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.