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Breastfeeding with a disability

Mother with brown hair and glasses, seated and holding baby on pillow and bottlefeeding

Breastfeeding with a disability

Whether you are a first time mum or a third, everyone has an opinion about how to feed your child. I remember with my first, I had no idea and I took the advice of professionals as gospel. I’m going to hopefully offer you a little bit of reassurance by discussing my experiences with feeding my babies.

Breastfeeding is a touchy topic, but it’s also an extremely important one. It feels like these days there’s a lot of pressure skewed in one direction. When you first start getting advice during your pregnancy, you’ll hear a regularly-used phrase, “Breast is best”. Midwives and doctors strongly encourage you to pursue breastfeeding, which means right from the start, the pressure is on. Even once you’re in the hospital, every other poster on the walls of the Maternity Unit is talking about why breastmilk is the best option. In my hospital room alone, there were five posters about breastfeeding. That’s all well and great, if you’re able to breastfeed.

Of course, breastmilk should be the first option – it’s our bodies natural way of providing nutrients and protection for our baby. In every baby book or article, you’ll read about how breastfeeding creates bonding opportunities, the best way for you to develop a relationship with your baby and that you’re giving them a best start in life if you give them breastmilk. However, medical professionals have gotten so caught up in correcting mistakes of the past, that they often forget to discuss what happens if you’re unable to breastfeed.

This, in my opinion is one of the greatest chasms of knowledge when you first get pregnant and even after you give birth. It happened to me, twice. With my first child, I was so determined to prove I could do all the important things a mother should do, just like every other able-bodied mother. I didn’t want my disability to stop me doing what I’d been told was the right way and so I wanted to breastfeed, desperately. I spent two days torturing myself because of all the pro-breastfeeding information playing over in my head. I spoke to every midwife and lactation consultant I could.

My issue wasn’t in providing the milk, but a physical factor I couldn’t control, one that was a crushing blow to my self-esteem. Because of the way my cerebral palsy affects my body, I was unable to correctly support the baby in order for them to latch properly. This devastated me. By day two, it was suggested that I use a breast pump and feed my baby with a bottle. It worked well, but every day, twice a day, the midwives would come in and encourage me to try and breastfeed. It was horrific. We had known by day two, that it wasn’t going to happen, but they kept pushing and this was crushing to my mental health. I just given birth and my hormones were all over the shop, so the added pressure didn’t help.

I felt like a failure and my self-torture wasn’t over yet. After six weeks, I got very bad mastitis and was no longer able to freeze my breastmilk without it going sour. My daughter was eating way over what was expected and I couldn’t keep up. I had no choice but to stop breastfeeding. I remember one night in particular. It was my first night home and I couldn’t express with my breast pump. I became inconsolable, because I felt like my daughter was going to starve and I couldn’t provide for her. Luckily, we had bought a tin of formula just in case. I felt disgusting when we had to give her formula instead. It was my husband who said that I wasn’t doing her any good by putting so much pressure on myself.

Breastfeeding with a disability -

In the end it wasn’t midwives, nurses or other medical professionals that helped me the most. It was a fellow mum. She gave me advice – advice that I now give to others and still live by:

As long as your baby is happy, well-fed and feels your love, that’s all that matters.

You never go up to a grown adult and ask them whether they were breastfed or formula-fed. After a month on formula my daughter was happy and healthy and I knew I had let go of breastfeeding, as it was causing me not just physical distress, but emotional as well. She thrived. Our relationship was not at all negatively affected by the fact that I couldn’t breastfeed her, in fact it increased her relationship with her father, because he was able to assist me with the late-night feeds. I have the greatest respect for any mother that can breastfeed long-term. Not every woman is going to be able to do that. We don’t get nearly enough advice about what to do if we can’t breastfeed. We also don’t get enough support in this regard.

When my son came along, I knew I would have the same problem. I knew I was still going to try, but if I couldn’t after a day, I was going to pump. Then once I couldn’t do that any more, I was going to formula feed. There wasn’t as much pressure from the midwives and medical professionals at the hospital the second time around. But I think that’s because I was a second-time mum and much more assertive as well. I have nothing against any of these professionals for encouraging breastfeeding. I just think there needs to be more education available for what happens if you can’t. I was left to beat myself up and feel like a horrible mother, because I couldn’t do that. Instead, it would’ve been nice to have a professional come and say it’s okay. Your baby is going to be okay on a formula diet.

So, if you’re at any point during your pregnancy or have given birth and are feeling the pressure about breastfeeding. Just remember, it’s okay if you can’t. Both of my children were chubby, healthy and happy babies. The type of food they got didn’t change the love that I felt for them, or the love they show me. No matter how you feed them, as long as they’re getting what they need, you’re doing the right thing for yourself and for them.

There are many different kinds of parents out there, and quite a few of them aren’t able to give their babies breastmilk. If you’re one of those, you’re not any less wonderful. If I’d known this, I could’ve saved myself a month of agonising self-detriment. It doesn’t matter that the reason I can’t breastfeed is because of my disability, I’ve known able-bodied mothers who still struggled. We’re all in the same boat. There are other options and there are people that will understand.

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Author: Deaire Pecora

Brand Ambassador for disAbility Maternity Care

Editors comment:

Deaire makes some valid points about the benefits of breastfeeding, including the nutritional value of breastmilk and the wonderful bonding opportunity breastfeeding offers.  It is also interesting to read about the lived-experience of someone who really wanted, and tried, to breastfeed, but despite her efforts, was unable to.   

Women should always be supported in their feeding choices, decisions and abilities.

If you would like breastfeeding support, visit the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s helpline on 1800 686 268.  This 24/7 free service is staffed by experienced, trained volunteer counsellors who know that breastfeeding is not always easy.  They can acknowledge your breastfeeding challenges, reassure you and address common breastfeeding concerns.

Breastfeeding information is also provided on the Australian Breastfeeding Association website.