Breast v bottle? Motherhood is messy enough without picking sides | Hadley Freeman | Life and style

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My experience with breastfeeding was as relaxed as it was completely atypical. I had a C-section, which meant I stayed in hospital a few nights to recover, which meant in turn I got to know one of the night nurses. Every night, she took the time to teach me the basics of breastfeeding, reassuring me that I was doing just marvellously.

When I got home, a friend who, like me, had twins, told me that if I wanted to retain my sanity I should get some help a couple of nights a week (our topic for today is feeding, but synchronising the sleep patterns of newborn twins will one day be my magnum opus). I was lucky enough to be able to afford this, which meant that someone regularly came to my home and, again, helped me breastfeed. When I told her I wanted to do mixed feeding – breast milk and formula – because my body needed a break, she unhesitatingly showed me how to make formula. As a result, I experienced none of the anguished emotions I’d seen so many friends go through about feeding. This is because I was blessed with luck (meeting the nurse) and privilege (being able to afford help), neither of which should be the determining factors about how a woman feeds her baby.

Last week it emerged that the National Childbirth Trust’s (NCT) president, Seána Talbot, has resigned, frustrated that the organisation originally known as the Natural Childbirth Trust is publicly supporting parents who use formula. “The evidence is really clear that breast milk is better for babies than formula milk,” she told the Guardian. “We have to use that information to make sure that women are fully informed when pregnant, so that they can then decide what choice is right for them.”

This sparked a slew of commentary about the “war” between breast- and bottle feeding parents, a framing that is unhelpful and untrue. Most mothers will try both. The polarised language with which such choices are often discussed – the lactivists versus the formula feeders! the natural birth evangelists versus the C-sections! – does not reflect most women’s reality. Motherhood is messy and resists staying within the lines of one’s own expectations, let alone broader ideological debates.

But this does not stop advocates on both sides suggesting otherwise, and it’s one of life’s more unfortunate ironies that it is when a woman is at her most exhausted and vulnerable that these arguments will rage around her most loudly. No doubt, formula companies have used questionable marketing methods, but breastfeeding campaigners can also be guilty of exaggeration and emotional blackmail.

Talbot’s comment is a classic of the genre: not telling women breast is best is preventing them from making the right (“informed”) choice. But this relies on global population statistics as opposed to individual need. Yes, breast milk has some benefits over formula – but are they really worth a mother becoming desperate as her baby loses weight because she can’t feed him with her cracked and bleeding nipples? Clearly not, and the much-vaunted advantages of breastfeeding are especially negligible when we’re talking about mothers who can afford the NCT’s antenatal classes, mothers who will probably have access to clean water and a steriliser. Advocates talk passionately about how women who are unsupported quit breastfeeding earlier than they’d like, and that this risks postnatal depression. They don’t seem to consider that maybe this has less to do with breastfeeding itself, and more to do with it being energetically sold to women as the maternal ideal.

I never went to an NCT class because friends’ stories suggested that the organisation’s support of new mothers too often blurred into advocacy of so-called “natural parenting”. (When one friend asked an NCT group leader about pain relief during childbirth she was advised to “try sound”, a suggestion that would have resulted in me making the sound of hysterical laughter.) If the NCT is now relinquishing ideology for a more realistic approach that is clearly a good thing, because investing maternal choices with a vague but terrifying moral dimension is damaging to women and babies.

The truth is, women in this country aren’t given enough breastfeeding support, thanks not least to austerity: in recent years, at least 44% of local authority areas in England have been affected by cuts or closures to breastfeeding services. So those who want to give it – or get it – feel under threat and dig their heels in harder. When my sister had her first baby in Switzerland, the local council arranged for her to meet with a feeding consultant every week. In Britain, who can mothers turn to for regular, free, non-ideological advice?

When I had my babies, I felt like Alice tumbling into Wonderland, beset on all sides by bewildering and often contradictory advice. I was fortunate to find two women who taught me to trust myself and tune out the rest, who knew that women should spend less time trying to measure up to the expectations of others, and more time asking themselves what they actually need. This is the least we should give all mothers, and the only way out of the rabbit hole.

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