It’s that time of year again. My heart sinks as I see the posts publicising National Breastfeeding Celebration week. Here we go again: as if discussions of infant feeding weren’t always stressful enough now we have a whole week where people will be actively celebrating breastfeeding, so the arguments and hurt will ramp up 100%.
And the trouble is that the people celebrating breastfeeding and the people feeling hurt and upset that it is being celebrated so often seem to be coming at the issue from vastly different angles. So different that you have to almost step through the looking glass sometimes to try to understand each point of view. Is it possible that as someone who has both formula fed and breastfed, and someone who leads a group of over 2,000 mums on Facebook, I have a unique insight into both sides of the coin? No, probably not, because like everyone else I have my own biases and my own beliefs and my own priorities. But I would like to try to explain here why I WILL be celebrating breastfeeding, even though I wish I didn’t need to.
The problem so often is that social media reaches everyone – that is fantastic and problematic. There you are proudly posting your breastfeeding selfie on Facebook so all your friends can say how well you are doing and so your mother-in-law can see and can just keep her ridiculous ideas to herself about how “baby should be on a bottle by now”. Trouble is, your friend will also see, and she has just switched to formula because her health visitor has led her to believe that her supply is not good enough, and breastfeeding support services have been cut in her area. She doesn’t realise that her HV is poorly trained and that better support should be available. She thinks she has made a necessary choice because her body “couldn’t” feed her baby. And now seeing your photo and the reaction of your friends, she feels awful. Another formula feeding mum wracked with guilt, who will express anger at “celebrate breastfeeding” when not everyone can do it.
When we celebrate breastfeeding I hope we can be mindful of the messages that we share. And I hope that we can remember that there are complex reasons why women choose not to breastfeed, including previous sexual abuse and eating disorders *. There are also very simple reasons: some mothers just do not want to breastfeed. They just don’t want to. I know that sounds crazy to you but not everyone is the same. Not everyone lives the same life. And we need to be mindful of that.
* – and there are 101 other reasons why parents may choose to or feel forced into using formula. I know many of these. You will have your own. And the important thing is this: you do not need to justify yourself to me or to anyone else.
However, neither do I think that it is helpful to deny or turn a blind eye to the importance of breastfeeding in our culture and for public health. We have to treat women like adults and trust that they can cope with being given factual information, as long as it is given alongside information about support. Posters stating that “breastfeeding is best for your baby” are singularly unhelpful. Posters stating that “breastfeeding can help you and your baby to……. [benefits listed] and you can access breastfeeding support here [local/national support]” would be far better.
So what messages will I be celebrating next week under the #celebratebreastfeeding hashtag? Here are the things that I think we DO need to celebrate:
- Breastfeeding provides pain relief, infection control and comfort to sick children
This is at the top of my list as it is a key message of my #hospitalbreastfeeding campaign. To whom should this message be aimed? At healthcare professionals. I see little benefit in forcing this message upon the parents of seriously ill children who are already terrified, exhausted and unhappy. But I see huge benefit in stressing this message to paediatricians and children’s nurses, who are often unaware that breastfeeding is anything more than optimum nutrition. So many more sick children could be breastfed if support on paediatrics and in children’s hospitals was improved, and I do absolutely mean SUPPORT, not meaningless posters telling parents that it’s “best”. For more information, if you are a healthcare professional, please visit my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/hospitalbreastfeeding/
- The Equality Act 2010
The right to breastfeed your baby ANYWHERE that you and your baby can safely and legally be is protected in law (see www.maternityaction.org.uk) and you do not have to “cover up” or move if asked. This absolutely needs to be celebrated. So few breastfeeding mothers receive any kind of negative feedback when they feed outside of their home, but those who do often make the headlines and this makes new mothers feel as though they will face problems. Being backed by the law is not enough, women need to feel as though they will be actively supported, but having the law on our side is an excellent start. This is a message that needs to be made clear to business owners and to the general public: being uncomfortable seeing a breastfeeding mother is your problem, not hers.
- What is Possible and Achievable
The benefits of breastfeeding and breastmilk are part of a spectrum of parenting and infant care, and it does not have to be all or nothing. The idea of there being “sides” in a “debate” is so incredibly unhelpful (and fuelled by formula companies of course). The things I want to celebrate are skin-to-skin, paced & responsive bottle feeding, donor breastmilk, lactation aids, combi- or “mixed” feeding, expressed breastmilk as well as exclusive feeding at the breast. These things are ALL important, all beneficial and should all be celebrated and encouraged.
- The Amazing things we CAN do
I really want to celebrate the lesser known information about breastfeeding, the things that don’t get talked about because a lot of the time it’s too stressful to talk about infant feeding at all let alone the more unusual cases. Did you know that it is possible for a woman to relactate after her milk supply has reduced or gone? So a mother who regrets a move to formula feeding can, with a lot of support, go back to breastfeeding. Did you know that it is possible for women to lactate when they haven’t had a baby? So again, with a lot of support, a woman can breastfeed a baby that she has adopted. Did you know that lactation aids can help a woman to feed a child at her breast even when surgery or other difficulties mean that her breasts cannot produce milk? These are things I want to celebrate – I want to shout them from the rooftops!
- Factual Information
Finally I would like to celebrate the resources that exist to provide those who use formula with independent, evidence-based information to help them to feed their children. First Steps Nutrition has extensive information about infant milks, what is fact, what is marketing fiction and the things you need to know when buying milk for your child. In a world where the vast majority of information about infant feeding comes to healthcare professionals from seminars and workshops sponsored by formula companies, such an independent resource is absolutely to be celebrated.
I have written extensively about infant feeding, about how we all have our own “truths” and experiences and we do not need to trample on others to maintain what we know to be right for our families. About how we all need to stand together against the way that infant feeding is being undermined in the UK, all of us, because it affects us all. When writing notes for this post I ended up with ideas for about four posts in one and I have already waffled on for long enough. So let me end by saying this: there are indeed “sides” to this but it is not the sides you might think. I don’t see “breastfeeding” mums and “formula feeding” mums. I see people who want to support each other, and people who want to bring each other down. I see people who want to share helpful, factual information, and people who want to appeal to emotions and sweep informed choice under the carpet. I see those struggling to maintain their integrity in a difficult world and I see those who refuse to understand that marketing works and that corporate sponsorship is undermining families at every turn. How you feed your child does not dictate which of any of these “sides” you are on.
I really look forward to the day when a week for Celebrating Breastfeeding is not required. To the day when it makes no more sense to celebrate breastfeeding than it does to celebrate napping or playing or winding or bathing. A day when I know for certain that any mother I see using a bottle is doing so because she has made an informed choice to feed her baby with formula or expressed breastmilk, and she is happy about that choice and she has been supported. But to quote from Lord of the Rings “It is not this day”. Today parents are not well supported. Today independent, factual information is buried under a mound of marketing rubbish. Today healthcare professionals are not being enabled to help mothers to feed in the way that they want to. Today there is guilt and pain and sadness but there is not investment or understanding or help. There are people and organisations who are working tirelessly to change this situation. They don’t want you to feel guilty. They don’t want you to feel like part of a “debate” or a “row” or a “war”. They want you to be able to look after your children in the way that YOU want to, with all of the information to hand and with supportive, empathic people by your side.
And that is something we should celebrate.