Health: 'We were starving him into submission to the breast'

It is one of the most sacrosanct slogans - Breast is Best. This heavily marketed mantra is chanted at every woman throughout her pregnancy and beyond. We are supplied with lists of benefits that our precious colostrum will bring to our babies, from reducing the risk of asthma to increasing intelligence. Challenge this dogma, and we are branded bad mothers. But breast isn't necessarily best. Breast is a bludgeon with which we are increasingly forced into feeding our own babies in a way we don't want.

A year ago I gave birth to twins. The girl took to the breast immediately. She was a chubby thing, and flourishing. The boy was far smaller, a string bean with a strong resemblance to ET. He wouldn't breastfeed.

Naturally, I was concerned to get some food into him. But the stream of midwives, changing shift by shift, insisted that if he were given the demon bottle he would never, ever take the breast. Every hour, I would lay him on me. Every hour, he refused to feed. Twenty-four hours later, he had taken nothing.

Increasingly concerned, the midwives agreed I could at least cup feed; a cup would not ruin him like a bottle would. We tried, but his buttonhole-sized mouth just grazed the edge of the plastic beaker. Only now do I realise how ridiculous this was; at one year old, he still can't drink from a cup. Certainly no newborn could.

I was told that I would not be discharged until his feeding was established. It was into his second day of life, and he still had not taken anything. We were trying to starve him into submission to the breast.

Like all postpartum women, as soon as the anaesthetic wore off I scoured my notes. I saw the night midwife had written, "Seems not to be bonding with boy twin, favouring girl." He would not breast feed and I was not allowed to give him a bottle. But it was my fault.

The colostrum campaign continued. Six times I was given a glossy breastfeeding brochure, all grinning parents and gurgling babes. In contrast, only once was I handed information on bottlefeeding - a simple sheet with black and white sketches. It resembled the data you would be given about an unpleasant disease. Eventually, with my baby son getting grumpier and hungrier, my boyfriend and I decided he was, after all, our baby, and put a teat between his lips. He took it immediately; the poor thing must have been ravenous. We went home the next day. The day after, he started breastfeeding, and continued to do so, just like his sister.

We who can't or won't breastfeed are bucking public policy. This week a report by the Department of Health revealed that the number of breastfeeding mothers is not increasing at the hoped for rate. Blame is firmly placed on lack of information and support. But has anyone considered that it isn't because we are ignorant, alone or lazy, but because we don't want to?

Women who choose not to bare their nipples are severely chastised. A woman in my ward, who also had twins, decided right from the start not to breastfeed. Yet this decision was continually challenged. Every single midwife who came to her bedside tried to cajole her into giving up formula. She was a rational adult who had made an informed choice, yet was being treated as a recalcitrant child.

Although it is heresy to say so, there are advantages in bottles. They allow another adult to develop a close relationship with your baby by sharing responsibility for feeding. They mean you can do something as simple as go out. They also mean bringing up baby can - in theory at least - be totally egalitarian. Ironically, as long as we slavishly breastfeed, child rearing will always be women's work.

I gave up breastfeeding by four months. The amount of energy and food I consumed (a recommended 4,000 calories a day) just to keep them in supplies was exhausting. I am, therefore, amongst those who, according to the world health organisation, give up far too early, before the magical six months. This makes me furious; if men had to breastfeed twins, they would make it a medical condition that needs to be cured.

Breast may be best. But the bottle really isn't all that bad. And whether you are a good mother or not doesn't depend upon which you choose.

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