Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

The breast test

Clare Byam-Cook’s tolerant advice inspires rage on Mumsnet – but it could save new mothers from misery and shame

The breast test
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How should a new mother feed her baby? You might well imagine that was up to her. While some mothers take to breast-feeding as if their bosoms have been waiting all their lives for it, others find it exhausting, excruciating and demoralising. Sacrificing every waking hour to nature’s cause, they still produce a mere soupçon of milk, not nearly enough to satisfy a ravenous baby. So isn’t it sometimes better to bottle-feed, with formula milk?

Beware. To do such a thing, in our guilt-ridden, competitive age, is seen as stepping into an abyss of last resort. Never mind that your baby will stop crying at last, fall blissfully asleep: the goody-goody breast-feeding mothers in your NCT group will mentally vilify you as a slovenly baby-poisoner.

The La Leche League, the NCT, the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers and the National Breastfeeding Helpline try hard these days not to sound too judgmental. They do not like being nicknamed ‘the Breastapo’, although some of the NCT’s bossier members can be terrifyingly dogmatic. ‘We support all mothers, however they decide to feed their baby,’ they insist. But their websites also explain that if you choose formula rather than breast milk, your baby is more likely to suffer from gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, respiratory, urinary, gut and ear infections, asthma, pneumonia, diabetes, obesity, leukaemia and a low IQ. Anna Burbidge, a spokesperson for La Leche League, quoted a recent Unicef survey saying that a baby will be more likely to be hospitalised during its first year if not exclusively breast-fed for the first six months.

No wonder so many mothers, struggling to teach their baby to breast-feed in its first week of hungry, bawling, weight-losing life, are so scared. They would do anything to avoid the drop of formula milk that would ruin their babies’ chances of getting into Oxbridge and might be tantamount to infanticide.

Breast-feeding has become one of the ‘halo’ achievements a woman longs to add to her collection of lifetime virtues — along with not having an epidural, only eating organic, getting a 2.1, passing the driving test first go and only marrying once.

But it’s the middle of the night, and the baby is screaming because it can’t ‘latch on’, and the mother is crying and the husband is desperate, so they ring the breast-feeding counsellor, who says, ‘You will get the hang of it… keep persevering… remember, nose to nipple… whatever you do, don’t give formula…’ It doesn’t work. And downstairs there’s a carton of formula milk given as a promotion to pregnant mothers by a wicked corporation.

The weird thing is that many breast-feeding counsellors were themselves bottle-fed as babies, but have nonetheless gone on to live long, healthy lives, with a rewarding career. Can formula milk really be that bad, then? In the 1960s and ’70s, bottle-feeding was the norm: mothers were routinely given an injection after giving birth to ‘stop the milk’ and maternity wards contained boxes of bottles and formula. That, to the current breast-feeding mafia, is a vision of hell: a dystopian scenario in which thousands of innocent babies were force-fed on processed skimmed cow’s milk and denied the vital enzymes and antibodies with which to fight off the diseases life would throw at them. How could anyone do that to a baby? Emotions run high. And once I mention the person I’m about to mention, they’ll run even higher. Breast-feeding counsellors all over the country will clutch their foreheads. This person gets far too much publicity already and has somehow got on to the celebrity new mothers circuit. How dare she?

She is Clare Byam-Cook, loathed by NCT breast-feeding counsellors and adored by countless mothers she’s rescued from baby-feeding misery. Kate Winslet swears by her. Richard Curtis and Emma Freud ‘give’ a visit from Clare (£140 an hour) as a present to friends of theirs who have just had a baby. There are long vitriolic threads about her on Mumsnet, ranting about how dreadful she is.

Her supposed crimes? Well, there are a few. She has a posh voice and a double-barrelled surname, and is not a qualified lactation consultant but instead a trained nurse and midwife. Her latest DVD is entitled Breastfeeding Without Tears, not a rose-tinted name such as The Joy of Breastfeeding. She believes that the currently favoured ‘nose-to-nipple’ method simply doesn’t work. If you hold your baby’s nose to your nipple, waiting for it to open its mouth wide and clamp on, you may wait for eternity. Clare suggests the mouth-to-nipple, ‘shape-and-shove’ method, which works. (Shape and shove. You can imagine it.)

Most shocking of all, her book contains this sentence: ‘If everything is going wrong, and you and your baby are permanently in tears; if your husband has started finding excuses to stay away from home, it is probably best to give up the whole idea and restore peace and calm to the household — even if it means giving a bottle!’ The exclamation mark acknowledges the heretical nature of that suggestion. A bottle! But she believes it:

Breast milk is wonderful stuff, and all mothers owe it to their baby at least to have a go at breast-feeding. But a study I’ve read suggests that giving a baby formula can actually make its immunities stronger: the gut learns early on to tolerate different things. And bottle-fed babies do not grow up fat, ill or stupid.

When I visited Clare, she brought out an exhibit: a silver nipple shield, 200 years old, which proves that mothers have had trouble breast-feeding for a long time — hence the village wet nurse. Clare’s other firm belief is that some mothers are good milk producers, while others aren’t — in the same way that not all cows are good milk producers. ‘It’s nonsense that everyone has enough milk,’ she said. The La Leche League says only 3 per cent of mothers are not able to produce enough. In Clare’s experience, it’s far more.

Guilt has swamped the whole subject, ruining the experience of new motherhood. Beatific public breast-feeding does not help. Remember the fuss last year when a mother was asked to cover up with a napkin while breast-feeding in Claridge’s? Outraged mothers held a feed-in outside the hotel.

Then there are the breast-feeding selfies posted by celebrities like supermodel Gisele, nursing while assistants attend to her hair, make-up and nails. A worn-out mother, already anxious about a baby who cannot latch on, is hardly comforted by such images.

So enshrined is the supremacy of breast that a recent celebrity client of Clare’s was terrified at the idea of giving a bottle, not so much because of the health implications as because of the dread of being seen in Hello! with a bottle of formula sticking out of the pushchair. Worse than Coca-Cola, in today’s increasingly fanatical world.