At the end of last week, Jamie Oliver infuriated many women by speaking out about the need for more women to breastfeed their babies. The dad of four and a half kids (a new Oliver baby arrives this summer), said in an interview, “If you breastfeed for more than six months, women are 50 per cent less likely to get breast cancer. When do you ever hear that? Never.… [breastfeeding is] easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free.”
Before I go on, I should say I really like Jamie Oliver. He’s a good egg, clearly means very well, and has brought about positive change in our eating culture. I don’t believe his intention was to mansplain or lecture, but I’m afraid that’s exactly what he did. More significantly, he got it very wrong.
From the time a women conceives, she is inundated with information on the imperative to breastfeed. Every baby magazine, every medical professional, every midwife and NCT group tells mums – quite rightly – that breast is best and that six months of feeding your baby represents the healthiest start. Believe me, Jamie, we know this all too well. The problem lies in his second assertion. Breastfeeding is not always “easy” for women and babies. In fact, it was very difficult for the vast majority of my friends, many of whom felt so guilty and under pressure to breastfeed, that their first months with their beloved child were tinged with great sorrow. In my experience, women don’t need any convincing that breast is best. They are more likely to need convincing that they are still good mothers if, at six, eight, or even 20 weeks in, they stop spending every waking hour electronically pumping milk, crying and feeling like a failure, and reach for the formula and bottle.
In fact, the biggest problem with breastfeeding is not persuading anyone to do it, but properly teaching them how. Breastfeeding is a skill. It doesn’t come naturally and blissfully to all women the moment they’re handed a lovely baby, and yet this is what’s often expected. Breastfeeds with my eldest child were so fraught that he’d spend most of the time screaming in frustration. Desperate to do what I saw as my responsibility to breastfeed, I went to Sure Start groups, the La Leche League, three midwives, a celebrity lactation consultant who spent almost her full hour telling me my baby was merely traumatised by his decidedly unscary five-hour home birth, then the rest of the time counting her £150 payment.
We were wrongly diagnosed with tongue-tie (this seems to be the stock lazy answer whenever anyone has no idea WTF is going wrong), colic, cranial problems, insufficient milk, too much milk – everything but the actual problem. Round and round we went, in a depressing cycle of guilt, pumping, bottle feeding breastmilk, more guilt. I spent way more time on feeding admin than I did on enjoying my baby. I was heartbroken.
Many women will give up, not because they think breast isn’t healthier… But because they are exhausted, they are depressed, their baby is underweight
Meanwhile, all the well-meaning professionals patted me on the back and said, “You’re doing really well! Don’t give up!” Except a) I really wasn’t and b) I really should have. What I wanted and needed was a strict, clever nana-type to tell me exactly what was going on, how to fix it, or failing that, why I should throw in the towel and get my life back (I lasted six miserable months). This wisdom is exactly what I got in God-like feeding guru Clare Byam Cook when I had my second baby, who diagnosed overactive letdown (where milk is expelled too fast and furiously, like when someone stands on a hosepipe) within about two minutes of meeting me and fixed the problem that very day (with a week of breast shields, which everyone else had assured me were basically evil). I went on to breastfeed extremely happily for the next 17 months.
But getting your baby to latch on is only the beginning. Those lucky enough to crack the technique then have to contend with judgment on the other side – waiters handing them a napkin to cover up feeds, shop staff “politely suggesting” women feed their babies in a grotty customer loo (would you want to eat your lunch in a toilet? No, me neither), idiots tweeting that public breastfeeding is no different to Page 3 (yes, this really happened – I gasped when hundreds of people, a high-profile journalist among them, retweeted it). Men who would cheerfully gawp at sexy boobs in a paper or magazine, but suddenly feel “uncomfortable” on seeing breasts do the job for which they were actually designed.
A man who edges closer and closer to becoming leader of Western World, Donald Trump, declaring breastfeeding as “disgusting”. As with so many things, when it comes to feeding their babies, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
I’m genuinely pleased that Jamie Oliver’s wife, Jools, has seemingly avoided these pitfalls, and that their family’s experience of breastfeeding is a wholly positive one. I’m also extremely pleased for my two out of dozens of girlfriends for whom this was also true. I know from personal experience that when breastfeeding works, it is wonderful. But for everyone else, it can be unbearably hard. Many women will give up, not because they think breast isn’t healthier, not because they’re not aware of the benefits to themselves (breastfeeding does indeed lessen the likelihood of breast cancer, though Jamie's 50 per cent figure is higher than I've seen elsewhere). But because they are exhausted, they are depressed, their baby is underweight, or they are desperate to stop spending every waking hour worrying about this one thing that absolutely does not define you as a mother. There are a million other ways to bond and to show your love. If attempted breastfeeding is consistently making you sad, then it is not serving your baby, and you should feel no shame in reaching for the formula. It’s an act of kindness to the whole family. And don’t let any man – however nice – tell you any different.