The ‘breast is best’ mantra is one that’s drilled into women almost from the minute they get pregnant – but what happens when you can’t breastfeed, or have a reason to choose the bottle?
Here, Gillian Harvey tells us why she chose to bottle-feed all five of her children, and speaks out about the stigma she felt every time a stranger saw her with formula in her hand…
Two weeks before Christmas 2009, sleep-deprived, staggering with the
after-pain of an episiotomy and nurturing my precious baby girl Lily, I was
overcome with terrible guilt (exacerbated by post-natal hormones) each
time I mixed powder with water.
Would my baby be less intelligent? More allergy-prone? Was I already (whisper it) a bad mother?
I was bottle-feeding my first baby, and I felt judged; especially self-conscious when I fed in public, often regaling anyone who was interested (and others who clearly weren’t) with the reasons why I hadn’t chosen breastfeeding instead. I constantly felt the need to apologise for wearing what seemed like a badge of shame. ‘Look everyone! I don’t care enough to make the right choice! Naughty mummy!’
But the reason I didn’t want to breastfeed wasn’t the one you might expect.
‘Any more questions?’ the midwife had smiled, as I stroked my burgeoning baby bump – hard won after two rounds of IVF – a few weeks earlier, and watched the ripple of tiny limbs stretch my taut skin.
‘Just one,’ I said. ‘I can breastfeed on my medication, can’t I?’
A bout of crippling perinatal anxiety – my habitual worrying accentuated by horrendous hormones – had robbed me of the joy of end-stage pregnancy and the initial hit of unavoidable anti-depressants at twenty weeks’ gestation had been hellish.
But by that point in November 2009 – just a few weeks before my contractions started – I was finally starting to feel normal (or as normal as an anxiety-prone, neurotic, self-critical perfectionist can ever feel) and wanted to give my longed-for child the ideal start.
‘Not on this particular one, I’m afraid,’ came the alarming response.
I was heartbroken. I had never considered depriving my baby of breastmilk, but the prospect of popping a new pill after what I’d been through was unthinkable. Instead, like many mothers, I had to make a guilt-inducing choice. Sick inside, I stocked up on formula, the too-easily memorised mantra ‘breast is best’ on repeat in my subconscious.
Life is never straightforward. Lily is now 6; I’ve since popped out four further babies – Tim and Joe, 4, Evie, 2, and Robbie, 11 months – and have stuck to the bottle each time.
Gilian’s daughter Lily bottle-feeding her little brother Robbie
Whilst I sometimes experience a stab of residual shame, I’ve come to realise that there are some advantages to turning my back on mother nature – for one, that it enabled my husband to bond with our babies (at least that’s what I told him as I snuggled back under the covers at 2am and let him do the night-feed).
The constant barrage of ‘encouragement’ in the media from experts or highly vociferous celebrities makes me flinch. New mothers going through the anguish of choosing bottle over breast don’t need judgement screaming from the front of every tabloid.
And whilst breast may be best, it’s just one of a number of ways in which we can nourish our children as they grow – both physically and mentally.
Surely in a world filled with suffering, rather than wearily roll up our sleeves to defend our feeding choices, we should instead celebrate the fact that – whatever we decide – our babies will never go hungry.