What’s The Problem With Breastfeeding?
The other day I shared this article on Facebook.
The general point of the article was that a large study in Brazil spanning 30 years and all social classes found that children who breastfed for longer had higher IQ scores and went on to earn more in their careers. In Brazil at the time the study started, people of all social classes breastfed, so it wasn’t the case that the children who had been breastfed went on to achieve great things because they were already from a privileged background. That said, the authors of the study did concede that although the children who had been breastfed had gone on to be higher earners, they couldn’t say it was definitely the breastfeeding that had caused it, and not something else the breastfeeding mothers had done. Still, there is a correlation there: the longer a child is breastfed, the more they are likely to achieve in life.
When I posted this on Facebook, I thought it was great. In this country, breastfeeding is largely the preserve of the middle and upper classes; nobody really knows why working class women don’t breastfeed, but if studies like this are widely circulated they might allow women to re-think their options. Although it is scientific fact that breastfeeding is better than formula, a lot of women are not told this; they are not presented with anything resembling facts, and are merely asked if they’d like to try breastfeeding – all the while being offered free bottles of formula, given coupons for money off formula, bombarded with advertisements for formula.
Perhaps I was naive not to expect the tone of the comments my post received; most of them seemed to be from women who had not breastfed their babies, terribly offended that they were being made to look like bad mothers, that they were being judged, that this was being used as another stick with which to beat mothers who already feel they’ve failed their babies because they couldn’t breastfeed them.
Firstly, I take real issue with the whole “you can’t breastfeed” thing. My irritation is not directed at mothers who are told they don’t produce enough milk, that they need to supplement, but at healthcare professionals who tell them so. Everyone seems to forget that the human race survived for quite a long while before the invention of formula; how do people think we did that?
The way I see it, maternity wards are woefully underfunded and understaffed. I was in hospital for 2 weeks with S, during which time I saw the breastfeeding support lady twice, for less than ten minutes each time. I never saw her on the ward the rest of the time either, so can only assume she was part time – or was just besieged by paperwork, like everyone else. The only reason S and I succeeded with breastfeeding was because she was under the care of NICU, and one of their nurses seemed to make it her personal mission to help us. S was born with no suck/swallow response; her father told me from the beginning I’d never manage; I didn’t think I would be able to. The only reason we managed was because of this one woman, Kit, who told me repeatedly that yes, of course I could do it; it would just take time.
Once we came home from hospital, settled into a routine and got used to it all, I was horrified to discover that not every hospital had a Kit, and that others had not had a similar experience to mine. In fact, even in that same hospital, I’ve known women to be told they must supplement with formula, they are not producing enough milk, they are not able to breastfeed.
While I am sure that there are women out there who are not able to breastfeed, and there are women who are on medication and should not breastfeed – I do not accept that this makes up the majority of the population, or the human race simply would not have survived until the likes of Cow & Gate swooped in to save us all.
Some of the comments on that thread really worried me; one person said that formula was better for babies, because people have bad diets, so won’t produce milk as good as the stuff that comes in bottles and tins. If people think this, and nobody corrects them, of course breastfeeding rates will plummet. And then studies like this come out and people say “you’re making me feel bad because I didn’t breastfeed.”
Does that mean we should just not study the effects of breastfeeding? Or that scientists should look into it, but only report their findings if they’re not going to upset people?
Why are we not capable of looking at articles like this and saying “ok, well I didn’t breastfeed my first child, but I might consider it with the second” rather than “you’re calling me a failure and therefore should not ever mention the fact that breastfeeding is known to be better for babies than formula”?
Because it is a fact. There is hard evidence that breastfeeding is better for babies than formula. If it upsets you to read that because you’re one of the millions of women who formula fed their child, then I’m sorry to hear that. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop saying it.
This study found that babies who were breastfed had IQs that were typically four points higher than their formula-fed counterparts. Still, people have responded to the articles saying “my children were formula fed, and they’re all really clever.” Great, but since there is scientific evidence that breastfed babies statistically have a higher IQ, this is the same as saying “well, my parents hit me and I’m ok” or “I smoke and I don’t have lung cancer, therefore smoking does not cause lung cancer.”
I do not say any of this as a kind of one-upmanship or trying to say I’m better than anyone because I breastfed S. I say it because for expectant mothers deciding whether to breastfeed or not, shouldn’t they make an informed choice? And if they’re working class and from a less than privileged background, shouldn’t they know there is something they can do that won’t cost them a penny, but will help them to give their child the best start in life? Something that can level the playing field, at a time when everything seems terribly weighted in the favour of those with a bit of money? Isn’t that what we all want for our children?
Don’t say “don’t show me this because it makes me feel bad.” It’s not for anyone else to judge how you choose to parent your children, but the information should be out there, and it should be spread far and wide so that new mothers can make the choice.
Also, right now breastfeeding rates are so pitifully low that the government can get away with offering their crazy “we’ll give you some cash if you do it” schemes and little else. If more women decide to breastfeed, and the demand for support and assistance is there, eventually it will reach a critical mass where something will have to be done; they will have to offer training and support and advice and information universally. Studies like this can only help with that.
Let me be clear: I don’t care how you chose to feed your child, and in any case it doesn’t matter if I do, does it? What I care about is that information about breastfeeding is widely read so that more women can make an informed choice. I care that all new mums are offered all the help and support they need, and it’s not just pot luck as to who’s on shift while they’re on the postnatal ward. I care that the government should feel pressured into doing more to help women breastfeed if they want to. And I care that people don’t just assume something that comes in a bottle with a pretty label and nutritional information won’t be better for their child than what most women can naturally produce for free.
The Monkey Footed Mummy
Oh hurrah! I can not believe the anger over this study. I've been trying to say exactly what you just have although in a far less articulate way! Yay for mums who breastfeed that's fab and you are doing great 'go warrior'. And for those who feel bad, please don't assume you feeling bad is because we celebrate our breast feeding you should join us pat us on the back give us a high five instead of trying to discount and guilt us! On that same note hi five mums whether you nursed or made formula, hi five for coping through the night, hi five for loving your baby hi five mamas everywhere. We need to stop this tearing down of out sisters and start raising them up! I'm now dismounting my box of soap The Monkey Footed Mummy recently posted...How To Start An Allotment
I agree that 'breast is best' and breast fed both my two but I really wanted to and it hurt. I got blisters on my nipples both time and can still remember that pain of latching a child onto a blistered nipple. I persevered because it's what I wanted and I think if you can breast feed its hard to understand the agony of not being able to. In fact infant mortality rates pre formula were much higher because if you couldn't breast feed babies died. Previously mother's died because there were no emergency c-sections. I would have died in days of yore. I have many friends that tried and failed to breastfeed and hate the fact that they couldn't. I think this is why women feel so defensive on the subject. You have to really want to breastfeed especially if it doesn't come easy.
I completely agree; these days you have to really want to because there are usually ward staff and well-meaning relatives shoving formula under your nose as soon as things get tough. I had a shitty time with breastfeeding; S was tube fed formula because my milk hadn't come in and it was suggested more than once that I could just move her onto bottles once the tube came out. I know so many women who are told they can't breastfeed when in actual fact they probably could if they had some help and support - but it's just not available. In countries where formula companies are not allowed to advertise, breastfeeding rates are higher.
I think you're right. We do need information like this to help women make informed choices. Breast is best and with the right support most people can do it but that's where the downfall is, in the support. Ali recently posted...Spring Clean Me – my healthy living plan.
I find it really interesting that in your experience formula is pushed on new mothers. In my area breastfeeding is really hammered into you from the first midwife appointment. At eight weeks pregnant I was given a dvd about it, and from the moment my son was born I was asked if I would be breastfeeding. It was the first thing my health visitor asked about on each visit too. While I think it's great that they were promoting it, for me it was too much and I did find they were putting a lot of pressure on me. I'd lost a lot of weight and was weak, so breastfeeding was an added strain but I felt that I would be failing to start bottle feeding. It was also insulting that health professionals kept mentioning losing baby weight as one of the benefits of breastfeeding! At under 8 stone that wasn't something I needed to hear! Sorry for rambling, this was a very interesting post :) Alana #weekendbloghop Alana Perrin recently posted...Wicked Wednesday: The light pulley
How interesting Alana; when I had S I was asked if I wanted to try breastfeeding, and that's the first time I recall feeding being discussed at all. Clearly someone was bonkers as well if they were bringing weight loss into it - sounds like they were trying to persuade you rather than support you in a decision making process.
This is a great post. I confess I was one who tutted at it and shared a couple of posts that were pretty great in response to it because I do know people that really were unable to breastfeed - one of whom just did not produce milk. That being said, I don't know the level of care they received in hospital but if mine was anything to go by (same hospital) then it was shit. I stuck by myself and managed to get Zach breastfeeding successfully but the amount of times they told me that if I didn't feed him that day he'd need formula (he was. Csection so was asleep for the first 24 hours) was ridiculous. And I so nearly caved. Anything to get my new baby to eat right?! I breastfed for 5 months but couldn't cope after that because he was feeding every two hours day and night. He was miserable all the time, and yes he was happy and full from formula but he got 6 months (I changed slowly!) of great booby milk! But I was more thinking of his antibodies rather than his brain cells! #weekendbloghop Lisa (mummascribbles) recently posted...My 2015 Breastcancer Care Pink Ribbon Walk
I think a lot of the time there is free formula on the ward and new mums are tired and stressed and scared they're doing the wrong thing and nobody has time to sit down and really talk about the choice, or support them in learning to breastfeed. It's not the mums' fault or the fault of the staff but a bigger problem. I wasn't thinking about brain development either when I started breastfeeding. I think this study is just a useful thing to be able to look at for pregnant mums who are weighing up their choices. For a poor woman living in poverty with no money, living on benefits etc, this is something she can do to level the playing field a bit for her child and I know a lot of mums who would love to be able to do that.
Rachel @ Parenthood Highs and Lows
I'm on the fence on this one. I have three children. I was unable to breastfeed the first due to medication, I breastfed the middle one for almost two years until he self weaned at the end of my third pregnancy, and then we chose not to breastfeed the youngest other than his first couple of feeds - being on my own all through the day with three kids under 3.5 meant that formula feeding was more convenient. I agree that mums who breastfeed should feel incredibly proud of themselves and I don't believe that for one minute the studies are there to make ff mums feel guilty (I refuse to feel guilty for choosing not to bf my youngest, it was an informed decision). but I do also think it is increasing pressure. I had pnd after having my eldest and a lot of that was due to constant questioning about why I didn't even attempt bf, and made to feel a second rate mum. I know that wasn't 'personal guilt' - I knew my son was healthy and happy enough, and I knew that even if I'd wanted to I couldn't have fed him - but it was how other mums and doctors etc viewed me. Ironically, I've never had ANY negativity whatsoever with breastfeeding - everyone was supportive, but several rather judgemental comments with bottlefeeding. Rachel @ Parenthood Highs and Lows recently posted...London: A Personal Achievement
I was in a cafe with a friend once, as she mixed together formula to feed her son. An older man she barely knew stopped by the table on his way out and said "I see you're not doing it the proper way!" I think it's disgusting that anyone should have an opinion on someone else's choices. My problem isn't with people making the choice to formula feed, it's with people not being given much of a choice, and not being able to make an informed choice.
YES YES YES! To everything you've written! I couldn't agree more. Someone above wrote that they actually felt that breastfeeding was pushed on them far more than formula. I have heard this a lot, but the crux of it is this: women are being told "breast is best", and made to feel that they absolutely should breastfeed, but then AREN'T GIVEN ANY SUPPORT TO ACTUALLY MAKE IT HAPPEN! Hence the guilt. Societally, we are "forcing" women to breastfeed with one hand, then "forcing" formula on them with the other. It is no wonder that women are often left feeling confused, alone, and guilty. We all need to stop having a go at supporters of breastfeeding (who 99% of the time have entirely good intentions), and focus our efforts and anger at the underhand marketing techniques used by (profit-making) formula companies, and at the Government (and not just the current one) and Health Care Trusts who have been steadily chip chip chipping away at already-small budgets for providing post-natal breastfeeding support for families. Sorry, this turned into a bit of a rant - can you tell it's a topic close to my heart?! ;) Beta Mummy recently posted...Beta Mummy’s Beauty Essentials.
I think you're right. We do need information like this to help women make informed choices. Breast is best and with the right support most people can do it but that's where the downfall is, in the support. Babyenvye recently posted...Dissecting The Ferber Method For Infant Sleep Problems
Yes! YES! SO MUCH THIS! It's all about business.. and breastfeeding isn't a lucrative business. Formula is. That's all it comes down to. And mothers and their babies are caught in the crossfires. So many women are emotional about this, rightly so. But their anger and frustration should not be directed at proponents of breastfeeding, but rather the system that fails women.