DISCLAIMER: I would like to make it ABSOLUTELY CRYSTAL CLEAR at this point that whilst I wholeheartedly support breastfeeding (and indeed advocate for it) this does not mean that I do not support the right of all Mothers/Parents to make their own infant feeding decision. This article is not intended to shame any woman who does not breast feed.
Jessica Valenti wrote this piece in The Daily recently. I totally agree with her sentiment that mothers shouldn’t be made to feel guilty. Breastfeeding is awesome and leads to much improved health outcomes both long and short term for Mothers and Babies. However, it’s also incredibly hard work and not everyone will be able to access support to breastfeed. Some women, will have issues that mean they are physically unable to breastfeed. For some women, particularly those with premature babies in NICU’s the act of pumping breast milk can be incredibly stressful, particularly with no baby physically demanding milk to stimulate production. I get that. For these and a whole host of other reasons, which include not being mean, arsey people, we shouldn’t be making any woman feel guilty about how she chooses to feed her baby.
I don’t have a problem with any of that. In fact I salute Valenti for talking honestly and frankly about the fact that breastfeeding is difficult, and requires support which is often lacking, and without that support many women stop breastfeeding which is a why a shockingly low number of women continue to breastfeed following initiation at birth – at 6 months of age in the UK less than 1% o women are still breastfeeding exclusively as per recommendations (Infant Feeding Survey, 2005) and across the world less than 40% of infants are breastfed (WHO Global Strategy).
Yes folks thats right- us evil breastfeeding mamas, the ones who go round, apparently harassing non breastfeeding mamas, make up such a majority that LESS THAN ONE PERCENT OF UK MOTHERS BREASTFEED TO 6 MONTHS. We aren’t some scary, self righteous majority, we are in fact an underfunded, under represented and socially harassed minority.
Anyway I’m digressing. My issue with Valenti’s piece is this statement :
“Thousands of studies have shown that breastfed babies are healthier on average than formula-fed babies — but no research has shown that it’s the breastfeeding that’s causing the better health. Moms who have the time and support to exclusively breastfeed, for example, may be more likely to support their children’s health in other ways. There simply is no proof that breast milk is the magical elixir so many of us believe it is.
“I never doubted that breastfeeding had myriad health benefits, so I was actually very surprised at what I found in the medical literature,” Wolf told me.
And it’s not just the science around breastfeeding that’s iffy — the social expectations and the dismissal of how hard nursing can be are also affecting women. “
I’m sorry, what? You know what, you can formula feed if you want to. You can claim that there are forces out there that shame you as a formula feeding mother. I’d like to argue that actually those same forces are busy shaming ALL mothers for all and any of their choices. But don’t you DARE to tell women and well, anyone reading for that matter, that the science around breastfeeding is iffy. Because really, it isn’t.
There isn’t some conspiracy where formula is secretly equal to breast milk, and nasty mean breastfeeding mamas (who make up less than 40% of the global mama populace) are lying so that poor formula feeding mamas feel bad. Breast milk is, scientifically speaking, better for babies health by dint of it being custom made to meet the specific needs of the baby it feeds. The reason breastfed babies are generally speaking healthier is because breast milk contains immunological factors specific to each baby which protect it from disease. Breast milk doesn’t require making up with water which may be unsanitary thus exposing babies to gastreointestinal issues. Breast milk doesn’t require careful making up to ensure it is the correct strength, meaning that many babies every year become ill due to simple human error. And breast milk, unlike formula milk is sterile.
That doesn’t mean that people should always HAVE to breastfeed. People should breastfeed if they are in the privileged position of being supported and able to do so, if they want to and that’s that. I don’t care HOW you feed your baby, I care if you’re supported in doing so. I care if you have full access to ACCURATE and valid information which enable you to make your choice. No one should be shamed for parenting decisions- we do the best we can, with what we have at the time, and perhaps with different circumstances we’d make different decisions.
But, for fucks sake, don’t you dare lie about breast milk (or formula milk for that matter) when you are a publicly visible and respected figure. Don’t you dare. Because you’re contributing directly to a culture which shames women and uses shit science to justify shit social attitudes.
*Please see the WHO Report “Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding” for more details.