Today I made an innocuous post in a Facebook breastfeeding support group about my own experience of preparing milk to take to the minder for my nine month old. Lately, I give some formula for Day 1 and pump on Day and Day 2 to give expressed milk on the subsequent days. To be honest, baby doesn’t really take a whole lot of milk when she’s away from me, maybe 50ml in total, but eats well and enjoys a good drink of water. I don’t really like sending the formula, I don’t like paying for something if I can get it for free, and most of the bottle goes to waste anyway. Plus, I intensely dislike the formula lobby. I had started becoming quite stressed out over the failed pumping attempts on a Sunday, it was ruining my evening and worrying over not having enough milk pumped isn’t something I really want to be bothering with, so I just went with formula to make life easier. Other than that, we feed around the clock, day and night, and it is just wonderful. I intend to do it until baby is at least two, all going well.
However…I was chastised privately by an admin of this group because I mentioned using formula. This breastfeeding support group discourages the use of formula, and was I aware of the group policy? I sent the admin a very long reply, outlining all the reasons why I didn’t feel it was an inappropriate post. I also said I was going to leave the group because it was clear the group wasn’t for me, if that was the dominant ideology. I said there were no hard feelings, it just wasn’t for me. She wished me well.
Breastfeeding rates in Ireland are incredibly low – around 46% at time of birth, down to around 15% after six months (source). I completely appreciate that the formula lobby, the societal shaming of women who breastfeed in public, our medicalised trajectory in maternal health and, who knows, maybe Catholic Guilt, have led to a situation in which women do not breastfeed for as long as the WHO recommends, if they begin at all. We should rally against this. We should celebrate, support, and facilitate women, encouraging them to breastfeed wherever and whenever they need. We should also be realistic about SIDS risks and stop discouraging co-sleeping (source), because it is a totally natural relationship for breastfeeding mother and baby. But we should also live in the real world.
I was so incredibly disheartened to have to leave that bf support group. I spent many hours sitting in the dark in the middle of the night scrolling through it while I fed my baby. I was breastfeeding her while she slept at the time this little ‘altercation’ occurred. Of course, I resented the absolutist tone, the shutting down of debate, and the silence around alternative to women working themselves into a frenzy around mastitis, pumping and supply. I learned a lot about group-think there, and I didn’t like it at all. But it was a place to read about other women’s experiences late at night, and I don’t have many breastfeeding comrades to share stories with.
Here’s the crux of the matter – the way to motivate people isn’t to make absolute rules. It isn’t to promote a situation which only those privileged by time (I have probably spent over a thousand hours breastfeeding already – time spent sitting down and not being able to really move or do anything other than scroll on my phone) or someone to outsource other aspects of their care to (all the things you can’t do when you’re breastfeeding, such as cleaning, cooking, doing your own work, taking a shower, all pile up) can achieve. It’s downright impossibly hard work to breastfeed in today’s society, and that women manage it at all should be the subject of a monthly parade.
If we want women to breastfeed we need to give them good advice in the days and weeks following their birth. We need to continue to support them in the following months, make breastfeeding the easy and inevitable choice. We need to encourage women to feed in public, to normalise this activity as much as feeding with a bottle already is. We really, really need to stop making women feel guilty. I’m all for choice, and I really don’t mean that in the neoliberal language of ‘choice’. I mean, actual, well informed choices with an evidence base and that work for a given life situation.
Promoting exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and then breastfeeding with gradual weaning is a no-brainer, as far as the research goes (although…). That being said, there is absolutely nothing immoral, tainted, wrong or sinful about formula. A breastfeeding support group with over 10,000 members who restricts any discussion of formula is being disingenuous and dishonest. Sometimes baby needs a bottle (or a sippy cup or a spoon) because their mother needs to go for an appointment, or finish her PhD, or just go out, on her own, for an hour or two. That bottle can either be expressed milk or it can be formula, but honestly, from where I’m standing, the difference is inconsequential (aside from the fact that pumping takes a lot of extra time, and I want to reclaim more of my own time).
What I realised today is that those who promote breastfeeding as a dogmatic ideology without taking into account the differing needs and life situations of women are as bad as the formula lobby, doctors and ill-informed public health nurses, the society that sexualises breasts to the extent that we disassociate them with feeding an infant, the small-minded people who talk about ‘spoiling’ a child. It is not helpful for women to not be presented with realistic and accurate depictions of the struggles inherent in breastfeeding in a society that does not support it, but also to be denied the examples and depictions of women managing, of finding ways around the barriers, of enduring even when it’s really really hard. We model our behaviour on the things we see around us. So why don’t we deserve to see women managing, exceeding expectations, thriving?
Breastfeeding is political because women’s bodies are political. How we operate in our society is a tightrope of power, control, choice and freedoms that we’re constantly balancing on. It’s just as great an injustice to deny agency through silencing dissent as it is to actively cause harm. It’s made me re-think how I want to engage with people about the importance of breastfeeding, how the debate needs to be framed, what helps, and what harms.