It's Breastfeeding Week and I, like many women and mothers for whom this week is targeted, find myself conflicted and thoughtful about the focus and drive of this campaign. What we see during this week is what you'd expect from a supportive movement: the positives of breastfeeding are listed, there are special offers by companies for breastfeeding mothers, stories of breastfeeding mothers are shared, and breastfeeding pictures are passed around in the hopes of normalizing the act of feeding an infant from the breast.
Women who breastfeed often experience a world of anxiety and struggle when it comes to feeding their babies, especially in public spaces. Mums find themselves sexualised, accused of "whipping out" their breasts; sometimes they are asked to move or cover up (incidentally, this is illegal in the UK, but still happens enough that many places of business will indicate with an extra sticker sign that breastfeeding is welcome). Mothers who breastfeed also face the very real stress of waking for every feed, staying at home, and then transitioning back to work (if they can). This often involves a myriad of pumps, formula, struggles to help the baby accept the bottle, and mastitis, not to mention hormonal changes and the close attention that must be paid to nutritional intake for the mother. Viewing the journeys of breastfeeding mothers, I think most of us would say that these women certainly deserve support. They deserve a week of focus, they deserve to be normalized.
The issue is, in the lactation community, there is a huge focus not only on "Breast is Best", but on "formula is evil." So for all of the issues that breastfeeding mums face, we have another set of mums (and single dads, and adoptive parents) who sit here during this week feeling like failures. In spaces where breastfeeding mums often struggle (public feeding), formula feeding parents are often "safe." However in "mummy circles," formula feeding parents find themselves criticized, questioned for their choices, or reminded that breastfeeding would have been the best course of action. I myself have faced this criticism, even through casual commentary. My baby is lactose intolerant and dairy allergic; a very rare and dangerous combination in an infant. To top this off, he likes to refuse feeds to a detrimental degree. Prior to meeting with a pediatrician, my partner and I saw a slew of doctors, trying to get the help our infant clearly needed. I'd be questioned as to why I wasn't offering more breast milk. It'd be suggested that I try to give him just a bit more.
Now I, like many formula feeding mums, was pumping regularly. I had a lump in my breast that was suspected of cancer (twice) and lowered my production significantly. And my baby couldn't latch. I wanted to breast feed, and it was absolutely my choice to try and provide that breast milk for him. But my additional choice to ensure his caloric intake was sufficient was not a supported choice, and this is where we see the issue with Breastfeeding Week.
In spaces where breastfeeding mums are targeted most aggressively, formula feeding parents are often "safe." But in spaces created specifically as "safe spaces" for mums (and/or new parents), formula mums are targeted as aggressively as breastfeeding mums in other spaces. There are no protections in place for formula feeding parents, because it wouldn't seem that there would need to be. After all, there is no physical exposure. And yet.
With this contrast of safe spaces for parents, we are putting babies and mothers at risk. In the hospital, breastfeeding was pushed for us so heavily that my baby dropped weight and nearly starved because no one would indicate to us that he needed supplemental formula. I suspected as much, and I requested that my partner bring some in; but we were not told that the hospital could provide formula and bottles. We were not told that his weight was dropping dangerously, or that his blood sugar was low. The fear that the hospital had was that by expressing these concerns, they'd put me off of breastfeeding him (which had been my initial desire). But I wanted to breastfeed only second to keeping my baby fed and healthy.
Fed is best; my desire to breastfeed was personal, but the desire for my baby's health in a medical setting should have been universal.
Part of the culture building these issues is not only the push for breastfeeding but the equal demonisation of formula. Now much of the science presented as "breast is best" is actually largely cancelled out in developed countries by clean water supply and access to medical care. (For babies born with gut issues, etc, breastfeeding becomes more beneficial, but this is in very specific cases). If you're curious about this, and have heard differently (which I think most of us have,) check out this source which sums immunity in mothers and babies, and how this relates to breastfeeding, up nicely: https://www.thescientificparent.org/passive-immunity-101-will-breast-milk-protect-my-baby-from-getting-sick/
It is true, however, that breastfeeding may have a myriad of benefits for the mother, not all of which are understood. It appears that breastfeeding lowers the chance of breast cancer, for example, though we are not sure whether mothers who breastfeed by pumping receive the same benefit, or how long a mother must breastfeed to gain this benefit, or what genetic factors contribute to this benefit. Hopefully more research into this area will be forthcoming.
So here we have a balancing act of benefits for the mother, health for the baby (through adequate growth) and the mental health of parents who are facing the journey of feeding a newborn. How can we in good conscience create a safe and celebratory space for one targeted group when that same space negatively targets another? It is not fair to tell formula feeding parents that they are mediocre, that they are only doing the minimum for their child, that they will not bond with their child, etc. And it is not fair to sexualise breastfeeding mums and accuse them of inappropriate exploits just because they want to feed their child.
My solution? We have Breastfeeding Week, and we have Formula Feeding Week. And we work together as parents and medical professionals to create safe spaces for all parents, in the hopes that we don't put the health of our children and the mothers of our communities at stake. It's time to turn our focus away from creating "perfect" "natural" mothers. We need to start focusing on growing healthy, happy babies, who in turn will help inspire mentally well and physically healthy mothers and fathers.