Breast is best – or is it?

By Sophia Sinclair

Before I gave birth no one needed to convince me of the benefits of breastfeeding. The statistics document them well – increased immunity against disease, decreased chances of ovarian and breast cancers, the ability to burn up to 500 calories extra per day, a decreased chance of Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome – the list goes on.

With naive first-time-motherness I aimed to deliver as ‘naturally’ as possible and have extended skin to skin time (where the baby lies cuddled into the mother’s bare chest) after the birth. I hoped this would be followed by a successful start to breastfeeding. But all the hopes and plans I had to establish a great breastfeeding relationship in the days after I gave birth were dashed when our labour took a turn for the worse.

Nearing the end of our labour a life-threatening infection developed. At the last moment I was given an emergency c-section. My son was whipped away to be checked over while I lay seriously ill and barely conscious of what was happening around me. We were kept in recovery overnight with hourly checks and IV antibiotics administered by a nurse. My birth experience was as far from ‘natural’ as I could have imagined. Without intervention my baby and I could have died.

I prayed constantly. A friend had sent us through the words to Psalm 121 as an encouragement. Those verses went on repeat in my brain. I would look out the window of my hospital room to hills and pray, ‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?’ I would look down at my tiny baby and remember, ‘My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.’ Lying in a dark maternity ward alone at night, worrying myself to sleep, I recalled the reassuring words, ‘He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Needless to say, our introduction to breastfeeding was not the warm, cozy moment I had hoped for. My sick baby only wanted to sleep and within 24 hours he had been recalled to intensive care to treat a possibly life-threatening infection. ‘He needs milk to heal’, they said. It was unbearable trying to feed him and failing. The small, still voice reverberated louder, the words of Psalm 121 echoed in my heart, ‘The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

That is how our breastfeeding journey started – in the middle of a swelteringly hot room full of beeping sounds and tiny sick babies in incubators. I sat in the corner with tears running uncontrollably down my face (thank you new mummy hormones!), all the while trying to express colostrum to feed my baby. People poked and prodded me, various bits of machinery got stuck on, moved around and positioned just right. Gone were my visions of an intimate bonding time with my baby.

I left hospital full of advice, armed with a breast pump, bottles and a baby who wouldn’t latch. In fact, the natural art of breastfeeding seemed downright unnatural to me at that moment. I literally spent days on the couch trying to get him to feed correctly. I had a little milking station set up – drink bottle, lansinoh cream, antibiotics and pump. Our fridge became crowded with tiny bottles of milk. Amidst the chaos I was comforted by knowing God was there, ‘The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.’

New mothers are bombarded with expectations and advice. ‘Breast is best’ is patronizingly repeated ad nauseam. But what if you can’t make the ‘best’? What if your baby won’t take the ‘best’? It is so easy to feel inadequate, as though your best efforts are failures. There are no accolades and awards. The only monthly targets to meet are the curves charting the growth of your baby. As a new mum it is so tempting to measure our successes and failures on arbitrary things – our baby’s weight gain, breastfeeding or ability to ‘sleep through the night’. Although significant, none of these things can solely measure a mother’s ability to love and care for a child.

Somehow we persevered. After a few weeks my baby latched with a shield, and at 4.5 months he began to feed directly. Now, at 8 months he continues to breastfeed like a champ.

My struggle to breastfeed illuminated two things. It taught me to rely on God and trust him to give me wisdom to know how to best care for my son. It also taught me to stand in solidarity with other mothers – mums who struggle and feel like failures, mums who worry about graphs, developmental markers and their baby’s sleep. Instead of continuing the culture of competition in motherhood, let us encourage each other to do our best with the information, resources and abilities we have available at the time.

Motherhood can feel like a crucible, with relentless testing of patience and constant calls to lay aside our selfishness to care for others. I often feel weak and weary. When I do I am encouraged by this picture of God in the book of Isaiah, ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young’.

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