Breast is best… but there’s no need to keep shouting about it

Grayscale photo of woman holding a small baby

Ahhhh. A week into my life as a blogger, and already I get to tackle one of the biggies. Breastfeeding!

You’d think after watching the fallout from Mairi Campbell-Jack’s thought-provoking post over on A Burdz Eye View recently, I’d know better, but hey, I will claim new blogger naievety and go for it.

*Takes a deep breath*

If I have to read the results of another study, giving yet another reason why breast is best, I will poke my eyes out. The latest one, which is splashed all over the papers today, states that breastfed babies develop fewer behaviour problems in later life.

Don’t get me wrong, I think breastfeeding, in general, is awesome. But what is the point of these studies? Who are all the resulting articles targeted at?

There are many women who, for one reason or another, choose not to breastfeed. I truly can’t believe that reading a story such as the one on the BBC website will do anything to change their minds.

There are many women who would very much like to breastfeed, but for one reason or another are unable to. As far as I can see, an article like this just rubs salt in the already painful wounds of such women, and increases the burden of guilt they may already be carrying.

There are many women who have successfully breastfed for anything from a few weeks to a few years, and are happy with their decision, but don’t feel the need to shout it from the rooftops. They, like me, probably roll their eyes when they see yet another headline about breastfeeding, and keep scrolling. (Or, y’know, go online and write a big ranty blog post about it…)

And then there are those other women, who dress their babies in t-shirts that say “I Love Mummy Milk” and raise an eyebrow disapprovingly when that one poor woman at the first antenatal class reunion brings out a bottle of formula. They are the only ones that care about the results of studies like this – because it gives them one more reason to feel good about themselves and one more link to post on their Facebook page.

I would truly love to see breastfeeding rates in the UK improve, because they are shockingly low. It is hard to argue with the fact that breastfeeding is good for your child’s health. In the current economic climate I would think the fact that it’s free would be a real selling point. But telling people that their children will be better behaved in five years if they breastfeed them now? It’s not going to work.

I would far rather see the money spent on such studies going towards initiatives that provide genuine breastfeeding support for those that need it; more health visitors working in communities where the rates are low, more breastfeeding specialists on maternity wards, more support groups, mentoring and buddying schemes…

Let’s stop finding new sticks to beat non-breastfeeders with, and instead spend our intellect, our money and our energy on more positive solutions. If we manage to do that, then maybe a few years down the line we will end up with a generation of impeccably behaved children. Somehow I doubt it, but the other benefits will be immeasurable.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

20 responses

  1. ooh playing with fire! Very brave, I am of course going to retweet your link all over Twitter and possibly send it to my “lactivist” (eurgh) friends too, just in the nature of a balanced debate!

    I largely agree about the study released today, it was rather poorly defined anyway- just what are “behavioural problems”? I breastfed all of my children for varying lengths of time (8 weeks- 4 yrs 9 months) and they’ve all had periods of time where they could quite easily be described as having behavioural problems. My youngest was breastfed the longest and he’s a git.

    I honestly don’t know if funding more resources would help increase the breastfeeding rate in Scotland- it’s the quality of resources that matters. In my experience many midwives and health visitors are still very poorly informed about breastfeeding.

    I chose to breastfeed because I’m lazy and as far as I know you can’t sleep and bottlefeed at the same time!


  2. Do you think at least some of the research and published studies are intended not for individual moms but for framing issues with policymakers? My hope would be that, rather than add to a debate that can polarize moms, positive research results would push things culturally to support longer parental leave, better accommodations in the workplace, etc. (at least for what I see as problems here in the US).

    But completely agree with you that press like that is not going to help more mothers to breastfeed.

  3. I’ve read a lot of studies like this, and there are similar ones for if you let you kids garden, if you play them Motzart in the womb etc etc. Generally I feel the subtext is, Middle Class parents make choices on how to bring up their children, and low and behold, they bring up Middle Class kids! Shocking. I think these studies often confuse cause and effect.

    To much of people’s attitude towards breast feeding is really about identity politics, and pretty unforgiving and judgemental. What dissapointed me with my blog post was that while there were plenty of women willing to argue with me about how great breast feeding was, and how amazing they found it, not one single one was able to address the issue that I had really written about which was how breast feeding is promoted. It doesn’t take to much analyasis of stats to see that somewhere something is going very wrong.

  4. I felt 2 things when I was breasfeeding (ok, four, but no one needs a PhD to figure out that two of those were ‘I hate having leaky gigantic boobs’ and ‘i am so bored with being the sole source of nutrition around here’): 1). relief that I was lucky enough to be able to do it without a lot of effort/complications/mastitis/etc., and 2). anger at the way Moms who weren’t as lucky as I was were treated. Yes, breast is best, but so is having a sane mother who doesn’t feel like a failure.

    A brave post!

  5. Thank you all for taking the time to read and leave comments – it’s much appreciated. I think there have been some really good points raised here (and also on my FB page, but as that’s not public I won’t share).

    Zoe, I totally agree that throwing money at the problem is not going to be an instant fix – it’s the quality rather than the quantity of resources that matters – but I also think it’s about targeting those resources wisely. Of course, absolutely every single woman should be able to get the support she needs for breastfeeding – but I think that in some communities you are starting with a majority of women who at least want to try, which is a headstart on those communities where it is not the norm.

    Maggie, I think you may be right that the problem is not with the work itself, but with how that is used. I guess twenty or even ten years ago, a study like that would have been published in a few specialist journals, and used by policymakers. It’s just that the 24 hour news cycle and online media mean that now within hours of something like that there are sensational headlines about it on every news site that you look at, your Facebook feed etc. Research findings can be dangerous when they are taken so far out of context – the quote from the researcher saying that the results shouldn’t be over-emphasised is always going to be the last paragraph.

    Mairi I think you’re absolutely right about b/f and identity politics. It’s something that really touches a nerve with a lot of people, coming from all sides of the debate. Sorry you got so much criticism and judgement from readers of your post – but I think it can only be healthy to keep putting things like that out there for debate.

    Mary – ha! I identify with all four of your thoughts! Your last sentence in particular absolutely speaks to me.

  6. Ach, I wasn’t to upset by the criticisim. In fact it was what I expected and why it took me about a year to get up the courage to post it. Unfortunately though it just confirmed me in the steriotype of the lactation facist (I’m not refering to all bf mothers – I’m one myself- just the people who react as though your choice for your life means you are an agent of risk for your own child). Which is why trying to force your own agenda on others never works in debate, all you really achieve is an entrentchment of views rather than real exploration of an idea and more understanding.

    I still do believe that the harmful “promotion” of breast feeding with a lack of proper information given to women and support is nothing short of sexisim. However if someone can convince me otherwise I would be happy. Until that point I do feel that it is important that mothers (and fathers) discuss these issues in an open way – and your helping that. Great!

  7. I totally agree with you! I really feel strongly that putting pressure of any kind on new mums is cruel and unnecessary. It’s a really hard job with no rule book, new mums should be supported no matter what they decide.

  8. Agree whole heartedly!!! Am mum of two, breastfed my first son for 8 weeks and am still breatfeeding baby number two 10 months in! So I feel pleased as punch and horrifically guilty at each one of these new pieces of information comes to light. I have been training to work as a peer supporter for breastfeeding mums but alas I suspect the money well has dried up as my Nhs mentor has vanished into thin air. Stopped by my local bf support group today only to be told that the health visitor hardly ever attends for longer than 15 minutes and leaves the new mums to “support one another “! so yes let’s sort out proper support for those who need it and quit pointing fingers at those who choose to bottle feed regardless of their reasons!

  9. So pleased to find another mummy blogger has written about this issue. The research has certainly caused a lot of controversy.
    I’d already written about my failure to breastfeed (neither of my two boys would latch on) when this latest research led me to do a follow up piece:
    Couldn’t agree more that we need to invest in breastfeeding experts to offer help and support. I was given nothing – when I was more than eager to do it.
    I got post natal depression with both of my children. And while my breastfeeding failure isn’t entirely to blame, it certainly didn’t help to boost my confidence.
    What are women like me supposed to do about this research? If our children misbehave or throw tantrums, are we now supposed to believe it’s all our fault?
    I’ve made my peace with what happened to me, and no longer think of myself as a failure – but the system which failed to support me.

  10. Thanks for your comments, Donna, Audrey and mummykimmy – although I’m really sorry that it sounds like you’ve had bad experiences yourselves and been made to feel worse by this kind of coverage. This is always going to be a touchy subject, but as I said above, I think it’s really important that we continue to put a full range of views out there.

  11. Bloody good post. I have not seen the hype about the research but watched a programme on breastfeeding last week and kepe meaning to write a post related. I love the idea of the govenment spending more money on breastfeeding assistance that is easily accessible for new mums, that would actually make the world of difference.

    Mich x

  12. it’s all rather tricky methinks. On the one hand, I think studies are important to convince policymakers to support breastfeeding. The patchy support currently available is about to be cut and it really pains me, living close to areas where only 8% of mums breastfeed at 6 weeks. That rate is just too low. Also I think that people feel guilty far too easily. There are two scenarios: you want to breastfeed and don’t manage, or you choose to formula feed. In both cases, the woman should not feel guilty, right? in the first scenario, the support wasn’t right (considering that at least 90% of women should be able to breastfeed) and thus the woman should be angry at the lack of support and not internalise it against herself. In the second scenario – my view is that at least women who choose not to breastfeed should know about the risks (because there are risks) and make an informed decision – and if you make a decision you should stand by it and you shouldn’t feel guilty. I’m absolutely fine with choice, there are many situations where the choice to formula feed is more than understandable but to withhold information for fear of someone feeling bad about themselves? I don’t get it.

    I agree that the research will do little to change breastfeeding rates, but considering how much air time and advertising time formula companies get, why get annoyed by advertising breastfeeding?

  13. I commented before and I’m doing it again. Couldn’t agree more. I’m in the category who feels like salt is being rubbed into an already sore wound. But I can honestly say my children are not badly behaved. So they can stuff their research.
    And yes, we should ABSOLUTELY have more money spent on breastfeeding counsellors in hospitals. Nobody could help me when I had problems. Not the midwives, not the health visitors. And I was willing to keep on trying, with the right support. But it never came.
    Thanks for linking this up to #Parentonomy

    • Oh bless you honey. Well done for your brilliant Parentonomy post. I wish more people could be as honest and open about it – to reassure other mothers that they’re not doing anything wrong one way or the other.

  14. Pingback: #Parentonomy: Breastfeeding Carnival a.k.a feeling the linky love | Mummy Central

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  17. Pingback: Breast is best… but there’s no need to keep shouting about it | Love All Blogs

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