Feeding failure – is an expectation of breastfeeding unrealistic?

Feeding, in terms of ‘feeding a baby’ is often a contentious topic.

Prior to having a baby myself, I did not realise this. In my antenatal haze of fuzzy expectation, I had vague impressions of how my baby might behave, where it might sleep (or not, as the case may be), how it might cry, and what changing nappies might be like. But one thing I never particularly gave much thought to was feeding. I just assumed I’d breastfeed, that any woman who wanted to pretty much could, and that was that.

Now, almost three years since attending those antenatal breastfeeding sessions which gave rise to a little bit more thought about feeding, I know a lot more about it than I did back then. Two breastfeeding journeys with mastitis, thrush and oversupply issues along the way have taught me that actually, one of the most natural things in the world may not actually come naturally at all to many women. Furthermore, when I was travelling along this bumpy road, whilst some people offered their support, many others (including some professionals) waved a bottle and some formula in my face and told me breastfeeding just wasn’t an option and I needn’t feel guilty as I’d ‘tried my best’.

Which is why this article in the Guardian last week came as no real surprise to me.


‘New mothers can feel set up to fail by “unhelpful” advice telling them to breastfeed for six months’


The experts found the “mismatch between idealism and realism” could mean mothers feel pressurised into breastfeeding.

I have to say I never felt pressurised into breastfeeding. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that for me, I experienced the complete opposite – pressure to give up and use formula instead. The Wee Man was only just over a day old when the hospital told me that it was clear that breastfeeding was unlikely to be an option and that I’d need to give him a bottle of formula so we could go home and get on with life.

From speaking to other local mums, it seems that it very much depends which hospital you go to as to where the pressure lies. Mums who gave birth at the other hospital locally have indeed found that they feel pressured to breastfeed, with one saying that she felt that she would be ostracised if she’d whipped out a bottle rather than her breasts. (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist!).

But parenthood is a whole minefield of pressures. Pressure to regain your pre-pregnancy weight. Pressure to have your baby sleep through the night (on their backs of course, and in their own cot, but in your room, and with a dummy). Pressure to feed your baby the correct foods at the correct times, and for the baby to gain the correct amount of weight whilst rolling and sitting and crawling in the correct ways. Pressure to leave the baby with alternative caregivers and ‘have a bit of me-time’ (I do like the sound of that one, I have to say. But it doesn’t mean I think it’s going to happen, at least not in the early days anyway!).

Back when I was a baby, there were the same pressures of course, except that the prescribed ‘right way to do things’ was different – solids from 3 months, babies must sleep on their fronts, and make sure the baby gets some lovely fresh air in the garden every day.

Rewind a couple of hundred of years, and there were still pressures. Except that the options were maybe a bit more limited – there was no formula, so the alternative to breastfeeding your child was to get another woman to do it for you. Which seems to suggest that most women can expect to breastfeed, because actually, given a chance, they’d be able to. The only pressure back then in terms of feeding a baby was – to put it bluntly – ‘make sure you establish breastfeeding, otherwise, your baby is likely to die’.

New mothers were therefore given the support by their healthcarers (if they had them), their family and their community, to spend time just being with their baby and to not worry about anything else. At least I assume this was the case, from what I’ve read, and not being present at that time myself.

So I wouldn’t actually say that its the ‘unhelpful’ advice telling them to breastfeed for six months that’s setting new mothers up to fail. It’s actually a whole host of trappings of modern life which, taken together, make the likelihood of breastfeeding for six months unrealistic. The fact that grandparents, previously likely to be around to offer support, are now more likely to still be working in full time jobs because they still have mortgages to pay and years to work before their pensions kick in. The modern system of getting new mothers in and out of hospital as quickly as possible in order that they can be getting on with life at home, rather than helping them to relax, enjoy their new baby and not have to worry about the cooking, the cleaning and the laundry. The idea that it’s good to get the baby to take bottles (whether of formula or of expressed milk) so that fathers and grandparents can ‘bond’ with the baby too. The healthcare professionals that were brought up in a generation where formula feeding was promoted and have not received recent retraining to enable them to provide adequate support for mothers that want to breastfeed. The other mothers who feel they have to lie bend the truth about how they are doing with their baby, just to keep up appearances, and by doing so, then make other new mothers feel that they have to achieve the same unnecessary results. The list goes on…

Yes I'm feeding Bubby D. No it wasn't easy to start with. But we are enjoying it now!

I am lucky that I am stubborn (something else that I was always pressured about, as my teachers didn’t seem to think it was a good thing!) and I insisted on continuing my attempts to breastfeed, even though I was not supported to carry on. I therefore got to enjoy feeding the Wee Man until he decided himself to stop, and I am still enjoying feeding Bubby D. Unfortunately, many new mothers that aren’t as stubborn as me don’t get to enjoy that feeding experience even though they want to.

And so we come to the question: is an expectation of breastfeeding unrealistic?

In my case, no. In many cases, it shouldn’t be. But in reality, with the lack of support and the pressures that many new parents face in modern society – yes, I can see how it might be. And that’s a real shame.

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