If you’re easily offended or like a good fight, now might be a good time to look away. I’m talking about the World War 3 of parenting: breast vs bottle.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I also want to talk about lactivism – that word that raises heckles, and shouts of ‘nazi’ and bully and so on – and unethical companies.
This week the rumblings have been especially bitter. Nuby ran a Facebook competition offering bottles, which caused a fuss, rightly, as it contravenes the WHO codes. They then changed the offer to a breastpump, which personally I have no problem with, but the fighting that followed on their fan page was… well… disheartening, and became something akin to fishwives on corners slinging mud.
I was catching up on my desperately neglected Google Reader and came across a post by Dagmar Bleasdale in which she discussed the Similac (a formula company) Application which is said to help with breastfeeding – which I agree is undermining and misleading. Her post was balanced, fair, and not once accusatory or derogatory towards formula feeding MOTHERS, yet in the comment section she was thoroughly bashed for being anti formula feeding mothers. This is sadly common. It’s impossible to mention any of those four phrases without someone getting angry.
The problem as I see it is this:
- Some mothers breastfeed, and believe, rightly, that it is biologically, emotionally, and physiologically the best thing to do. In most cases that is correct. (Yes, There are exceptions: when a mother is on drugs for, i.e. depression. Or if a mother is in the 5% of the planet that are physically unable to breastfeed, or is hating it so much that she develops negative feelings towards her child)
- Some mothers, 5% of all mothers, are unable to breastfeed. For their babies, formula is literally a life saver (and in my opinion should be available on prescription), although I’d personally use donated milk instead.
- Some mothers choose not to breastfeed. And this is where, in my view, the problem comes in. If a mother makes an educated decision not to breastfeed, if she’s had real information on the dangers of formula (the ingredients, increased SIDS risk, long term health risks etc.) and chooses to formula feed instead of breastfeed, then that is her right. It is her right, her responsibility and her privilege, just as it is mine to parent my child the way I see fit. That mother has learned about it, weighed up the risk versus benefits and decided that it is what’s best for her, for her family and for her child. That shouldn’t be grounds for anyone to attack her.
- Where the problem comes in from a lactivist perspective, is not with mothers choosing to formula feed. It’s with mothers being lied to, conned, tricked and deceived into failing. I chose the word failing very carefully here. A mother who chooses to formula feed is not a failure, but an adult making a choice. A mother who is duped into formula feeding is failed while doing the best with the information she had at hand. It is the system that has failed her.
- When a company like Nestle, for example, takes an employee, dresses them up in a nurses uniform, and sends them out into a poor, uneducated society with just enough formula to ensure a mother’s milk supply will dry up while her child is supping on the ‘nutritionally better’ infant formula, thereby trapping her into formula feeding for the duration of that child’s babyhood, they have failed mothers.But, Nestle don’t stop with the poor and uneducated. They also have ‘milk nurses’ in regular hospitals, walking around giving out samples to tired, uncertain, vulnerable new mothers at a time most crucial to the establishment of the breastfeeding relationship.
- When a company like Nestle commissions a ship to go up and down the Amazon river, peddling junk food and infant formula to people who don’t know better, in smaller, ‘more affordable’ sizes, they have failed mothers.(I’ve mentioned Nestle, but other companies have similar tactics.)
- When formula companies bring out follow on milk, a duplicate of infant formula with a bit of iron and vitamin C added, in an attempt to circumvent the WHO code while still promoting their brands, they are deceiving and failing mothers. (No child needs follow on milk. It’s simply a way of making brands known while not advertising infant formula. Before the ’80’s, when the WHO codes came into existance, follow on milk had never been heard of.)
- When true lactivists become angry it is usually at companies failing mothers – mothers who are new to this, who are scared, uncertain, faced with a barrage of information, don’t have the support of communities of women who have been breastfeeding for centuries, have mothers and aunts and in-laws who still believe the lies of their generation with regards to childcare and specifically formula.
That’s not to say that’s true of everyone. I’ve heard lactivists say some pretty hurtful things to formula feeding mothers, and I’ve heard formula feeders say equally harsh and hurtful things to breastfeeders. Unfortunately for people in both camps, feelings run really high. The best way to get a formula feeder’s goat is to tell them they are lazy/uncaring/bad mothers who didn’t try hard enough. The best way to retaliate is to say that breastfeeders are abusing their children, or worse, (my personal non-favourite): that your attempt at sharing facts about breastfeeding/milk, is a personal attack on person xyz, or an attempt to make them feel guilty. And so the battle rages on. Inefficiently, with no goal, no purpose, no positive result for either, endlessly. And who wins the battle?
The formula feeding mothers who are guilted, left with doubts as to their choices and feeling undermined in their parenting (except for the confident ones who brand themselves ‘fearless formula feeders’ or ‘proud formula feeders’)?
The breastfeeders who are left smarting about their apparent child abuse, ‘nazi’ tendencies (and by the way, if you’ve ever set foot in a concentration camp, that’s not an insult you’d throw at anyone) and bullish ways?
No. The only winners are the very companies we should be rallying against! Not only do they have more free press, advertising and media than probably anyone else in the parenting world, but with every fight you have FF mothers raging and vehemently asserting their right to rush out and buy formula. You have BF mothers stressed and worked up (and probably less able to produce milk) and those who were at the beginning stages, neither formula or breast activists, simply trying to find help and information, losing milk supply, finding themselves in the category of those who think they couldn’t breastfeed because they weren’t supported but rather lost their supply in the battle to recruit them!
While “why can’t we all just get along?” is a massive cop-out statement, in my view, I do think we should be working together. We should be demanding healthy formula options from companies for those that want or need it. Healthy formula, with real regulations, and real quality control checks.
We should be stopping unethical practices. We should cry out against the lies (gold standard? really?) so that mothers can make educated and informed decisions. We should be demanding better support for breastfeeding mothers. We should be shouting and screaming for some of the money that goes into advertising formula (in the UK, formula companies spend about £20 per baby on “educational material”, while the NHS spends roughly 14p per baby on “marketing” breastfeeding) to go into supporting breastfeeding for those who want to, and so that those who wish they could have, or could have for longer can be supported next time too.
In the UK, formula companies spend about £20 per baby on “educational material”, while the NHS spends roughly 14p per baby on “marketing” breastfeeding.
But we can’t do anything, and we can’t make a difference at all, while we’re fighting each other.
When a lion cub is threatened, the lioness is at her most deadly. A mother is no different. Instead of focusing our energy on the threat from other mothers, focus it on the companies that are playing us against each other, taking us for fools, and getting away with it.
Remove the label, ladies. Get off the street corners. Be women, be mothers. Heal through love, support and nurturing. Share information, give gentle advice and guidance, show your willingness to help if someone has questions.
Formula feeders (for lack of a different collective noun): Every discussion on breastfeeding or the benefits of breastmilk is not, in fact, an accusation of you or a slight on your parenting ability. Breast milk is actually just that amazing that its worth talking about over and over and over again, mainly because so many people know so little about breastmilk. For me, at least, it’s about sharing knowledge, and with it, power.
Lactivists: remember that lactation activism is about doing something useful – writing, lobbying, boycotting. It is not about attacking other mothers. Unfortunately we’re firmly entrenched in this war, but someone has to make the first move toward reconciliation.
Lead by example, act in love, in kinship and in sisterhood.