Dear Alpha Parent, re. women giving up breastfeeding “too easily”

Dear Alpha Parent,

I read with interest your “NEWSFLASH- Breastfeeding requires effort” post last night. I was conflicted about it for various reasons which I will explain in a moment.  I tweeted:

and understandably a lot of very upset tweeters tweeted back at me.  144 characters is not enough to do my thoughts justice so I am expanding upon them  here.

*Personal breastfeeding story klaxon*

Firstly I need to say I should be one of the 2% of women who actually can’t breastfeed. A bilateral breast reduction when I was 19 removed 7lbs of breast tissue and I was told it was 50:50 whether I would breastfeed.  However I was one of the lucky ones.  I have written extensively about my exceptionally hard early breastfeeding experiences of Oddler (here, here) and Omble (here, here,  and here). I hoped it would be easier second time around but if anything it was harder!  But in summary here is a chart of most of the trials and tribulations we conquered.



Breast reduction- large amount of tissue removed. can I feed?  Health care professionals doubtful. Breast reduction- have predominantly breastfed before, can I exclusively feed this time?
14% weight loss in first week. Everyone panics. 9.7% weight loss, most people stay calm.
6weeks to regain birthweight- Health Visitors and Midwives worried 5.5weeks to regain birthweight- Health Visitors and Midwives still worried but less so than last time
Crazy intense relentless exhausting hellish pumping and top up routine Crazy intense relentless exhausting pumping and top up routine but this time I have a toddler to care for too and a dad to grieve for.
Tube fed baby won’t latch on for first week. Will only latch on with nipple shields for first month. Won’t latch on for first 36hours, then only with nipple shields
Agonising cracked nipples that won’t heal. Agonising cracked nipples that won’t heal.
Tongue tie diagnosed and snipped at 7weeks, latch improves, nipples damaged further Tongue tie dismissed at birth but diagnosed and snipped at 3 weeks. No improvement in latch, nipples still being damaged
Bacterial infection in nipple crack diagnosed at 9 weeks. Antibiotics mean nipple heals 4 bouts of mastitis- 3 I cleared on my own, one requiring antibiotics as my breast was oozing pus
Baby on NICU for first 5days of life, I am on a hospital ward away from her. I am given minimal advice on how to establish breastfeeding in that situation. Treated for breast thrush as deep stabbing pain whenever I feed, treatment doesn’t improve situation
Flat almost inverted nipples makes it hard for baby to latch. Nipples aren’t as flat anymore thanks to a year of breastfeeding Oddler but they are still a very difficult shape to get a good latch in early days
Hugely traumatic birth and worries about a possibly brain damaged baby, affect establishing bonding and breastfeeding. My dad dies when Omble is 3weeks old, I am utterly devastated, milk supply crashes with the stress
No skin to skin after delivery- first cuddle at 24 hours old. Omble gets cold after cold making it very difficult for her to feed from me.
Born with a poor suck reflex, it does improve but breastfeeding incredibly hard to initiate. Very clicky latch despite tongue tie snip. Feeding is very noisy and painful. Tongue tie reassed but not much more they can do- Omble is just a crap feeder.

I am incredibly proud to say that despite all of this I breastfed Oddler til she self weaned at 13months and Omble is still going strong at 6months.  Oddler was mixed fed from birth as NICU put her on a 10ml an hour regime and if my supply wasn’t up to that she was supplemented with formula. When she lost 14% of body weight she was put on 30ml top ups every three hours by the paediatrician, as much as I could manage of breastmilk and the remainder being initially of Diaorlyte but we soon switched to formula as she was just sloshing with liquid. However by 15weeks I managed to get Oddler to be predominantly breastfed with a bottle of formula at nighttime. Omble was exclusively breastfed for 8weeks and although I was hoping to go longer, I was utterly floored by my 4th bout of mastitis so LordCurd took both the girls away to give me a break and I slept and pumped but we didn’t have a store of breastmilk so she had formula and from then on  has had a bottle a day too.

By my own success criteria I am a fucking legend. But in your eyes would I be a failure because I didn’t try that little bit harder and not supplement with formula!?  I only found out with my second child Omble I could actually exclusively breastfeed and have her gain sufficient weight but I have no idea if I could have exclusively breastfed to 6months like the recomendations. I doubt it somehow. I have started weaning her now anyhow, earlier than 26weeks. Is that another failure? Am I now making excuses?

There is no doubt breastfeeding is a very good thing but it occupies such a tiny part of your child’s life and within a few months babies are experimenting with food and given that whilst weaning Oddler I gave her things like quavers and rich tea biscuits as finger foods, and Omble has already tried Jamaican Ginger Cake and I drink alcohol whilst breastfeeding and I have an utterly shite diet,  then I don’t think I can be at all smug about giving my kids the “best start in life”.

Therefore by some people’s “sucess criteria” it might be said that I am failing my children, but I have decided that I cannot judge anyone except myself against my own success criteria, sometimes I feel a failure as a mother, other times I think I am the world’s most amazing mother, and I think most other mothers feel the same. It makes me sad when we judge and compare each other for making different choices to our own.  Which is also why your post rankled with me, who exactly are you to decide the success criteria of breastfeeding mothers!?

Originally before I started breastfeeding thinking I would be completely unable to due to the breast reduction, my success criteria was “If I can just get them to have a bit of colostrum then I will be happy” as it turned out I far surpassed that, but I think individuals should decide their own breastfeeding success criteria, not anyone else. If they are happy with their choices then so am I.

However one thing that came out of your post for me, was reading the comments where women highlighted some of the reasons they gave up breastfeeding, whilst other women shared the difficulties they had overcome, the difficulties were fundamentally the same in some ways, the choices different.  The reason I highlighted my own difficult breastfeeding story is that I do think it is important to celebrate breastfeeding stories in the face of such adversity and I do get a bit cross that women are expected not to champion their pride in their own achievements for fear of upsetting other women who are dealing with their own sense of failure around breastfeeding. I am not writing this to deliberately make anyone feel bad- those that know me, know I go to great lengths to avoid upsetting people, (mainly because I am a complete wuss when it comes to confrontation!) but I am worried this letter may upset some of the people reading it because the terrible tendency us women have to compare and measure ourselves against others. As I said in my comment on Glosswitch’s post “Being proud of my own experience and choices doesn’t mean I think other people should feel ashamed of theirs“.  I am not other people, I am me, only the expert of my own experience, no-body elses.

Feeding the baby, typing furiously on the internet. My life for past 2.5years.

However I didn’t used to be so wise or pretending to be wise.  A few years ago I was incredibly naive when Oddler was about 10weeks old and I posted on Mumsnet “Am I being unreasonable” the following “AIBU to think that some women give up breastfeeding too easily“.  ie. I thought much the same as you do.  My thinking behind such an inflammatory statement was “If I can do it in the face of all this shit then why am I seeing person X, Y, Z giving up after a measly cracked nipple or slow weight gain- pah wimps, I’m hard me!” Of course quite rightly I was completely and utterly flamed on the thread, and then I had the really sad realisation that the ONLY reason I stuck with breastfeeding despite all the shit was because I FELT GUILTY. I felt I had let down Oddler during her birth, I had given up, I had stopped pushing, I wanted to die, I didn’t care if she died, and as a result she was possibly brain damaged. Succeeding at breastfeeding was the ONLY way I felt I could make it up to her, and so I did, despite it being the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.  I have had a huge amount of therapy since then and I don’t feel that way any more but lets face it – that is a pretty sad and crap reason to stick with breastfeeding and how is that any better than the “crap” reasons for giving up breastfeeding you highlighted in your post?

My crap reason for sticking with breastfeeding my second baby Omble despite it being fucking hard again was because I had done the same for Oddler and I couldn’t give up, as it wasn’t fair on Omble, and it was about equally as hard (or in some ways easier and some ways harder anyway) breastfeeding her as it was to feed her sister and if I had managed it once then I could again. But had I not had my crap reason to breastfeed her big sister and managed it, then the liklihood is I wouldn’t have been so bloody minded second time too.

When I realised that the only reason I stuck with breastfeeding was misplaced guilt I realised therefore that I couldn’t judge other mothers for their choices as who knows the real core truth what was going on for them to make them stick at or give up on breastfeeding, I certainly didn’t realise my own for a good while.  I felt so awful about posting my thread on Mumsnet and I persuaded them to pull it as I was too mentally fragile to keep dealing with the fallout.  Very kindly they did and thanks to all the posters who accepted my apologies and those that understood where I was coming from, though I hadn’t expressed it very well.

My key learning from that episode is that  IT’S NOT A COMPETITION to see who had a shittest time of breastfeeding and using that as criteria to judge others successes or failures because ultimately that is not only cruel but futile, they are incomparable as we are all individuals.  In fact Motherhood in general IS NOT A COMPETITION. But being called the AlphaParent I am not sure you will see it like that.  I have my breastfeeding experience, and others have theirs and it makes me sad that we can’t celebrate and comiserate equally without the baggage and judgement which comes with discussing infant feeding choices.

Breastfeeding symbol

Breastfeeding symbol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having rambled on about my feeding experiences for long enough (amuses me how any breastfeeding comment always attracts everyone’s personal stories), I will now try and explain why I was conflicted when I read your post.  I think it was because I agreed with an aspect of what you were saying but not how you were saying it.   I do agree there is a a “culture of ‘failure acceptance'”which there currently is around breastfeeding. “If Woman X, Y, Z didn’t manage it, then I don’t need to feel so guilty about stopping either.”  ie. it makes it much easier for women to stop perhaps before they have explored all the avenues for possible solutions to the difficulties they are experiencing. However there is a huge amount bound up in that- it is too simplistic to solely blame the woman herself for making the excuses. Ledoux made an excellent comment on your post about that.  Personally I feel the crucial issue central to successful breastfeeding is support.  With the right support I reckon most women would succeed at breastfeeding if they wanted to.  I had a group I went to every week, I phoned helplines, I have a very supportive husband and family, I had supportive midwives and health visitors (and some crap ones which I ignored), I had done a huge amount of reading beforehand. All of these things contributed massively to my breastfeeding successes despite the huge obstacles I faced. But I was lucky.  A scary amount of women don’t get the support I did.  I have read blogposts by women explaining why they gave up breastfeeding for reasons such as “because my baby lost weight”, clearly not realising that it is entirely normal for babies to lose up to 10% of their birth weight in first few days. 😦

I do think the way you expressed your opinions was unnecessarily harsh and unhelpful in the “breast vs. bottle” debate which has trundled on for far too long already. Alvarrson commented very well on your post and  I don’t think furthering the guilt mothers feel is helpful to anyone. It is pointless in fact. (Much like the pointless post abortion guilt I wrote about previously)  I am viewing my stance on breast versus bottle to be the same as my pro-choice stance.  I am pro-choice here too, women make choices right for them and their families, if we stopped with the judging and the guilt and the defensiveness and instead recognised and celebrated individuals rights to truly informed choices then I think the world would be a much happier place. But the caveat is the “truly informed choice”,  I would hope that women have the opportunity to explore every avenue for support or solutions to the issues available to them before making the decision to stop breastfeeding (and if they decide to stop after that- they absolutely should- no judgement), but I am realistic, I know this currently isn’t happenings so how can we change that?

Being a solution focussed kinda gal I would like to see the following put into place:

  • Personal breastfeeding supporter for every woman on call until the baby is 12weeks, with 3 visits a week for first few weeks, weekly thereafter if the woman wants them.
  • Breastfeeding support groups being offered weekly within a 10mile radius of every woman.
  • Tongue ties being assessed at birth and again after a few weeks (Omble’s was misdiagnosed as not present initially) feeding and snipping should be easily accessible without requiring mum and baby to travel miles for the procedure.
  • Women and their support networks being properly educated about breastfeeding and what breastfeeding sabotage looks like.  This can and should start in school.
  • Championing and celebrating breastfeeding at every opportunity- normalising it.  Breastfeeding in public being accepted and normal.
  • Personal Jamaican Ginger cake supply for all breastfeeding mothers. At least three cakes a week to be delivered to your door for free. 🙂
I think putting energy into things like that is far more productive than putting everyone’s backs up in National Breastfeeding Week. But then again- you got us all talking and discussing so maybe aspect of your rather judgemental ranty mean post has been successful. 
So yeah that is why I was conflicted, in 14306 characters- rather more than the 144 I was trying to explain my position in last night!




23 responses to “Dear Alpha Parent, re. women giving up breastfeeding “too easily”

  1. I have to agree. A womans choice should be supported in which ever direction she chooses or is capable of going. All parents are a combination of successes and failures, and thats what makes us all individuals. Balls, I sound like a hippy

  2. Great post. I am in office and gave up breastfeeding two years ago but would rather like to get my tits out right this minute in honour of it. But I guess I’d better not (what with me being such a slave to The Man).

  3. Good point, well made. I guess the comparison culture starts with baby #1 as we tend to look to our peers for reassurance that we are doing motherhood right and need to have more confidence in our abilities and instincts. Your story is inspirational and I hope that you are proud of yourself but like you say, one person’s achievements does not diminish anothers. I also think we women can be fabulously rubbish at supporting each other and can be our own worst enemies but sadly I have no idea how to change this. I’d def vote for free cake del’d to the door btw, tho perhaps the inclusion of plain choc digestives on the list could be thought about 😉 x

  4. What a great post! The solution-focused bit has made me feel sad though; I suppose that X number of years ago everything but the Jamsican Ginger Cake was in place. All the amazing things technology brings, but what a cost to our breast feeding skills 😦

    • do you think it was in place? I don’t know if I’d agree,(re. tongue tie snip mainly). How do you think technology has affect breastfeeding skills? Can you elaborate? sounds interesting.

      • But nursing used to be part of everyday life, didn’t it? You had proper support cos all the women in your family had done it themselves, and they were around to help. Then you had your local witch/medicine woman who must’ve been your NCT counsellor 😀 And I thought tongue-ties (although I don’t know about posterior ties) used to be clipped at birth by the midwife’s/local birther’s pinky? Whenn you think about the familial link with tongue ties, surely they’d have effectively died out centuries ago because those babies would be so much less likely to survive..?
        And although you might not’ve nursed in public cos coffee mornings & baby massage weren’t quite so prevalent, you’d have had to nurse at home in front of your family, or in church and it would’ve just been life. Surely? Or maybe I’m just romanticising history 😉

  5. I’m not familiar with Alpha Parent’s work but I think that post and the “Why what you do is my business” post was really mean.

    It’s really not any of her business.

    It actually reminds me of the advice in Cosmo about how to please your man. (Prescriptive and reductive. )
    It seems, she wants to tell others how hard it is out there but simultaneously guilt tripping them into pushing through. I prefer La Leche League’s “It’ll all be kittens and rainbows! Do as much as you can!”

  6. Rebecca Carruthers

    An excellent post. You should be proud! It is truly amazing the strength that motherhood brings out in women. And I agree, pro-choice is the way forward. And anyway, when is giving up ‘giving up’. I exclusively BF’d for 10 weeks and then supplemented but it was all downhill on the supply front from there really. I tried to get it back up a few times but by 4 months they were pretty much on bottles.

    • Thankyou. Yes “Giving Up” is an interesting question. On the orginal post there was a woman clearly beating herself up for giving up feeding her 2.5year old who kept biting her! I think she has done an amazing job and likewise 4months is excellent innings, given that I started weaning Oddler at just after four months, as do many women then I don’t see how struggling on for the sake of a month or two, when shortly your baby is going to start being independent of the breast regardless is helpful if you need to stop before then.

  7. Fabulous post! I haven’t read Alpha Parent’s post, but I’m sure I will at some point… For me, I do think lots of women give up on breastfeeding when they could, with help, get through it. But the help they need isn’t always available and whether even if it was, that would be the right thing for them is difficult to know unless you’ve walked in their shoes. I think a certain amount of knowledge of how hard the first few weeks are, and what to expect would go a long way so that women don’t feel they’re doing something wrong. The fear that you’re getting it all wrong and the pressure to “succeed” is counterproductive.
    In the end, I think it’s wrong to criticise someone who is making decisions for the good of their family. They may not make the same decisions as you, but if the intention is good…?
    Love your recommendations too. In Holland, the breastfeeding support is amazing – my friend had a lady come to help every day for the first week – she also made the beds, helped make meals and do the housework. Funnily enough breastfeeding rates are very high there.

  8. Thank you for being such a reasonable person! Your post is exactly right. Mothering is about so much more than just breast vs. bottle.

  9. I loved your list of suggestions, although I propose an option for icecream instead of ginger cake.

  10. Just read your post – and the original post. When I had my 8yo I was totally – totally – ambivalent about breastfeeding. I knew all the statistics, knew breast was best etc but after a very stressful pregnancy mostly alone (moving house twice, both OH & I made redundant, having to move 200 miles north away from all my support at 37 weeks, the summer of 100 degree heat and spending most of my pregnancy alone in London whilst OH was working away) I just wanted to be able to share something with him. Also I had an aupaired for a breast fed baby and trying to eek out the last pouch of breast milk with the mother not due home for four hours was an interesting experience I can tell you. So ambivalent. And an awful birth that left me feeling like a complete failure.
    So I thought I’d give it a go, try for 3 days and then, when it was hard, give up. But she was amazing. She latched on (and for 6 months barely came off), she fed like a pro. No cracked nipples, no infection, it was easy. So easy. Instant convert. I fed everywhere – cafes, park benches, by the side of the road, staff room at Waterstones (I knew the manager), bridesmaids room at a wedding. Enthusiastic breastfeeder.
    But I remember those first feelings and if it had been hard I don’t know what I would have done. Would the perceived birth failure (although as she is right here so clearly not a failure damn those NCT natural birth expectations) have pushed me to try harder – or give up? I don’t know, and will never ever judge anybody else’s choice as a result. Women need support not condemnation whatever they decide. And a society that stops thinking public feeding is wrong.

  11. Great response. I’m not sure what the purpose of The Alpha Parent’s post was, I can’t see it encouraging many people to breastfeed!

    And I am in awe of your breastfeeding success! My story starts off like yours (poor milk supply, 20% weight loss in first 3 days etc.) but I cracked after 4 weeks! Well done for pushing through!

  12. Great post, it made me cry a little as it brought back too recent memories of my first weeks breastfeeding, nothing as bad as yours, but lots of pain, mastitis, thrush etc, and the wrong kind of support. I found that there was lots of support, but I didn’t realise it was for me, I thought it was ‘normal’ and just something I had to put up with. MW and HV are too quick to assume you are fine as they have umpteen other mums to visit and don’t really have time to help you, when actually a simple physical demonstration of correct latch as opposed to read this leaflet helped me soo much in the end. I kept saying, its hurts like hell, but I guess thats normal, and they took that to mean, no help needed here! Next time I will be much more proactive/confident in getting help.

    I have been combination feeding since my son was 4 weeks old (now 29 weeks), he gets 1 bottle of formula per day, also started during the height of my mastitis, which saw me curled in a ball shaking and crying and refusing to be in the same room as the baby! Feeding, which had always been painful, had me howling with pain and was frankly just not an option, what new born wants to feed from a screaming mum? I fed through crying, but I drew the line at screaming. The first bottle of formula seemed a harsh decision, but all the rest have been easy, allows dad and baby to bond and made BF suddenly feel like a choice to me.

    I wish there was more support for combination feeding as lots of my friends did it (due to weight issues – with more support this could have probably been avoided, but after the first couple of weeks HV seem to just say give formula at the slightest hint of a problem) and had supply issues which then led to them giving up. It is possible to do both, but people needs tips on how to maintain supply, and it often starts at a time when the support is mainly finished.

    Sounds like alphaparent’s post is full of shit, and I’m not going to read it as it may involve me throwing the computer at the wall. In fact anyone who calls themselves alphaparent is clearly a twat. Sorry!

    Anyway, great post, well done.

    ps I also weaned from 4.5 months, and did a lot of reading and I think that actually the current guidelines are wrong and will likely be changed, but again personal choice and instinct is very important here.

  13. You are definitely a legend. No question there. There’s a lot of sense in this post. Within the breastfeeding support community people talk about the fact that only a small percentage of women physically can’t breastfeed but we don’t always make enough of the fact that a woman’s psychological state and feelings matter.

    I went through hell though not with as much difficulty as you (and I know it’s not a competition) but only managed because of the community I am surrounded with, the husband I have, the expert support available to me and because I am the some of my own experiences, personal and cultural. That makes my situation unique. I can’t look at another woman and say that faced with the same she can do the same. How am I to know?

    I love your suggestions too. Women usually don’t have anything to feel guilty about but a hell of a lot to get angry about.

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