Jayne Dowle: Breastfeeding bullies in the NHS put my son’s life at risk

Are new mums put under too much pressure to breastfeed?
Are new mums put under too much pressure to breastfeed?
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My son leaves school tomorrow, but it doesn’t seem two minutes since he was a helpless infant. And I mean helpless. When he was 10 days old he collapsed in my arms as I ran across the hospital car park; his tiny, almost-lifeless body a sickly shade of yellow, jaundiced by severe dehydration.

Here was my precious first-born, the child I had tried so hard to conceive. And I almost lost him because midwives bullied me into breastfeeding. Poor little Jack, whose weight had dropped from a healthy 7lb 12oz to just under 6lb, was starving to death. And I will never forgive those medical professionals for allowing it to happen, all in the name of “policy”.

That’s why I am delighted to hear that the Royal College of Midwives has made the announcement that mothers who choose to bottle-feed their babies will no longer be stigmatised. Chief executive Gill Walton said: “Evidence clearly shows that breastfeeding… brings optimum benefits for the health of both mother and baby. However, the reality is that often some women for a variety of reasons struggle to start or sustain breastfeeding.

“The RCM believes that women should be at the centre of their own care and, as with other areas of maternity care, midwives and maternity support workers should promote informed choice.”

Do not under-estimate the gravity of this volte-face.

For years now, the official policy has been to encourage women to choose the breast, ideally for at least the first six months of a child’s life, in line with World Health Organisation recommendations. This has been inculcated by methods which fall nothing short of a crusade to make women feel guilty.

My niece was born prematurely and even on her ward, typed notices on the walls advised that “formula feeding is not supported by this hospital”. Imagine being a woman traumatised by a difficult birth, looking at that every day and struggling. How can it be good for anyone’s mental and emotional post-natal health?

I remember my own midwife coming to see us. It was a sweltering August day. Jack was alternatively sobbing or listless. I turned to her in desperation; she said he was not even to have a drop of cooled boiled water, just breast milk.

I later found out that this “expert” had no children of her own. Now, while I respect every woman’s right to become a mother – or not – I wasn’t impressed by her reading out the official guidance with no room for interpretation, or sympathy.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to many midwives, professional breastfeeding counsellors and volunteers for parenting groups and rarely have I heard a word of compromise. I know that breast is believed to be best, because breast milk contains many nutrients and provides natural immunity to a range of health conditions.

And I know that it is supposed to be a wonderfully bonding experience between mother and child. Indeed, I tried again, when Jack’s sister was born three years later. But despite the – literally – hands-on help of a very practical auxiliary nurse, I still couldn’t make it happen. So Lizzie was bottle-fed from the off, no guilt this time.

Breastfeeding can be a traumatic, tearful and terrifying experience when it doesn’t work out. Jack simply didn’t want to know. However many times I tried, he just turned his head away and screamed. Sadly, because Jack would not latch on, the breast milk was not forthcoming, and that’s how we ended up running across the car park in fear for his life.

And when we got there, the amazing nurses in the special care unit at the Royal London Hospital rushed him straight to intensive care, put him on a feeding drip and placed him under phototherapy lights to bring his jaundice under control.

We were in hospital for a week, and those patient and non-judgmental nurses put in place a feeding plan which mixed my meagre breast milk with formula. But it took Jack three months to get back on track with his growth and development.

He had problems with his hearing as a toddler, which the audiologist put down to the early trauma. And until recently, he’s had serious issues with concentration; studies have found that severe dehydration in newborns can have long-term neurological effects.

However, he’s now a big strong lad of six foot four. And in 16 years, the only thing he’s seriously troubled the doctors with is a dodgy knee from playing football and two broken arms sustained in a trampolining incident.

All the dire warnings about eczema, asthma, stomach problems and myriad other ill-effects I was apparently wishing on him by choosing Cow & Gate over life-threatening infant dehydration have not come to pass. If the Royal College of Midwives are looking for a poster boy for their new campaign, they could do worse.