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Friday, 6 July 2012

United we stand in breastfeeding grief – putting an end to 'breast vs. bottle'

Image source
It is our culture that makes breastfeeding difficult – not women or their bodies. It is our society that pits mothers against each other and rallies within us an insatiable need to defend ourselves.

What would happen if instead, women united – and refused to let the patriarchy pull us apart?

Where it begins

Announcing my first pregnancy – an unplanned surprise – a friend asked, "Will you breast or bottle feed?" My mouth gaped open.  All of a sudden, words were whizzing through my head that had never before entered my vocabulary: lactation, and breastmilk and nipple

Rarely – if ever – had I seen anyone breastfeeding, other than a fleeting glimpse here or there. The only people close to me who had breastfed had done so for token amounts of time, and usually tucked away in another room.

In hospital where my baby was born, I was required to keep a log of her breastfeeds: I was to note the start and end times of a breastfeed, and to rate the baby's 'quality of suck' on a scale from 1 to 6.

In an exhausted post-birth haze, how on earth was I supposed to ascertain the quality of her suck? Based on what – a vacuum cleaner? And what, exactly, would be my frame of reference as a first time mother? 

There began my very difficult journey into breastfeeding – and motherhood.

In those challenging early months, everywhere I turned, the answer to every concern seemed to be a single answer: wean.

Despite learning there was nothing wrong with my milk supply, despite knowing that weaning would exacerbate my mastitis rather than fix it, despite my obviously thriving breastfed baby, despite stating repeatedly that I wanted to breastfeed, the answer to my pleas for help always seemed to be one thing: put her on the bottle.

If you've read a few of my other posts, you'll know it's pretty clear that now, five years on, I'm a  fairly vocal breastfeeding advocate. A passionate breastfeeding mother. I believe that physiologically, there is little need for commercially available infant formula – because for the most part, breastfeeding works just fine, and there are enough lactating women in the world to supply an abundance of breastmilk to those mothers in genuine need. 

I believe that almost all women want to breastfeed. But, I believe that the reasons that so many don't are due to overwhelming cultural roadblocks.

So when I read this post from the Alpha Parent, I was saddened. Taking on a perspective bound to inflame, the author has asserted that sometimes despite the best of breastfeeding advice, some women simply make "excuses" to wean because they "can't be bothered."
"This leads me to the  logical conclusion that they already made up their mind to stop breastfeeding  because they can't be bothered. And the reasons they give are mere excuses used to mask their laziness."
Blaming mothers? For a society that lets them down? So unfair, and so inaccurate. All this does is add fuel to the 'breast versus bottle debate' – a social paradigm that I'm sure mothers all over the world wish desperately to end.

Breastfeeding hurdles are culturally based

recent survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has shown that the most commonly cited reasons for not breastfeeding are:
  1. 'Previously unsuccessful experience'
  2. 'So partner could share feeding'
  3. 'The belief that formula is as good as breastmilk'
None of these, to me, sound like excuses. They sound like valid responses based on a culture that persuasively and subliminally promotes bottle-feeding. As Amy Gates says in her article Booby Traps Set Breastfeeding Moms Up For Failure:
"Yet while a lot of people give lip service to the importance of breastfeeding, there isn’t a lot of support for women once they make the decision to breastfeed. In fact, our society offers very little support to breastfeeding moms and often sabotages breastfeeding altogether."
Whether or not a woman's problems are breastfeeding based, the cultural answer is usually this: wean. Mastitis? Wean. Crying baby? Wean. Sleep deprivation? Wean. Exhaustion? Wean. Going back to work? Wean. This list goes on.

Doctors, child health nurses, midwives, obstetricians and paediatricians often know very little factual information about breastfeeding; their advice is often antiquated, ill-informed or just plain biased toward formula.

Additionally, if a mother chooses to continue breastfeeding contrary to this advice to bottle-feed, she often faces a kind of well-you-made-your-bed-so-now-you-can-lie-in-it mentality.

Lets look at those above three reasons in a little more detail:
  • 'Previously unsuccessful experience'
A little ambiguous but essentially, breastfeeding didn't work out before, so the mother believes it either won't work this time, and just wants to avoid the pain of previous experiences by not repeating them. I can understand this – I think we all could! Once bitten twice shy, right?

But has she been given adequate support to work through her past trauma? Has she debriefed her birth? Has she had her grief or pain or regret validated? Has she been helped to understand how her milk supply is maintained? Has she been given the correct answers to her past queries? Has she had the right information given to her so she may find breastfeeding easier this time around?

Or has she been placated with: "don't worry, you can't tell the difference between adults who were breast or bottle fed."
  • 'So partner could share feeding'
Many new parents believe that if the father doesn't get to share feeding the infant, he is somehow missing out on opportunity to bond with the baby. This is a well-meaning but misguided premise. 

There are plenty of other ways for a father to bond with the baby: skin-to-skin contact, bathing, wearing baby in a sling, holding baby after breastfeeds or rocking the baby to sleep. Sleeping alongside the baby who is nestled protectively into the curl of mama's body, falling asleep to the sweet scent of a milky-breathed baby is a sublime way for a family to bond together.

Additionally, many mothers are told that they need the father to share feeding so she may get some rest. This sounds like a wonderful idea in theory - but in practice, a baby needs to be frequently at his mothers breast; to stimulate her milk supply, for his emotional comfort and security. There are countless other ways for a mother to get the rest she needs in those early weeks: co-sleeping, having others take care of the housework and cooking, having her partner bathe the baby whilst she takes a relaxing shower...

But what's important to remember is this: it is perfectly natural for the baby to bond to her mother only in the early weeks and months. Actually, it's essential for survival. The infant is instinctively driven to form a secure attachment with her mother in order to be kept safe from predators. 

Fathers should be reassured that their attachment with the baby will come a little later, and in their own unique and rewarding way.
  • 'The belief that formula is "as good as" breastmilk'
Despite global 'breast is best' campaigns, there is still a pervasive belief that formula is equivalent to, or 'almost as good as' breastmilk.

When this is so very incorrect, how is this still happening?

The answer is simple: because what isn't promoted so openly is that breast isn't best - it's normal – but formula feeding is a health risk.

Breastfeeding isn't anything extra-special or gold-plated – it is simply the biological standard, the infant feeding 'method' that allows the child the best chance to grow and develop in the way his genes and environment dictate. Breastfeeding won't guarantee a child with an IQ of 180 and an immune system to rival Superman.

Formula feeding, however, carries risks to a developing human's immunological, physical and intellectual health. 

But that isn't the overwhelming campaign header – because it could potentially upset millions of people.

Additionally, formula companies are very skilled in their marketing techniques. Infant formula companies stand to loose billions of dollars worldwide if women actually took back breastfeeding.

All of the above are real cultural breastfeeding roadblocks that mothers face every single day.

Breastfeeding is instinctively driven

On a basic biological level, not breastfeeding is completely maladaptive. To deny our young our milk is to sentence our offspring to certain death. Rarely would another healthy mammal simply choose not to nurse their young.

There is some evidence to suggest that lack of breastfeeding evokes within the mother an unconscious state of mourning; in other words, by not lactating or lactating only for a short time following the pregnancy, her body thinks her baby has died. In an article by the Scientific American, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup is quoted:
"Opting not to breastfeed precludes and/or brings all of the processes involved in lactation to a halt. For most of human evolution the absence or early cessation of breastfeeding would have been occasioned by miscarriage, loss, or death of a child. We contend, therefore, that at the level of her basic biology a mother’s decision to bottle feed unknowingly simulates child loss."
At birth, 96% of mothers initiate breastfeeding. But by 3 months of age, only 39% of infants are still exclusively breastfed. (Source)

If almost every single mother initiates breastfeeding – why does that figure drop so dramatically within weeks?

On these points alone, I would argue that all women inherently want to breastfeed.

Where culture lets women down

So if breastfeeding is so normal and instinctive for both baby and mother – why are our breastfeeding rates so suboptimal? Why are women often falsely blaming their bodies or their babies?

The answer is unlikely to be spoken in a mother's group setting – but is the root of the problem nonetheless: Because our society devalues women – and therefore, everything that women can inherently do. 

Sex is held in higher esteem than nurturance: breasts are sex objects before their actual primary function. Women's innate abilities are overwhelmingly doubted and our instincts overridden – pretty much everything we're told about our reproductive abilities goes against how we feel on a biological level:
  • We are to submit our pregnancies and births to medical science or fear public ridicule
  • We are to deny all of our instinctive desires to hold, nurture and keep our baby close lest we raise a demanding, unruly child who will never sleep independently. 
  • Women are still criticised for breastfeeding in public. 
  • Maternity leave is pitiful, making continued breastfeeding more difficult for working mothers. 
  • 'Sleeping through the night' is the benchmark of a good parent – despite the fact that infant night waking (and frequent breastfeeding) is normal – and actually desirable – in healthy human young. 
  • Women are often alone in a house for hours with their infants; expected to 'cope' and tend house despite having only just given birth.
  • Baby care is commonly represented – everywhere – by an image of a bottle or dummy (pacifier), both of these things designed specifically as substitutes for a mother's breast. 
  • The most popular baby care books enable bottle feeding in one way or another.
This was the first hit when I did a Google image search for 'baby icons' – image source
The pressure to bottle feed is immense – and as herd animals, we're driven to fit with the crowd.

A woman's choice

Many women report that how she feeds her infant is her choice, (which it is) and additionally, it is her right not to discuss (also true.)

But – this is almost impossible. Mothers discuss their baby's feeding habits everywhere; because as humans, we're social animals. In mothers groups, playgroups, doctors offices, visits with family. In the first few weeks and months, infant feeding and sleep are the most discussed topics because it is pretty much all an infant does.

Given the defense-inducing mainstream 'breast versus bottle' mentality, perhaps a mother protects herself with something socially acceptable –  ie. "I didn't have enough milk."

In one sense, women have a right to autonomy. In another, women deserve the truth in a culture absolutely brimming with myth.

However – women's choices aren't made in a vacuum: if she isn't breastfeeding, it is likely because of some very personal emotional upheaval. Whether or not she wants to work through that is her choice to make – but, she must be careful to not blame herself, make flippant excuses, or perpetuate myth – or take it out on those trying to help.

This is a point within the Alpha Parent's post with which I agree:
"The omnipresent abundance of excuses leads to ... a culture of 'failure acceptance'. Numerous studies have shown that "low expectancies of success are a liability in performing difficult tasks" (Brown. J et al). So with regard to breastfeeding, would-be mothers hear the excuses and consequently they view successful breastfeeding as near impossible. When they get pregnant they use the discourse of 'try' - they say they will 'try' to breastfeed, they'll 'give it a go'; they anticipate failure before they've even started breastfeeding because that's all they've heard from other women."
Perpetuating excuses does no one any favours – it just continues to paint breastfeeding as fraught with difficulty and peril, and maintains the status quo of low breastfeeding confidence. Mothers owe it to each other to be honest.

I acknowledge that breastfeeding advocates can suffer exhaustion; sometimes it feels like we are swimming against the tide. Breastfeeding advocates (and mothers) are often lone voices amongst uninformed health professionals, baby-care books, social media and mother-in-laws.

No matter what today's mother does, she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Mothers do the best they can with the information they have at the time – but the undeniable truth is that most easily accessible 'information' in the mainstream about breastfeeding is either misleading or just downright wrong. And this is letting mothers down.

For the sake of the majority of women who want to breastfeed but have been incorrectly told they 'can't' or 'shouldn't', breastfeeding advocates are trying to undo that – but we face a difficult task that that often includes criticism and accusations of 'making people feel guilty.'

If breastfeeding myths were dissolved, and breastfeeding was respected as normal – as in cultures where breastfeeding problems are basically non-existent – I imagine many women would find it much easier, and breastfeeding rates would naturally increase. Although there may still be women who choose not to – for whatever reason – at least those choices will be more adequately informed; as is their right.

Let us value ourselves as women – because that is what will ultimately make a positive change.

Peace and love to you. xo


  1. I can't believe you don't have any comments on here yet. What a huge undertaking to research and write this. Thank you.

    1. I'm so sorry I haven't responded yet, beth! Thank you for your kind words. The post did take me a while to get everything together, I hope it speaks to people. Kim xo

  2. This is brilliant. Thank you for writing this!

    1. You're welcome, Miranda. Thank you for commenting! Kim xo

  3. Your blog is my favorite thing on the internet! So eloquent and relevant. Thank you.