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Breastfeeding and making new mums feel like crap

I’ve written before about the way new mums are talked down to by health “professionals” – last week on Radio Scotland the NHS Breastfeeding Co-Ordinator spent an entire programme patronising women who dared suggest that breastfeeding isn’t always possible – and other parents, but Zoe Williams expresses it wonderfully in today’s Guardian:

the case for breastfeeding is not that strong, and it has passed so seamlessly into the book of What’s Best for Baby that it’s often very lazily put. To give an example, there’s a charity called Best Beginnings, which aims to foster breastfeeding confidence, and is endorsed by the Department of Health, the Health Protection Agency, the NHS . . . the full force of nationalised health provision. Its opening statement is, “Did you know babies who aren’t breastfed are five times more likely to end up in hospital with serious tummy bugs? Or that in countries like Australia or Norway, people think breastfeeding is as normal as putting the kettle on?”

Here’s the thing: that figure in the first statement is from the World Health Organisation, which presents it as a global collation of statistics. In other words, this is not comparing two babies from Surbiton. It’s comparing breastfed babies to formula-fed babies from countries where they might not even have an assured water supply or sterilising equipment or electricity, where they might not even have enough formula. It’s an absurd way to propagandise for breastfeeding. If they were flogging a Pot Noodle, they wouldn’t get away with it.

…the statistics showing less asthma, less eczema, less obesity, fewer ear infections: these haven’t been adjusted for social class and environment. It boils down to: “Middle-class babies do better; middle-class babies tend to be breastfed.”

Mums and mums-to-be have a tough enough time without this bullshit.

15 replies on “Breastfeeding and making new mums feel like crap”

That is a bloody superb article. Probably the best I’ve read on the subject. Interesting to see how many of the comments have been removed by moderators, even by CiF’s standards. Zoe’s getting plenty of abuse for saying that women who don’t breastfeed shouldn’t get all this abuse. And that’s even without going near the whole “We civilised Europeans are capable of making decisions but giving an African some free stuff is ENSLAVING THEM!” hot potato.

Don’t know whether it’s nationwide, but NHS hospitals in NI have now banned the giving-out of free formula for mums who want it. It never even cost the NHS anything: Sma et al were happy to provide it, of course. And most mums weren’t taking it because they were breast-feeding. But clearly even the threat that a woman who formula-feeds her baby might feel that hospital staff don’t think she’s a Nazi was too dangerous to be allowed.

I’m sorry, but that’s utter tripe. The figures are not blanket numbers, they take into account social background, educational levels and so on. It’s not that “Middle class babies do better; middle class babies tend to be breastfed” middle class babies do better *if* they ate breastfed, and working/lower class babies tend to do better if they are breastfed too.

You need to learn how to read research papers. There’s far more bullshit in your blog than in Bedt Beginnings leaflets.

Jenny, you don’t need to even go *near* research papers: the WHO’s own 10 Facts About Breastfeeding says formula is linked to “water-borne diseases that arise from mixing powdered formula with unsafe water (many families lack access to clean water).” That’s not a big issue in, say, Hyndland.

The NHS champion I mentioned told a mother flatly that breastfeeding rates in Norway are 99.9%, and dismissed any attempts to suggest that there are multiple reasons why mothers might not breastfeed. Her figures were wrong and the single study I assume she’s referring to – Lande et al from 2006 – is often misquoted. It found that only 1% of children had never, ever been breast fed, it’s true, but “the proportion of exclusively breastfed infants was 90% at 1 mo, 44% at 4 mo and 7% at 6 mo.”

Norway also has one of the most mum-friendly welfare systems in the world. There is mandatory time out for breastfeeding, generous maternity pay and a culture that doesn’t have people who – as happened to a friend of a friend last week – verbally abuse women who breastfeed in public.

As I say, mums have a hard enough time without bullshit.

> middle class babies do better *if* they are breastfed, and working/lower class babies tend to do better if they are breastfed too.

As I’ve said hundreds of times, this position begs the question “Better than what?” Even if it were absolutely unequivocally true that breastfed babies do better than formula-fed babies, the fact is that that is not always the choice facing parents. The choice a lot of us face is between our baby eating formula or eating nothing. And no, nothing-fed babies don’t do better than formula-fed babies.

The fact that we alone of all the mammals on the planet are able to overcome the rather serious problem of a baby that won’t suckle is an achievement to be proud of, not an atrocity to be attacked.

Just in case you didn’t read the linked article (my one, not williams’ one):

When I see mums try to argue against it – without disputing that breast is indeed best – they’re jumped on. People post links to scientific papers they haven’t read, or to articles whose footnotes make a very different point to the one they’re trying to make, or to other people’s interpretations of scientific papers they haven’t read, and they argue again and again that formula milk is by definition bad. Which would be fine if every single woman could breastfeed, but every single woman can’t. Some can’t for physical reasons, others because they can’t afford to stay at home with the baby. And in those circumstances, telling a mum she’s a child killer really isn’t very helpful.

That’s my beef too. People who can’t – and despite what radio-blabbing NHS staff say, there are people who can’t – are being browbeaten and bullied. We’ve both seen that happen.

Mind if I link to my then response to your article? It’ll save me a hell of a lot of repetitive ranting.

Also…

> The NHS champion I mentioned told a mother flatly that breastfeeding rates in Norway are 99.9%

A rule of mine: never believe anyone who claims that any statistic is 99.9%. They’re making it up. Real numbers are rarely that neat. 99%, yes, it happens. 99.8%, fine. But “99.9%” almost always means “An awful awful lot, really big, can’t quite remember the figures but it was loads.”

S2: Mind if I link to my then response to your article? It’ll save me a hell of a lot of repetitive ranting.

Not at all.

Bloody Hell, wat planet r u mums living on. Ive breast fed till my son was 1 year old. Didn’t have time to read articles like u did. ‘SQUANDER TWO’ – wat the hell are middle class babies????? Can u be born into a certain class??? I feel sorry for the working class baba??? Similar to the nothing-fed baby. U were obviously fed nothing but ‘COMPLETE SHIT’ as a baba!!!

bloody hell. i didn’t realise there was such a debate between ‘breast’ and ‘formula’. I breast fed and at times wished i hadn’t – attachment issues, he wouldn’t stop the breast. but now he’s 14 mths and its as if he never breast fed. loves his bottle with blue top milk

PKripper, it’s considered rude to wander into a conversation and start shouting.

I don’t really care about the research, the debate…at the end of the day, breastfeeding is the most natural thing for me and my baby (now toddler). I am still (partially) breastfeeding her and she is 19 months old. She shows no sign of wanting to wean off, and I don’t think I can really force her to. From the beginning, she did not like formula and neither did I have faith in the validity of health benefits or even implied equality to breast milk that advertisers proclaim regarding ARTIFICIAL baby milk. A mother’s body is in sync with her baby and her milk adjusts accoding to the baby’s various needs.

I am university educated but come from an upper working class background (not that I think class distinctions are that clear cut these days). I define working class as university-educated technicians, which my parents are. I am not working and have been earning a pretty low income leading up to the birth. Regardless of class and income, I prove that a person can do the best for their baby and family because of their own choices and intuitions.

Do realise that reply is late but want this on the record.

> breastfeeding is the most natural thing for me and my baby

Yes, of course it is. Also, the most natural thing for your baby to do is die. Not trying to be nasty here; that’s just a fact: in the natural world, far more humans die by the age of 21 than survive. Thankfully, we no longer live in the natural world. Natural is overrated. “Natural” is not a synonym for “good”.

> A mother’s body is in sync with her baby and her milk adjusts accoding to the baby’s various needs.

Sorry, but no, this is nonsense. For two organisms to be “in sync” with each other is what happened to Elliot and ET: it’s magic. Mother’s bodies are demonstrably not in sync with their babies’: if your baby gets leukaemia, you won’t get it too. And no, your milk doesn’t automatically adjust according to your baby’s needs. What if your baby needs antibiotics or anti-inflammatories? Or a new kidney? None of that in your milk. Millions of baby’s lives are saved by their being given things that aren’t in breast milk. And of course they’re not in formula, either, but no-one makes these absurd claims about formula.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, I’m not against breast-feeding; I’m all for it and agree that it’s a brilliant method of feeding babies, highly efficient, well evolved, has clever built-in anti-disease mechanisms and sterilisation, is a large part of the reason why mammals have come to dominate the planet. But no-one seems happy with that. Its proponents insist on going so much further, making up all sorts of congratulatory bullshit about breast-feeding while also telling any mother who doesn’t breastfeed that she’s putting her child at huge risk; they’re willing to assign pretty much any risk to formula-feeding with no evidence: malnutrition, food poisoning, disease, cancer, learning difficulties, whatever. Formula-feeding is actually absolutely fine; it might not be ideal, but very few things are. Parents who formula-feed their babies are not monsters trying to kill them and do not deserve to be treated as such. Meanwhile, breastfeeding mums continue to do really high-risk things with their kids, like walking them along pavements, putting them in cars, and keeping them in houses without fire-escapes.

This second time around, one of Vic’s midwives was emminently sensible and gave one of the single best bits of advice I’ve heard on the matter. She has four kids. Two were breast-fed, two were formula-fed. She can’t tell any difference.

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