A NEW poll by Public Health England claims fewer than half of new mothers breastfeed their infants after the first two months. I can’t say I’m in the least bit surprised; I tried with four and wish I’d spared them the trauma of me trying to save face with midwives and peers.

We’re constantly told “breast is best”. I think that needs to come with a triple underscored “for some people”. When I see that familiar mantra, it’s clear they’re equating “natural” with “good”’ and naturally mothers want to do “good” by their children. But I’m not sure embracing it as a panacea in a complex modern society is as helpful as it claims to be. Maybe if we didn’t put such pressure on mothers to go au naturale, they wouldn’t beat themselves up when they chose bottles or give up. Of course it’s wonderful and natural – that’s not news. But natural isn’t necessarily always best if it makes everyone involved miserable.

There’s a pervasive notion breastfeeding is something every woman can and would want to do. And because it’s what we’re designed for, people assume “easy”. “Why aren’t they all doing it? Don’t they know nothing compares to breast milk? What a bad mother.”

Take it from someone who’s tried, failed, tried again, failed again, tried once more and then had a baby with a milk allergy; feeding by yourself can be gruelling, and frankly, bloody painful. As well as the physical discomfort, it can be so emotionally draining to be constantly scrutinised (however well meant) for what goes in your child’s mouth. For fear of shortchanging our children’s health and disapproving comments , many push past the boundaries of all logic, hoping through willpower alone it will all magically come together. Trying to do it with postnatal depression and twins is a recipe for disaster, but I was still told to try. I wish I’d had the confidence to say “this is ridiculous” sooner. I wish that each time I was asked my plans and said “formula feeding”, that I’d spoken up and curtailed the unwelcome pep talk that made me doubt my decision.

No amount of desire to do it can prepare you for the reality. It looks so simple – instant, convenient, no need for expensive equipment – all obfuscates how challenging breastfeeding can be for many. We sing its praises so loudly that women are left utterly unprepared for any of the complexities that could make it unworkable or even impossible, and still unable to make a choice uncontested by others. All the will in the world won’t make that baby latch, or your milk come in or your child suck if some or all of those things don’t happen as planned.

What should be a personal choice – and frankly no one else’s damn business – has become the barometer by which we measure good mothering.

Ask anyone who’s chosen formula, either through preference or complication, and she’ll likely have had some run in with the well-intentioned “lactivists”, in maternity wards and playgroups, even from strangers in the street. It starts early. I’d just had my eldest, and had decided I’d give breastfeeding a go, but wouldn’t lose sleep if I couldn’t. I had no idea that wouldn’t be such a simple choice. I never anticipated the pressure I’d be put under to feed naturally, and just how quickly it would start – during the first moments with my newborn. I didn’t expect my ethics to be called into question as an opening salvo to motherhood.

AFTER a 29-hour first labour with a back-to-front baby, I was ready to collapse. All I wanted to do was feed my daughter and sleep. I knew my milk wasn’t in yet, but before I could give her a bottle, a lactation consultant was manhandling my boob, trying to force it into my uncooperative child’s mouth. I was in pain and she was hungry – a bottle was a simple solution. I didn’t expect my simple request to be met with such pushback.

And it didn’t stop at the hospital either. The community midwives and health visitors all encouraged me to persevere, to keep going even though it hurt, and God, did I give it a good old college try, but it just didn’t work. My baby would fuss and she never managed to get enough to feel sated. Hungry babies ges frantic, and frantic babies and tired mothers aren’t the best combination for success. In fact, it’s one of the worst foundations to try and build a partnership on, and that’s what breastfeeding is. It requires the effort of two. No amount of advice or health campaigning can make it work for everyone.

Babies aren’t the best communicators – you can’t coach them or explain what they need to do. This is what led me to call my father-in-law at 2am, with mastitis and cracked nipples, in tears. He had to get out of bed, go to the 24- hour Tesco for formula and shotgun it to our house so my child could eat. Whilst saving the day, he got a speeding ticket and three points on his licence. All because I didn’t feel like I could say “enough” and give up.

I’ll never forget the absolute relief at watching Heidi drain that first bottle. There was no fussing, no stress. She knew exactly what to do. She drank, yawned and fell asleep, and it was like witnessing magic in action. At that point I knew formula feeding was for us – not just me, but both of us. It was a decision for our entire family, yet one I was talked out of twice more in the name of healthcare statistics.

Women and babies aren’t statistics. What is ideal is often unattainable, and in parenting we could all do to remind ourselves of that. I think any woman who can manage two weeks is a hero. At least she tried – that’s often the best we can hope for in parenting, which is so often imperfect at best.