Eco Family Life. Right Here. Right Now. Be The Change.
It seems that not a month goes by without a national newspaper or magazine carrying an article about breastfeeding. And each and every time, there is something warm, wonderful and encouraging, and something sad, bad and infuriating. Often, and I’ve heard this from friends and relatives too, the ‘pressure to breastfeed’ is mentioned, and each and every time I do a double-take. Pressure to breastfeed?
In this article I argue that there is enormous pressure, from all around us, in many different forms, some more obvious than others, not to breastfeed.
Yes, being a mum is hard work. Incredibly, earth-shatteringly hard work. Breastfeeding is a huge effort, especially when even the slightest complication arises. It is without doubt one of the biggest commitments a human can make – to feed and nurture a child, unconditionally, on cue, round the clock, for as long as it takes. And so we mums need support, often so that we can get started in the beginning, and always so that we can see this commitment through. In the early weeks after birth we need support round the clock – someone to bring us drinks and snacks, and to make sure we’re comfy while feeding, that we get a chance to go to the loo before/during/after the baby falls asleep on us, and someone to get all the other stuff like housework and cooking done. If we have older children, we need support to make sure their physical and emotional needs are met too. Being mum means constantly giving and nurturing, and in order to sustain that, we need to be nurtured too. How often does that really, truly happen? Partners are expected to return to work very soon, with only two weeks’ paternity leave being the norm. Our partners’ and other immediate families’ attitudes towards and understanding of breastfeeding will also heavily influence how supportive they are. Other aspects of attachment parenting that can help establish and sustain a successful breastfeeding relationship, such as co-sleeping and babywearing, can also be undermined by lack of information, understanding and empathy. Without them, mum’s job is a whole lot harder than it needs to be.
Outside the home, the all-too-common lack of post-natal support in hospitals and from health visitors is a huge factor in the success of establishing and sustaining breastfeeding. Of course there are some wonderful stories of health professionals helping new mums to get started and to continue breastfeeding, but all too often I hear or read about a mum who was left struggling to feed her crying, hungry baby, or a mum who managed to feed but found it so painful she didn’t want to continue, and was offered no help with what was probably an easily-solved problem.
Then there is the very real and far-reaching lack of understanding about breastfeeding, and again this includes, though is not limited to, health professionals. It comes from friends and relatives too, but surely up-to-date knowledge and understanding on the vital topic of breastfeeding should be a given for Health Visitors and GPs? Apparently not! Suggesting to a mum who feels her baby isn’t getting enough milk that she ‘top him up’ with formula may lead to her milk supply dropping, for example, yet I have heard this as a first recommendation to so many mums, and those giving the advice have not even bothered to ask any further questions about how feeding is working first. Misdiagnosis of thrush and other infections is widespread, too, which only exacerbates pain and the associated feeding difficulties. As a mum who’s experienced her fair share of breastfeeding challenges in two years, I’ve met a dismal number of professionals who not only knew less than me on the subject but told me to do the exact opposite of what would really help.
Another, and even more insidious pressure not to breastfeed, comes from the way our whole ‘economy’-driven society is set up. Mums under financial and/or social pressure to return to work have to decide what that will mean for their breastfeeding relationship. Will they express and have someone else feed their child breast milk from a cup or bottle? Will they switch to formula, introducing this earlier than they would otherwise want to, so that their child gets used to it? There is also night feeding to consider. If a mum is expected to do a day’s work outside the home, how might she feel about night feeding, which is a serious commitment of time and energy?
There is also the all-round social pressure along the lines of ‘what will people think?’ Just the other day I heard two mums of eighteen-month olds talking about not wanting to ‘end up like one of those mums on the telly, feeding their giant children’. But breastfeeding is normal – for tiny babies and toddlers, and beyond. True child-led weaning means just that. Meeting a child’s biophysical and emotional needs, is normal. ‘People’ think it isn’t, but only because they don’t see it happening frequently enough. Perhaps times are changing in terms of breastfeeding tiny babies in public being seen as acceptable, but there are still many mums and their partners who don’t want to feed in public, and this challenge seems to increase exponentially with the age of the baby or child. Toddler and child breastfeeding is almost invisible in the public eye, and so has become unusual and something to mistrust, ridicule and fear.
Furthermore, the marketing and normalisation of formula, implies that it is there to be used, so, well, just use it like everyone else – it’s the thing to do! Even the sly marketing tack of saying ‘breast milk is best, but use our formula when you decide to stop feeding’ implies that it does the same job as breast milk in the baby’s body and is technically the same. But breast milk is just right for the child, and formula cannot come close in providing everything a baby or child needs. Not all its components or the ways in which it works are currently understood by scientists, so how can they hope to recreate them all? Formula was invented, over one hundred years ago, to save the lives of orphaned babies who had no alternative. This should have remained its role, but where there’s a product, there’s money to be made.
“Breastfeeding, it’s normal, it’s important; and it needs your support.” This was on a poster I saw online a while ago. If anyone reading this knows the source, or can send me a link to it, please let me know. The phrase has stuck with me – it says so much, so succinctly. Every time we feed in public, or in the company of friends, and every time we talk about breastfeeding, we are contributing to the normalisation of what really is normal. But it’s important, and it needs our support.