21 Mar

Media manages to shut Jamie Oliver up over breastfeeding. Nice one.

As soon as Jamie Oliver opened his mouth, it was open season for bashing the breastfeeding supporters once again. To be fair, his choice of words was poor. ‘It’s easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free,’ he said. Well, it’s certainly free.

Cue a whole cornucopia of articles arguing the rest of those points, largely from journalists who experienced a variety of difficulties in feeding their own babies, most of whom seem to be using this most inappropriate platform to debrief their feelings of guilt and anger and disappointment.

The typical argument goes something like this:

He’s a man. How dare he stand up for women?
It’s not even true. How dare he say that breastfeeding is a good thing? Lots of women can’t do it. I couldn’t do it.
Breastfeeding support is all about pressuring you to continue. All my friends said so too.

This argument is generally concluded with either “I actually fed my baby for 18 months but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t;” or “I gave my baby formula and she’s fine and I’m fine so shut up.”

And this is how journalists manage to perpetuate the social and cultural difficulty of breastfeeding. I have no problem with them reminding us that breastfeeding can be hard; this is supported by experience and by evidence. The sadly now-discontinued Infant Feeding Survey showed in 2010 the drop-off rate from around 80% to around 55% of mothers breastfeeding their babies by six weeks, and 34% at six months (none of this is exclusive breastfeeding, just a baby getting any breastmilk at all). The 2005 survey showed that 90% of the mothers who stopped by six weeks, had planned to breastfeed for longer. This is the statistic that we should be shouting about, because this represents all that guilt and anger and disappointment.

We need to stop setting up straw man arguments like the Smug Self-Righteous Lactivist, and ask why councils are closing down breastfeeding support services run by highly-trained breastfeeding counsellors and attended by huge numbers of mothers. To take one example, 17% of all new mothers attended the Hampshire drop-ins, and 98% of them would recommend the service to others. This doesn’t speak of pushy, pressurising, “well-meaning” (translation: “ineffectual”) supporters who spout about “breast is best” and insist you carry on no matter what.

Generally speaking, breastfeeding counsellors are trained to listen and support women (and sometimes men); to give them a safe space to figure out what they want to do and how they want to do it; and to share information to help with that decision making. Breastfeeding counsellors don’t use words like “easy” and “convenient,” mainly because their experience is of working every single day with women who are not finding it easy or convenient. Nor do they use such phrases as “breast is best,” since they are well aware that parents tend not to make feeding decisions on the basis of evidence about nutrition. No, parents make decisions on the basis of what’s happening to them at the time. Telling a struggling mother to continue doing something that is making her miserable, because it is best for her child, is contrary to the philosophies and the training of all the UK breastfeeding support organisations.

Yes, Jamie oversimplified breastfeeding in his statement on the radio, but that was a droplet compared with the oversimplification of the state of breastfeeding that followed, media-wide. Well done for enabling a backlash that prevented someone speaking out for supporting women.