Bottle or Breast – We Are All Just Doing Our Best

“We always did feel the same we just saw it from a different point of view.”

This is a quote from Bob Dylan’s gorgeous “Tangled Up In Blue” from the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. I was listening to it in the car the other day – toddler complaining loudly in the back-seat (nothing compares to Let It Go in her eyes) when it struck me how perfectly this lyric sums up our ongoing battle; breast vs bottle. This sounds a little off the wall but bear with me.

We all love our children. We all want to do what is best for them. We all want to be happy and healthy mothers. Yet we all make different choices about what it means to be the best mom we can be. Sometimes these choices don’t always feel like choices or they may feel as if they are forced upon us by chance or circumstance but ultimately our main aim is to do our best.

Recently Dr. Amy Brown of Swansea University released a book (Breastfeeding Uncovered) which, at first, seemed destined to take guilt out of the equation when it comes to feeding our babies. She believes society as a whole needs to become more breastfeeding friendly. Dr. Brown says it’s time we remove blame and pressure from individual women and look at society’s attitude to breastfeeding. She is right. We as a society do need to be more culturally accepting of breastfeeding and more open to allowing women the opportunities to do it.

However, while I applaud Dr. Brown’s attempt to revolutionise how we perceive breastfeeding I can’t completely step on board with her. In order to remove the guilt surrounding infant feeding we need to acknowledge that how you feed your baby is your choice. It is individual circumstances, feelings and beliefs that determine how we will feed our babies and even with the most open society in the world not every woman will choose to breastfeed.

According to Dr. Brown only two per cent of women cannot physically breastfeed. This means women are choosing not to breastfeed for other reasons. Though I haven’t actually read the book itself I do wonder does this figure include a baby’s inability to latch properly or babies with allergies to milk? Also taking physical abilities out of the equation altogether what about mothers who don’t feel comfortable breastfeeding? Or mothers who feel it just isn’t right for them? Or mothers, who, for whatever reason, just don’t wish to breastfeed. Perhaps only two per cent can’t physically breastfeed but this grossly underplays other non-societal factors that might influence a mother’s choice.

Choice. Something we seem all too quick to forget when to comes to a woman’s body.

Dr. Brown believes that we should be warning about the “risks” of formula. It is this type of emotive language which has driven so many mothers to feelings of intense guilt and regret if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for them. So while I agree with Dr. Brown that more needs to be done to make our society more breastfeeding friendly, I don’t think that demonising formula feeding is the best way to go about that. I think a more relaxed culture which allows a mother the right to choose and then support to make that choice possible is what we need to be working towards. Support is the important word here – not pressure, not judgement just support. This means we respect a mother’s right to choose be that bottle, breast or a combination of both.

I agree with Dr. Brown that women are not getting the support they need; all mothers are not getting the support they need. Mothers who want to breastfeed need proper advice along with the ability to feed wherever they like without feeling judged. Mothers who want to bottle-feed need advice too and the ability to feed wherever they like without feeling judged.

We are all just mothers trying to do our best.

Bob was right – we do all feel the same – we all want what is best for our children. In reality, however, this might not look the same from family to family. But that’s okay. We might come at it from a differing point of view but we all love our babies and are doing our best.

The Importance of Mummy Instincts in the Great Sleep Debate

Many parents today seem to be confusing the terms ‘self-soothe’ and ‘crying it out’. It is easy to get the two muddled up as many parenting articles tend to get the two mixed up. Today I read a blog by Sarah Ockwell-Smith on Huff Post Parents (UK Edition) which begged parents not to teach their children to ‘self-soothe’. She believed this skill was beyond babies (although she doesn’t actually clarify what age group she is referring to) and therefore not the correct way of helping a child to sleep.

She made the point that as adults we are capable of logic and therefore can soothe ourselves while a child can’t. This is true. However, are we really helping our children by rushing in when they make even the slightest of whimpers?

I will be clear. I am not talking about tiny babies. They need our care, around the clock, twenty four seven no matter how sleep deprived we are. They are only just learning about the world and need constant feeds, changes and cuddles. However, a baby that is beginning to drop their night feed might just be ready to sleep without constant attendance (outside of the baby monitor of course).

My daughter slept through the night until about five am when she was about four months old. She dropped the night feed all of a sudden when I woke and realised I had slept undisturbed for the first time in months. A surprise and a very pleasant one!

A child who self-soothes is not necessarily one who has been left to cry it out. I know we never tried that method and our daughter does self-soothe. We didn’t sleep train beyond the usual advice of bed-time routine and put child down drowsy but awake. Sometimes she fell asleep on her bottle. We still put her down. Perhaps we did sleep train but didn’t have a name for it. Regardless we have a champion sleeper and winner of the Nap Olympics.

I have, on occasion, made the mistake of going in when she has merely snuffled or coughed. Then she sees mama – ‘oh joy’ she thinks ‘playtime!’. I try to leave the room again and she cries. Well I don’t want to be a ‘bad mother’ so I go and pick her up. I bring her into bed. She chats to me for the rest of the night while I lapse in and out of consciousness. Husband is greeted by two grizzly bears the next morning and she is wrecked for the next few days. I am obviously a slow learner as I have done this on more than once.

However, I think the real reason I rush in and pick her up is that I have been tricked into believing, through numerous online articles and debates, that I am a bad mother if I do not respond immediately. If I leave her to settle for even a minute I am guilty of neglect. She is two. She knows how to play her mama. She knows daddy won’t play ball but mama is the ‘soft touch’.

Now I guess people will say ‘oh yes they are only young once though sure a few sleepless nights isn’t the end of the world’. All very true. But I know, deep down, my intervening isn’t doing her any good. I have sat with her on nights she is wakeful while every instinct is screaming at me to leave. My mothering instincts tell me she sleeps better without me. And this is true. I have seen first-hand proof of this but all the while I tell myself ‘but you are a bad mother is you leave’. This is what reading every parenting post out there will get you; utter confusion and guilt with every move you make.

I guess the real trick is knowing your own child. Does your child really need you? Some children may very well need that attention at night. Mine doesn’t. Honestly I think we just got lucky. So my advice, for what it’s worth, is do whatever works for you and your child and your family. If self-soothing works; do it. If cuddling all night works for you; do it. Don’t let yourself, like me, be seduced into going against those instincts. Mama (and quite possibly even dada) knows best.

The human face behind the debate

I had a little epiphany while we were at the zoo the other day (and not just about how important mama instincts are). As we were taking a quiet moment in a shady part of the zoo, watching some birds hanging out in the sun, another family joined us and sat a little way away. After a few minutes we decided to keep on trekking. As we passed this little family of four I noticed the mother was breastfeeding. She looked completely relaxed and at peace with the world. It was a lovely sight. I gave her a smile as I went by and she smiled back; two mothers just acknowledging each other. But it made me stop and think. A great way to encourage other mothers, especially those who may feel uncomfortable about public breastfeeding, is to just offer a simple smile. That may be all it takes to relax somebody and put at them at ease in a sometimes challenging world. The mother breastfeeding for the first time. The mother whose children are killing each other in the breakfast aisle. The mother with the loud toddler. The mother whose baby won’t stop crying. A smile can really help. I realised that the best way we can show our support to other mothers is just showing we get it. We either have been there or we can understand what they are feeling.

I read an interesting article in Empire magazine this morning about a new film coming out called ‘Loving’. It deals with interracial marriage in 1950s America. The director, Jeff Nichols, made an intriguing point. He said “I don’t like things that preach. I don’t think that’s how you further the conversation. You further the issue through showing people the humanity at the base of the issues – which we so often forget.” This statement really had an impact on me. Perhaps this is what has happened with infant feeding. It has become a highly charged debate with everyone from politicians to celebrities weighing in on both sides and we can sometimes forget that behind every decision is an actual human being making a choice out of love; whatever that choice may be. So what can we do? Well as mothers we can take a step back, stop and think. Why do we fuel the Mummy Wars? We all keep adding energy to these heated debates; infant feeding, early potty training, ideal age to start school. I’ve judged (and been judged I’m sure) but I am now trying my best to see the bigger picture and not just leap to assumptions (they make an ass out of you and me, don’t ya know). We can start by showing other mothers some solidarity. So the next time you see a woman struggling with a toddler who is having the mother (pardon the pun) of all tantrums, catch her eye and share a little sympathy. It might just make her day a lot easier…and it will definitely make you feel great.

Choice & Respect: words we have forgotten in the mummy-shaming wars

I found an interesting article yesterday on the Huffington Post about how hospitals in America have to ascribe to a certain set of guidelines in order to be registered as Baby-Friendly. One of these guidelines was a rooming-in policy; mothers and babies stay in the same room from birth. This is to promote bonding and increase the levels of breastfeeding in the country. All very positive you would think but then you read on. The real life experiences of mothers were less than ‘friendly’ with some women having to beg to be allowed a few hours of sleep. Nurses now have to ask why the baby is being brought to the nursery and then record the mother’s answers. They are also required to then tell the mother about the benefits of rooming-in. I am not debating a system that encourages bonding and mother/child time but I would very much question a system that does not take into account a mother’s need to rest and recharge after the demands of labour or surgery.

I, once again, made the mistake of reading the three hundred plus comments; not all of them – I don’t have that much time on my hands – but a selection. Some were quite moderate, spoke of their own experiences and said they believed it should be a matter of choice. Most women appreciated time with their child but would have liked the option of sleep (free from new mum anxiety) just to help with recovery. Then came the shamers. Why, oh why, are there always women out there who seek to shame the choices made by other women? They didn’t believe that a woman should be allowed the option of a rest, after all as the mother of a newborn they wouldn’t get much sleep at home would they?

The problem with their argument is that a hospital does not represent a realistic home environment. Your baby isn’t sleeping in a plastic cot for one thing. You are not attached to monitors. You have friends, family and a partner around you to help. You can sleep while someone else watches the baby. One particularly scathing woman wrote that women need to adjust to bringing their newborns everywhere – settle them and then go have your shower. This woman does not take into account the levels of anxiety many new mums feel when leaving their infant. She clearly expects us all just to get up and get on with it – pull up your bootstraps new mums, you have a job to do! Ignore that new anxiety weaving its way through your stomach and just put on a brave face.

Some mothers may find it easy to adjust, some women cope better with pain and with a lack of sleep. But some mothers don’t. That is why we need to be given a choice. It is neither fair nor realistic to judge each other by our own experiences. I had a fairly easy elective section; should I then judge another woman who found her elective section tough? No because that was her experience; just because we went through a similar procedure it does not mean that we will cope with it in the same way. Our bodies are different, our mentalities are different and our life histories are different. All of these combine to make our overall experience of the same event poles apart.

I believe (or I would like to believe) that the impetus behind the Baby Friendly policies in America has to do with empowering women in their new roles as mothers (I will ignore, for now, the fact that the rooming-in policy does help with staff shortages). However, if we are to feel empowered this can only come about through choice. Choice to make the right decision for ourselves and our child. And that choice should not be ridiculed or criticised or shamed. Nobody is a bad mother for needing some time to adjust to life as a new parent and nobody has a right to shame you for needing this.Respecting others choices is surely the best way of empowering women.

Respect and choice: two words that seem to have been forgotten in this new era of mummy-shaming. Let’s try to put them back where they belong.