percentage at six months.
My own trials with breastfeeding two children unearthed a number of failings in the system. One of the strategy’s goals during the immediate post-natal period (birth to 4 days) is to ‘improve the consistency of breastfeeding advice provided by health professionals’.
My first experience with breastfeeding involved bruising after a midwife attempted to milk my colostrum like I was some sort of farmyard animal. The use of nipple shields was equal parts criticised and commended (I successfully used them both times). Frustrated lactation consultants denounced the shape of my nipples as they would try to teach me attachment methods via confusing analogies like “around the barn and over the fence”.
The second time around involved smuggling in contraband like nipple shields and breast pumps. I frequently had to justify their use and despite sounding like I came more prepared, I was yet again left bamboozled with conflicting opinions. Where one nurse praised my progress, another made a different set of assumptions based on a newborn not sleeping through the night – informing me that “unfortunately some women just don’t produce enough milk”. Some babies also take two weeks to get their night and days sorted out. Something my child did before managing to breastfeed for 13 months.
Growth charts are another issue addressed in the strategy. Debate surrounds the rigidity of the charts and its inability to take into account the differences in weight gain between a breastfed and formula fed baby. My son sat in the lower percentile for weight gain and I was frequently told I might need to top up with formula. I ate fenugreek seeds and pumped milk like a mad woman. Or cow. I sold that pump on Ebay last month despite wanting to perform a sacrificial burning in the backyard.
I appreciate that there are many wonderful midwives and maternal health nurses in Australia. I found one that I had a great rapport with until she was forced to move onto another centre as part of my municipality’s current structure. Given that continuity of care was another issue addressed in the strategy, I query what local councils are attempting to gain by regularly moving health care professionals around.
My own personal experience has led me to question whether I successfully breastfed despite the system, not because of it. While it’s commendable that we have the levels of support and education that we do, what does it say when research suggests that new mother’s often refer to other mothers as a preferred resource?
For any new mother who ever questions her choices, or is let down by conflicting advice I implore you to find someone who listens and supports you. Who absolutely knows where you are coming from, whatever your choices are. If you don’t want to breastfeed, stand your ground. If you do, know that it is legal to breastfeed in public in every state and territory of Australia and that most states have specific laws against discriminating breastfeeding mothers. Know that there are failings in the system and that you can overcome it. Even despite of it.