Is breastfeeding worth it?

Ah, the wonders of breastfeeding. It's convenient, healthy and a magnificent way to bond with your baby. All true, but not quite the whole picture. It is National Breastfeeding Awareness week and this year, the government is not only introducing a new slogan - "give it a go" - but trying to counteract some "serious misunderstandings" which may, apparently, be stopping women from breastfeeding.

Sadly, some of these alleged misunderstandings are true.It is National Breastfeeding Awareness week and this year, the government is not only introducing a new slogan - "give it a go" - but trying to counteract some "serious misunderstandings" which may, apparently, be stopping women from breastfeeding. Are they being serious when they say that breastfeeding does not affect the shape of breasts in the long-term? Any mother whose breasts now resemble empty envelopes might disagree. Isn't it time to inject more honesty into the issue?

The government says it's a myth that other people dislike breastfeeding in public. I wish it were so. And the pain is not a myth either.

"Two rocks appear in your breasts and you feel they're about to burst," says Susan Carr, mother of two. "Then there's milk everywhere. It goes right through your breast pads and you're soaking. It's always in the most inconvenient situations."

They may be your breasts, but when you are breastfeeding, it often feels as if you have no control over them. If you have been clinging on to the last vestiges of dignity following pregnancy and birth, breastfeeding removes them for you. It may be best - for you as well as your baby - in the long term, but when your nipples are cracked, your maternity bra makes you feel like a 1950s matron and you still have to watch what you eat, and drink (it all finds its way into your milk), breastfeeding can be a hard slog.

The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe, with almost a third of women in England and Wales never even attempting it. Younger women are especially unlikely to try it. It is a worry, because breast milk is far superior to formula, giving babies perfect nutrition as well as protection against infection. But while it may make sense to persuade more mothers to breastfeed, perhaps rather than comfort them with talk of "myths", we should be preparing them for what it is really like.

It hurts. While the midwives in my antenatal classes happily preached about the wonders of breast milk (if I had heard the phrase, the "ultimate fast food" once more, I would have strangled one of them), they didn't tip us off about painful, often bleeding nipples, or rock-hard breasts. It would have been more helpful to tell the truth - that breastfeeding does hurt, but that it stops after a few weeks. In other words, it's worth struggling on.

"You need that technical detail," agrees mother of three, Joanna Bruce. "I tell everyone that on day three, their milk will come in and they'll probably cry all day. No one told me and I couldn't understand what was wrong."

So, breastfeeding can be painful. It is also hard work. "It's bloody difficult," says Susan Carr. "Both mother and baby have to learn what they're doing and they need help. I didn't have a clue and remember soaking Daniel completely. He had his little arms up round his face, trying to stop milk shooting at him from all angles."

The Department of Health helpfully describes breastfeeding as a "skill" and encourages women to ask for help. Sadly, they don't say from whom. When I was in hospital, a midwife spent five minutes showing me how to breastfeed. You would be lucky to catch on to all the intricacies with no more help than that.

"She's hungry, let me give her formula," the hospital midwives then said accusingly while my newborn cried at night. "It'll let you sleep."

I held off, but most of the mothers on my ward let them take their babies off their hands, and some never tried breastfeeding again. Once at home, my health visitor recommended giving formula at night "to let the baby sleep through" - a slippery slope towards using formula all the time.

I was determined to continue. I tried all the remedies (cabbage leaves, breast relievers that you freeze before trying them on - it all seemed like a huge joke at my expense) and finally saw a breastfeeding counsellor. She showed me what I should be doing. It made all the difference and I breastfed until Jessica was nine months old.

The government wonders why young and working-class mothers don't breastfeed. They probably don't receive the support they need, nor are all the benefits being stressed. Perhaps they should emphasise that breastfeeding helps you to lose weight after giving birth. And why not focus on the fact that it saves you a fortune?

"I've generally enjoyed it and feel I've done something positive for my boys," says Susan Carr. "It has also been the easy option. I'm inherently lazy and love the fact that I can just plug the baby in. Bottles seem like such a pain."

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