In last week’s Femail two angry mums revealed how they were led to believe breastfeeding would help them lose weight, when in fact they piled on the pounds. Both admitted that their diets had been poor, blaming the ‘myth’ constantly pedalled to new mums by health professionals and breastfeeding advocates that the babyweight would melt away as they fed for tricking them into thinking they could eat what they wanted. Here, Alison Canavan, who breastfed her son James for a year, launches a staunch defence of breastfeeding. She argues that it should always be a personal choice made with the best interests of mum and baby at heart, and argues that by vilifying breastfeeding we are ignoring deeper issues about motherhood and self image.
AS I READ last week’s article I felt frustration and anger, yet again, about this topic. Since giving birth to James I’ve noticed that anytime the topic of feeding your baby is brought up, mums should be prepared to have their head eaten off by another mother who thinks they know better or who disagrees with our choice for our child.
I have never and will never understand why women are so hard on each other — this topic in particular seems to always hit a nerve.
In my opinion the breast Vs bottle debate is a complex one where no one wins. We all have different reasons for feeding our children the way we do and should never underestimate the complex issues that can arise post-birth for mum and baby which can influence feeding.
Weight loss alone, however, should not be the reason you choose to breastfeed your baby. Neither should articles claiming that women are now getting fat from feeding frighten you off. Each and every woman’s body will react differently to pregnancy. Some women fly through their pregnancies while others have problems from day one, they gain weight, develop pelvic problems, require emergency sections… the list goes on.
One thing we now know for sure is that eating for two during pregnancy is a myth. Believe me, I was guilty of using it as an excuse to pig out for the first few months, until my doctor told me women only need an extra 200 calories (equivalent to a small bowl of muesli or two slices of wholegrain bread) per day and that’s not even until the third trimester.
In the article the women targeted two aspects of breastfeeding in particular, saying ‘breastfeeding is a very sedentary activity’ and ‘women commonly experience ravenous hunger while feeding’. While I agree with both these statements, they’re not necessarily bad things. I actually enjoyed sitting down to feed as I was wrecked. And I was very hungry but I tried to eat nutritious foods as I knew they would make me feel better and fill my breast milk full of nutrients for the growing baby.
Things are never as simple as they seem, especially when it comes to the combination of women, babies, food and weight. I know that I’m an emotional eater and make bad choices to fill that gap. If I feel lonely, have had bad news about work or am simply tired I pick up the phone to the local takeaway — undoing all the good work I’ve done. But I also know I’m a model and that eating healthily is a big part of my job, which leads me to wonder why I make a choice that can potentially impact my career? Yet we do make poor choices and they are usually multi layered.
In the first few months after giving birth a lot of women experience real loneliness and sadness while home alone with their newborn. Too tired to exercise and too embarrassed to tell anyone how they’re feeling, food can be a big comfort. I’m not saying that these are the reasons the women in the piece gained weight, but we do need to be careful when we make blanket statements about such complex issues.
Breastfeeding is a choice, our food types are a choice and lifestyle is a choice. I always say that how you treat yourself and what you feed yourself will directly influence how you look and feel.
I spoke to Clare Boyle, a midwife and breastfeeding consultant, about this topic. Clare has been working with breastfeeding women for the last 13 years and her experience is that most lose weight easily and usually within the first six months. She tolds me, ‘I have never met a breastfeeding mother who had the weight gain issues such as those described in the article. I wonder if there were some other issues that may have contributed to it as it seems so unusual. I think it would be important to know what type of foods were they eating and whether they were they exercising.
‘It is true that most breastfeeding women have an increased appetite but provided they eat a healthy, well-balanced diet they shouldn’t necessarily put on weight and it is by no means the norm.’
Clare then made another very valid point, ‘There is the common perception that breastfeeding mums think that they are free to eat what they like and therefore they can go for high-calorie foods that they would normally deprive themselves of. If they do this to excess, obviously breastfeeding isn’t going to counteract a complete gorge-fest!’
I didn’t give breastfeeding much thought during my pregnancy. In fact, I just presumed baby came out and fed from boob and we all lived happily ever after.
Well, instead of that plan playing out like the plot of a movie, James couldn’t latch on and my boobs became so sore that I was permanently taking hot showers to relieve them. We soon figured out that James had a tongue-tie, causing his inability to latch.
Then I developed thrush — and my body was producing enough tears to fill Ireland ten times over. I was extremely lucky, though, to have a great friend Andrea Casey sit patiently with me, literally holding my boobs as otherwise I could’t latch him on. Catriona McCarthy, a lactation consultant, also spent considerable time helping me. What I learnt from the experience is that breastfeeding is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of women, it’s one that both you and your baby might have to learn together. I succeeded in feeding James but not until he was nearly three months old. I persevered because I’m stubborn and, after three months, I had finally started to enjoy the experience. I consider myself very lucky to have had the support I had, because without it I would not have continued to feed.
How you feed your child is a deeply personal choice. I have a friend who is simply uncomfortable with the thought of breastfeeding her children. She has three beautiful kids who are all healthy and happy. How we feed our children does not affect our parenting abilities, food or lifestyle choices — those choices are ultimately up to us. Judging other women also has no bearing on your parenting skills.
It’s great to talk about being more honest with each other, but I think deep down we’re all smart enough to know that the realistic experience of breastfeeding will not result in a woman getting a Gisele-like body. Tiredness, hunger and hormones are all part of the reality of being a new mum but good food, exercise and communicating with loved ones is far better for us in the long term than reaching for the biscuits!