When I was first contacted about writing a breastfeeding book with the title “Why Breastfeeding Matters”, it felt challenging to say the least. Infant feeding is a minefield to negotiate, and I was concerned that the crux of the problem for many wasn’t why breastfeeding matters, but how to make it happen. We know many mums want to breastfeed, but due to various factors they don’t realistically stand much chance of succeeding. What use is there then extolling the ‘benefits of breastfeeding’?
I decided to give it some thought and over the next few days various situations, conversations and articles reminded me why I had wanted to write a book in the first place. It wasn’t to try and convince people to breastfeed, or to make those who didn’t do so feel bad; it was to try and get effective, evidence-based support to the families who want it.
For those who are trying, but struggling with painful nipples, or a baby who never settles or writhes with trapped wind, who are feeling overwhelmed at all the conflicting (if well-intentioned) advice they receive.
These situations reminded me how women who want to breastfeed, are not only being failed in terms of the support they receive, but are also patronised by a patriarchal medical model. Many medical students do not know even the basics of lactation, let alone the immunological implications of feeding method.
The Official Book Blurb:
“All babies need feeding – and yet in modern life something so simple has become an issue fraught with difficulty for new parents. Society, politics and culture have worked together to create a situation where parents are presented with a ‘choice’ of breast or bottle? In many countries bottle feeding has become so common that it is never questioned, and indeed is often seen as the answer to parents’ problems. Not sleeping at night? Not enough milk? Mum needs medication? Reach for the formula. Every day women are told by their friends, family and even their doctors that bottle-feeding and not breastfeeding is the answer.
Yet research shows that many mothers want to breastfeed, and that babies who are not breastfed are at increased risk of illness. Why Breastfeeding Matters tackles some of these issues head-on, in a frank discussion intended to help parents and others navigate the world of infant feeding. It is neither preachy nor a ‘how-to’ manual; it outlines some of the reasons why breastfeeding matters, to mothers and their babies, and explains how these issues can affect the way in which mothers use bottles and formula if they need to. Drawing on research, and the author’s experience as a lactation consultant, it is essential reading for anyone wondering about how to feed their new baby.”
What really matters?
What sealed the deal for me was a consultation at our weekend clinic. A mum arrived who was having feeding problems and she had brought with her both her husband and her mum – nothing unusual there, I grabbed an extra chair and away we went. As we unpicked what was going on and I explained to the mum that it wasn’t anything she was doing wrong, her baby had tongue-tie, I looked up to see fat tears rolling down the grandmother’s face. Long before breastfeeding was ‘fashionable’, long before there was easy access online to research papers, articles, blogs and forums ‘pressurising’ women to breastfeed, there was and is breastfeeding grief.
Ignore the health implications, throw away the lists of pros and cons – nobody had told this woman she should, or had to feed her babies; in fact at that time she said some were even saying formula was better. Yet she still desperately wanted to breastfeed and recalled how every ounce of her had felt like she had failed when she couldn’t. She had faced almost identical problems to her daughter and the realisation that she hadn’t failed, but had been failed, was extremely emotional even years later.
Ultimately, poor support is intrinsically linked to the idea that ‘breast is best but formula is fine’. Or ‘breastfeeding is nice if you can, but really it’s just a parenting choice like any other; it doesn’t really matter what a baby is fed, as long as they’re fed’. Yet this argument is ridiculous, because who on earth doesn’t think that formula is better than starvation? No baby should be starving in 2016, let alone in a country with a healthcare system like the UK. That’s precisely why the government subsidises formula through Healthy Start vouchers for poorer families.
Culturally, at this moment, we are in a tricky position. Only a tiny minority of mums breastfeed for as long as they initially intend, or would like to. We have to recognise a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, and respect the fact that she might choose not to breastfeed, as well as acknowledging that other women simply can’t partially or exclusively breastfeed. I don’t just mean the 2 or 3% of women who physically cannot breastfeed, but also those affected by the hundreds of other factors that come in to play when we’re talking about real-life versus scientific studies.
However, we simultaneously have to recognise that some women really, truly want to feed their babies. To pretend that it doesn’t really matter, in order to try and prevent all the mums failed by the system from feeling bad, and keep the multi-million pound infant feeding industry cash cow mooing, isn’t the answer. It takes away their voice, and if we’re failing to acknowledge any of the risks of not breastfeeding that science has highlighted in the last few decades – where is the incentive for healthcare support to improve?
Women can feel judged however they feed their babies, but as I hope this book highlights, breastfeeding matters – it matters a lot.