Writer and broadcaster

When breast is worst. Published in The Guardian

For 17 years I had been the owner of a fine pair of breasts that were, in Starbucks talk, grande. So when I became pregnant and folk asked me if I planned to breastfeed, I nodded and said: “What do you think I’ve been carrying these puppies around for all this time?” I came from a large Italian family, I had seen pictures of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus with just one hand and a look of pure calm. Breastfeeding was, I thought, my birthright.

Two weeks after my baby was born, my nipples were bleeding and in pieces. I needed three pairs of hands to get the baby to the breast, I was counting the seconds between feeds, being physically sick before each one, biting down on a handkerchief during them. I hated breastfeeding. I rang a midwife. “I think my baby is getting more blood than milk,” I sobbed. “Help me.” “Do you want me to give you permission to stop breastfeeding, is that it?” she condescended.

Tomorrow, National Breastfeeding Awareness Week starts. The Department of Health hopes to “dispel some of the myths” and encourage women who wouldn’t usually think of breastfeeding (typically, those lower down the social strata) to consider it. Its aim is a 2% increase in women who “initiate” breastfeeding. This is excellent, but it isn’t enough just to persuade women to give it a go.

Currently 69% of mothers breastfeed at birth, 52% two weeks later and 42% at six weeks. This slide is a shame, but ultimately a woman has the right to choose how she wants to feed her baby. What is not OK is that some women stop because they think they have no choice; a shocking 90% of women who give up breastfeeding within six weeks of birth regret it. Support and the right information are vital to successful nursing. The reasons cited for stopping – baby rejecting the breast/not producing enough milk/sore nipples – can almost always be overcome with specialised help (it’s very rare for a woman not to produce enough milk).

“There is loads of information about why breastfeeding is good but very little help when it goes wrong,” one woman told me. Her sentiment is not untypical. The Department of Health says that any woman in the country will have access to support but cannot say how many trained breastfeeding counsellors there are (midwives and health visitors are not specialists and often give incorrect advice).

I caught breast thrush – a hideously painful condition not even acknowledged by all GPs. Luckily mine did. The pain was compounded by my baby’s incorrect latch on to the breast. Both conditions went undiagnosed for weeks, despite no less than 15 midwives examining me. Breast was best for my baby, yet it was causing me pain. Just how selfish was I for wanting to give up?

This is how I tortured myself as I grappled with a decision only I could make. I became obsessed with every woman I saw: had she successfully breastfed? Failing at breastfeeding strikes at a core of femininity you may never have realised you had.

By the time I went to see the breastfeeding counsellor at my local NHS hospital, I was too traumatised to put my baby to the breast. (I was feeding her expressed breast milk and formula.) Two days later the counsellor’s job was to be cut; there was a queue of women to see her. A week later, and I would never have known one of the reasons why I was in so much pain. And, like so many women, I would have given up.

The thrush was treated, but I was still in pain, and now had no counsellor. I turned to a breastfeeding website, which was full of the experiences of women like me. On one mother’s advice (no one at the hospital had told me about support groups), I saw a counsellor at La Leche League, a breastfeeding charity. In two minutes she spotted that my daughter’s lip was incorrectly positioned. A change of two millimetres and the pain stopped; from then on my daughter became exclusively breastfed. I am still breastfeeding at seven months – with little help from the NHS.

For National Breastfeeding Awareness Week there are posters and keyrings to promote breastfeeding: just how will these help a mother at 2am who is starting to doubt her milk supply? I applaud the incentive to “initiate breastfeeding”, but don’t forget about those who have already made that choice.


First published in The Guardian.