Why more women don't breast-feed in Vancouver

Last week, two Burnaby Hospital nurses resigned over Nestlé Nutrition’s internally forwarded invitation to wine and dine obstetrical staff. Kudos to them for standing up to the formula corporation. Clearly companies that make formula shouldn’t smooze our obstetrical professionals.

However, as a certified wonder-nurser (18 months, God help me), I gotta say breast-feeding is a helluvalot harder than it looks. Why do less than one third of Canadian women make it to six months?

I’d hazard that there’s a bevy of reasons—and it’s not just the street-level prevalence of Vancouver’s “other” illicit white powder.

Learning how to breast-feed can be shitty
Picture this. You’ve been in labour for 43 hours, and just pushed out your baby. Now you have a confused, upset infant on you, and someone you’ve never met trying to show you the correct way to hold your baby in your elbow, and at the same time make a “nipple sandwich” with your hand (oh wait—this was me).

In my limited experience at BC Women’s, there was a lot of detail-oriented instruction when I really just needed someone to say, “stick it in his mouth and he’ll figure it out”. Detailed instructions can happen LATER, ladies. Minutes after the birth probably isn’t the best time. There’s just no way one can take it in.

Those first couple of weeks can hurt like labour
At the breast-feeding course at BC Women’s, the instructors show an old film from Scandinavia that makes breast-feeding look chic. Just pop him or her under your Nordic sweater after a brisk ski, smile and flip your blond hair, and voila! Instant nutrition.

This film is part of an epidemic of bizarre, romanticized images of nursing. The Nestle “breast is best” brochures show calm, happy moms and babies in a misty haze of bonded love. Sure, that happens. But what the pro-breast-feeding propagandists don’t tell you is, it can really, really hurt. A lot. For a long time. Apart from the pain of one’s breasts just getting used to nursing (and this is after hurting during pregnancy), you can also experience cracked nipples and blocked ducts. God forbid you get mastitis. Shiver.

Plus, there’s an endurance shocker at the beginning. Ever hear of a seven-hour nursing session? I hadn’t either...

Lots of moms will happily make this kind of sacrifice for the health of their little ones. But for goodness’ sakes. Tell us about it first so we know what to expect! That way, we won’t ditch breast-feeding en masse when the going gets rough. We’ll just put it in the same category as a really painful beginning-of-the-season Grouse Grind.

The city isn’t set up for it
Lots of new moms, bless their hearts, manage to make it through pregnancy and labour with some sense of modesty left. How, I’m not sure. But many women—especially for cultural reasons—do not feel comfortable just whipping it out at the Oakridge Mall food fair. So what are the alternatives?

First, stay home all the time. Honest to God, I know SO MANY MOMS who do this. Why do we have a problem with postpartum depression? Hmmm.

Second, pump, and nurse from a bottle. This works great if you can pump (and have time to...) Not so great if you can’t or don’t.

Third, cover up with a blankie. The key to this is that your baby must cooperate. Some babies just will not be covered.

Fourth, seek out “nursing areas”. They do exist. IKEA, Pacific Centre, Metrotown, and Granville Island all have them. Some stores encourage moms to use their changing rooms. Many places—this is SO GROSS but they do exist—pop chairs into their washrooms, right next to the toilets.

But for most destinations in Vancouver, there’s no accommodation. Try finding a “nursing area” while shopping at Superstore. Hah!

The old philosophy that women have the “right” to nurse in public, and that showing off a sliver of one’s breast is okay and even beautiful, doesn’t hold much water with a certain segment of moms. If you’re in this camp, breast-feeding probably comes down to one thing: the baby’s health, or your own mental health.

You’re fucking everything else up anyway
Breast-feeding, frankly, becomes just one more choice in a seemingly never-ending list of things you can’t possibly get right. Do you get a triple-marker screen, or risk not knowing? Cup of coffee/piece of sushi/sip of champagne, or cold turkey? Epidural, or pain? Planned C-section, or messy, unpredictable birth? Vitamin K shot, or not? Circumcision, or mini-turtleneck? Cloth, or disposable? Vaccines right away, or delay? Cosleeping, or crib? TV, or perpetually entertaining your infant on your own? Organics, or McDonald’s?

Every day, as a new parent, you’re confronted with choices that often boil down to: “Do I choose the easy thing which is worse, or do the hard thing which is better?” Keep in mind, you’re making there decisions on your own, in a highly judgemental environment. Stir in some sleep deprivation, a messy house, hormones, and isolation, and you’ve got a recipe for ditching the boob. Easy starts to sound REALLY good, at about week three.

Plus, formula-fed babies can sleep through the night in a way that breast-fed usually just don’t. And if you’ve gotta go to a job, formula is magic.

So, there you have it.

Why breast-feed? Good for baby, good for mommy. But those advantages start looking pretty negligible on the grind to that magical six-month mark (once you make it to six months, it’s a walk in the park). Which isn’t to say Nestlé Nutrition should be romancing our nurses. But c’mon. It takes more to sever a hungry baby from a boob that the simple whisper of “formula”, no matter how early. In fact, it takes a whole village.

For more on the breast-feeding debate, visit Straight.com tomorrow (July 3) or pick a printed copy across the Lower Mainland.  




Aug 4, 2008 at 7:46am

Great post! One issue I have is the way the statistics focus on exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. I didn't do that - I had to supplement with formula, and I introduced cereal around 4 months on my pediatrician's recommendation. Even though I breastfed for 10 months, I don't officially "count" as such. Also, I didn't think I would need a pump, but it ended up being essential. I recommend all moms planning to breastfeed get one, and take it to the hospital with you!


Apr 1, 2011 at 10:02pm

This article is mostly crap. Some of it, I agree with, like moms should be warned that bf'ing hurts so they don't think they're doing it wrong when it does. But then you start to spout and it gets ugly. No, formula doesn't work like magic to get babies to sleep through, and it's bs like that that makes women run to Nestle before theyve even given nursing a chance. And personally, I find it more embarrassing to feed baby a bottle in public than a breast.