There is a growing movement of vociferous breastfeeding skeptics, more organised and insidious than the usual lone voices of disappointed, angry, grieving women whose breastfeeding experience was not what they had hoped for. I have ignored it for long enough, but they now seem to be everywhere I look, and their words are dangerous and damaging.
As is so often the case, this “backlash” arises from one sad incident that happened to one articulate and privileged woman whose baby failed to thrive in circumstances where, if I understand it correctly, no baby could have thrived. I will refrain on commenting on a situation about which I know very little, as any well-trained and mother-centred breastfeeding supporter should. But this movement has easily, inevitably snowballed, gathering followers from that huge group of women who have been failed by society at a most vulnerable time.
This is a group of parents who are so upset that breastfeeding did not work for them, that they would prefer it not to work for anybody. Rather than campaign for better support and a more breastfeeding-friendly society, they present breastfeeding as an unnecessary choice, that mothers would be better off without. As with much of the anti-breastfeeding literature, we see the people who offer breastfeeding support portrayed as cruel, evangelical bullies and the well-evidenced disadvantages of formula milk downplayed.
In the past decade, I have written this again and again: we do not need to divide mothers and babies into the false categories of Breastfeeding and Formula Feeding. The first rule of infant feeding is to feed the baby, but “fed” is only best if “not fed” is the only alternative. And with better knowledge about breastfeeding and a more supportive environment, not fed should not happen. A woman with the confidence to trust her own instincts does not restrict feeds just because she has been told her baby’s stomach capacity is small; a well-informed woman who wishes to breastfeed understands that frequent feeding is what builds up a milk supply, and the delightful contents of every nappy can reassure her that this is happening; an educated health professional can support her with this knowledge.
Those key elements, maternal instinct and good information, slip through the cracks. And why do they slip through the cracks? Because in western society we believe, in the face of the evidence, that breastfeeding does not work. And why do we believe that it does not work? Because the voices of anger and disappointment are louder than the voices of women who just got on with it because it was no big deal.
There is no money in breastfeeding that works, unless you count the savings made in better overall health outcomes (and families who don’t have to shell out for formula): if anyone was really counting that, the governments of the western world would be investing in breastfeeding support and promoting a society that is truly supportive of breastfeeding mothers. Instead we have one where vitamins are marketed to them in case their milk isn’t good enough. One where lanolin cream is advertised for when their nipples hurt, as if this were inevitable. One where babies are expected not to inconvenience their mothers by requiring to be fed and to be held. One where qualified doctors can flatly deny science and continue to speak with the authority granted by their white coat.
It is a scientific fallacy to believe that cows milk, modified in a factory and dried into a powder, is better for human babies simply because it is sometimes more readily available. And it is a fallacy of privilege to believe that it is always readily available. It is not uncommon even in the UK for parents using formula not to follow the guidelines when making it up: too much powder (to make the baby grow), too little powder (to make the pack last longer), or water that is not hot enough to kill the bacteria (because it’s inconvenient, or they just don’t know, or they haven’t got a kettle). An 800 g tub of a popular formula costs £12.99 and would last roughly ten days for a newborn and five days at six months, if you feed according to the instructions on the side of the pack. Babies need breastmilk or a suitable formula until they are a year old. Breastfeeding support is free at the point of access. So tell me which of these is the choice of the privileged family?
Perhaps it is only the affluent and educated who can afford the privilege of lashing out at the passionate but inadequately funded network of people who could have helped them, and of missing the big picture of what is wrong in a world that let them down so badly.