This blog post is the story of my experience of breastfeeding and how it made me wonder about how all the other mammals are getting on.
Before I had a baby I was told that breastfeeding is hard. I thought maybe everyone was making it harder than it needed to be. Surely feeding your baby your milk is the most natural thing in the world and therefore should be easy? After all, we are mammals and all mammals are characterised by the presence of mammary glands in females which produce milk. There are over 5,600 species of mammal and they all start life on a milk diet. Milk is unique to mammals (and pigeons, sort of). Even the weird Duck Billed Platypus produces milk and feeds her babies not via teats but by secreting the milk onto the surface of the skin like sweat to be licked off.
When I was pregnant I thought I’d quite like to breastfeed if possible. It seems sensible: a free food source designed by your body to be perfect for your baby. At my very first midwife appointment at nine weeks pregnant I was given a magazine about breastfeeding. From that point onwards it is heavily promoted by the NHS, as well as on social media. Breast is best. I agreed in principle but thought that if breastfeeding didn’t work out for whatever reason then I was fine with that and I would more than happily move on to feeding my baby formula.
Then little Murdo (a.k.a the piglet) arrived. He was two weeks past his due date so I was induced. The induction went rapidly wrong and he was born under reasonably terrifying circumstances by emergency c section. I had a general anesthetic and lost some blood so I didn’t get to meet the wee fella until almost two hours after he was born. By this time he was ravenous and angry. I didn’t even get a proper look at him before he was presented with a boob to have a go at. After a difficult three days in hospital wrestling with the mystical ‘latch’ I thought we were beginning to get the hang of it – and in many ways we were – over the next few weeks the piglet gained weight and seemed to be thriving. I, however, was not thriving. I was badly damaged by the feeding and I just couldn’t heal. Every latch involved a new spurt of fresh red blood all over the baby. Feeding was agony. At least twelve different healthcare professionals watched us feed and couldn’t identify the problem. I got mastitis three times and we were both diagnosed with thrush. Five weeks in I was still in constant pain and I was deeply unhappy. I dreaded him waking up because then I would have to feed him. I hated everything about breastfeeding.
To pre-baby me this scenario would seem like a no-brainer. It isn’t working so move on. But post-baby hormone-filled-exhausted-overwhelmed new mum me found that an almost impossible decision to make. I kept thinking that if I could keep feeding him for one more day then things would improve. I told a kindly old man GP that I was weeping through every feed and he told me to stop breastfeeding. By this point the NHS had invested a reasonable amount in keeping me breastfeeding so I imagine his advice would not be popular, but for me it released all the fear that I was failing everyone and letting my baby down. I stopped latching the baby and started pumping milk instead. I couldn’t work out how to stop pumping, and then it became routine, so I kept pumping until the piglet was 6 months old.
The whole experience was genuinely the hardest thing I have ever been through. It all got me thinking about WHY the human experience of feeding young can be so difficult.
I started wondering whether other mammals are going through just as hard a time feeding their babies. I did a little research and the answer is no, they are not. Kangaroos can feed two joeys at a time – one in the pouch and an older one on the outside – and they provide a different make-up of milk for each joey. Milk is made up of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and water, and contains antibacterials and antifungals. Different mammals have different consistencies of milk depending on what their young need. Human milk is 3.8% fat and 1.2% protein. Blue whale milk is 38.1% fat and 12.8% protein. Whales do not find it hard to breastfeed. Outside of primates, there is no evidence of occurrence of breastfeeding difficulty in other mammals.
For humans and other primates, breastfeeding is learned behaviour. There are some natural instincts from the baby – the rooting motion and searching for a nipple – but human babies are born too useless to climb onto our chests themselves. They have to be placed, and the mother has to guide the nipple into the right part of the mouth. Researches have identified a variety of social, physcological and biological complications that might contribute to the difficulty humans have breastfeeding. Some of these include a lack of opportunity for social observation of breastfeeding before becoming a mother (especially in countries where breastfeeding is mostly hidden away); intense pressure on new mums (especially if the baby isn’t gaining weight quickly); that human babies are born less developed than other mammals – evolution has prioritised brain size over physical strength – which means that they need a lot more help to feed; a societal preference for large, unhelpful boobs; and tongue tie.
This research made me feel a lot better. I had felt a failure that I wasn’t able to do the natural, simple thing. A little research showed me that yes, breastfeeding for humans is natural (and comes easily to a lot of women), but it is also complex, just as we are complex.
I wanted to write this blog in case there are any brand new mums out there desperately Googling “I hate breastfeeding” like I was. Mums who have just met the little person they carried around inside them and are overwhelmed with a desire to do the best by them. This blog isn’t polemical – I think that breastfeeding is wonderful and I think that however you chose to feed your baby is perfect. I just wanted to say that you are not alone and whatever you decide to do is fine. Seek help from professionals, talk to your partner or a close friend, pay attention to your mental well-being, and stop being so hard on yourself.
The piglet is now, unbelievably, almost 8 months old. He still loves milk, but now he loves stewed apple, porridge, sweet potato, crumpets, eggy bread and peaches as well. He is a gentle giant; huge and cuddly like a koala. If you let him steal your glasses he will be your most devoted friend.