Is Breast Best? Cherry Healey Investigates

Tuesday 12 April 2011, 14:15

Cherry Healey Cherry Healey Presenter

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Filming my most recent programme for BBC Three has been full of surprises.

I hadn't realised quite how contentious the subject of breastfeeding is.

After I had my daughter I tried to breastfeed and ended up with mastitis - a breast infection - and was admitted into hospital.

I was quite defensive when I gave up breastfeeding. I made sure everyone knew that I'd been in hospital, that I'd had an infection and that I'd tried really, really hard.

This all stemmed from my guilt.

Presenter Cherry Healey

Whilst I was ill-informed about the mechanics of breastfeeding, I was well aware of the breast v bottle debate.

With slogans such as breast is best and research showing the benefits of breast milk, I felt that I had failed and potentially put my baby at risk.

I realised that I was incredibly ill-informed about how breastfeeding actually worked.

I wondered, was I alone or were other women also struggling with, as I had assumed, this easy and natural act?

I wanted to find out whether the guilt I felt at not succeeding was valid or unnecessary.

Is Breast Best? is part of the Bringing Up Britain season on BBC Three, which is all about young parents and their experiences.

Over the course of three months I spoke to a wide variety of people, all of whom felt passionately about this subject.

I quickly realised I had greatly underestimated how strongly people felt about the topic.

Breastfeeding pops up in the media fairly regularly but almost only with regards to the debate between breast vs bottle.

If our breastfeeding rates are to ever increase - they are one of the lowest in Europe - then it has got to be more visible.

I don't think I have ever seen a picture or footage of a woman breastfeeding on television or in a magazine. It is utterly bizarre.

I even met a woman who thought it was illegal, in the same way as indecent exposure, because she'd never seen it being done in public.

The first time I saw breastfeeding was when I was 26 and I didn't know where to look.

I felt embarrassed yet was confused by my reaction.

This was clearly a natural act yet I felt so uncomfortable.

Cherry Healey with a baby's bottle full of milk

Whilst making the film I met a group of teenagers who, like half of women and girls under 20, didn't want to give it a try.

For them, boobs are for one thing only: sex.

They admitted that they are greatly influenced by what the celebs are doing and they had never seen a famous person breastfeeding.

To them it was clearly not something to celebrate

And it wasn't just the teens that felt this way.

I also met older mums who felt so embarrassed at breastfeeding in public that they would find some ingenious ways to conceal it.

Whether we like it or not, the media has a huge influence on our cultural trends, and perhaps if breastfeeding was more visible on television it would begin to lose its social stigma?

However, while making the film I found that my feelings of guilt waned.

Sadly, I discovered that my experience was a very common one - I actually felt very reassured that many other women find breastfeeding really tricky.

I also realised that, even with the best will in the world, without support and information, women who encounter problems are often fighting a losing battle.

But there is good news. In the UK there is actually a huge amount of breastfeeding support available - if you know where to look. (A good starting point is the Bringing Up Britain help and advice page.)

One of the most prominent lessons I learnt whilst making this film is not to suffer in silence.

Previously, I had no idea that there were breastfeeding groups, help-lines, one-on-one support and websites that existed exclusively to help mums who are breastfeeding.

I also realised that if you can't breastfeed, for whatever reason, then feeling wracked with guilt isn't useful.

Most mums make the best decision they can with the information they have at the time - and so subsequent guilt isn't constructive - increased information is constructive.

I do believe that the best, most effective support comes from women sharing their experiences and learning from each other.

Plus, women often have very funny tales - leaking milk in meetings, spraying family members and cabbage leaves in bras - just to name a few.

Cherry Healey is the presenter of Is Breast Best? Cherry Healey Investigates.

Is Breast Best? is on Tuesday, 12 April, at 9pm on BBC Three.

Cherry took part in a live online question and answer session about breastfeeding with Dr Tricia Macnair during and after the show's first broadcast. You can read the Q&A at the BBC Three blog.

Is Breast Best? Cherry Healey Investigates is part of BBC Three's Bringing Up Britain Season.

Other programmes in the season include: The Gatwick Baby: Abandoned at Birth, Misbehaving Mums to Be, So What if My Baby is Born Like Me?, Fast Food Baby and Meet The Multiples.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    When I had my first child, I found that I was unable to breastfeed, no matter how hard I tried. I was in a car accident as a child where I sustained injuries to my chest - apparently when they fixed the limited damage, my milk ducts got damaged. After I had my daughter, I was able to develop milk but it had no way to come out - ouch! I was wracked with guilt, especially since well-meaning friends and relatives kept inadvertently blaming it on me - I wasn't eating right, or using the right pump. Complete strangers would walk up to me when I was in public bottle-feeding my baby to inform me that I was a bad mom, or ignorant, etc. It was extremely hurtful and although I've come a long way, I probably haven't gotten over the guilt completely. I am now 7 months pregnant with my second child, and when people ask me if I plan to breastfeed, I just say no, with no explanation or excuses unless I feel they are warranted. If I, as a woman, have the right to choose to abort or deliver my child, I most certainly have the right to choose what I do with my breasts. Regardless of whether the reasons are medical or just personal preference. And the decision is no one's business but my own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I gave birth to my first child 27 months ago, i struggled with breastfeeding. through my pregnancy midwives were encouraging breastfeeding it seemed the natural best option for my child. when it came down to it i was in agony. my nipple was bleeding and cracked before i left the hospital. i tried and persevered for about a month. when i finally gave up i felt like a failure. i'd had midwives, support workers trying to help but nothing worked.

    13months later i gave birth to my second child. i did exactly the same only this time it worked I DID IT.. WE DID IT! im so glad i tried again. it is the most worthwhile thing ive ever done. i got the infections i had the leaky boobs but it is so worth it.
    my first child was a biter but i tried. my second took to like a duck to water

    my advise. get help early and persevere on the other hand know when to give in and just enjoy being a mummy. Dont knock it until you try it x x x

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    hi all i agree breast is best , but i could not breast feed due to my daughter being born with pieres roban, and had no swallow reflex at the star and a cleft pallet, so neither could i bottle feed, and having to watch someone else other than me and my husband feed her was heartbreaking however we trained to to do tube feeding and she had both breast milk from me exspressing and bottle milk if there was non at hand, but i dont think it affected our bond at all, xxx

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I have twins, one of who latched on & fed well but the other never latched on & was express fed with a bottle! Yet it's the bottle fed twin who I have the stronger bond with! Which of course leads me to the conclusion that the bonding story is a myth!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It really annoys me when woman say bottle fed babies arnt as close as breast fed makes me really cross and completely identify with cherry.

    I fed my little girl from Day one but she wouldnt latch - after 2 days I was told she had a tongue tie and was struggling with feeding, The only advice i was given was to persevere until the tongue tie operation (a week away) which I did - 3 days later my baby was admitted to hospital with 11% weight loss. They found out then that she had a 90% tongue tie so couldnt feed - even though she was trying. The midwife had me on syringes and had her lapping out of a cup for 3 days but she was still losing weight so I had to use a bottle. Ever since I gave her a bottle she thrived and put on weight.

    I am very close to my little girl and she is a very healthy, happy little girl.

    I did feel guily alot - mainly down to the midwifes and health professionals who made you feel useless for not feeding. Obviously BF is best for baby however people should not judge anyone for the choice they make for their child.


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