Bait and switch

Sometimes I feel like I am writing the same post over and over again, preaching to the choir about how being a breastfeeding mother, or a breastfeeding counsellor, does not automatically equate with being a judgmental, smug ‘breastfeeding supremacist’ [or other equally offensive term]. I’m not linking to the blog post I read this morning because I do not want to get embroiled; I’m just using Rise, as usual, to let off steam and order my own thoughts. The one main point in the post that bothers me was the bald statement that formula is as healthy a choice as breastmilk. The evidence is overwhelming that no formula supports normal human development as well as breastmilk does. I’ll provide you with 100 references for that if you feel it’s not self-evident that human bodies make the most appropriate milk for human babies.

The reason why this bothers me so much is that the writer is claiming a feminist stance: women should be allowed to choose what they do with their own bodies. I don’t argue with that. I do argue with making scientifically inaccurate claims in order to assuage one’s own or anyone else’s guilt. As I have said repeatedly, if we put all our energies into alleviating guilt, then we are never going to make any progress on this. I cannot reconcile a feminist perspective with ‘protecting’ women [and men] from the information they need in order to make decisions. It is a patronising lie to state that there are no risks associated with formula feeding [100 more links available should you need them]. Is it really feminist behaviour to prevent us from making an informed choice just in case our silly emotions should affect us; because we all know how hysterical we girls can get, don’t we?

Ah but there’s the rub. Many women don’t make a choice, never mind an informed one, about how they feed their babies. The Infant Feeding Survey tells us that 90% of women who stop breastfeeding before six weeks would have liked to continue for longer. Get that? 90% of women did NOT choose to stop breastfeeding. And if they didn’t make the choice, then guilt is not the appropriate emotion.

It makes me angry that the formula industry spends £20 per baby on promoting formula, and the government spends 14 pence on promoting breastfeeding. It makes me angry that any money at all is spent on promoting breastfeeding, when all the available resources should be directed towards supporting mothers to breastfeed, if that is what they want to do. And not if they don’t. Because there are valid reasons not to breastfeed, and they include all the complex psycho-social issues that have been batted around for decades, and they also include the bait and switch of ‘breast is best but it’s really hard and maybe you had better also give formula in case your breastmilk isn’t good enough.’

To me, arguing that being truthful about the risks of formula feeding is inherently shaming to mothers who do so, contributes to the concept that formula feeding is shameful. Is it not a horrible thing that women have the choice taken away from them, and are then made to feel ashamed of themselves?

Why not also read: Is breastfeeding advocacy anti-feminist? An essay by Katherine A. Dettwyler

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2 Responses to Bait and switch

  1. James Akre says:

    Thank you for your lucid comments, which quickly cut to the heart of the matter. Some days I get the impression that there’s a permanent stand-off between those who define breastfeeding as a child’s “natural right” and those who adamantly speak only of a mother’s “informed choice”. You really have to love this latter expression, which borders on tautology – as if genuine choice was conceivable in the absence of a minimum of information from a disinterested source (cf. Aesop’s classic caveat: Distrust interested advice). I’m reminded of the impression that infant formula manufacturers give when they use these magic words: They do the informing while, on this basis, mothers are expected to do the choosing. In fact, if mothers were genuinely informed they would choose breastfeeding every time, as indeed would babies if they could because that’s what they are naturally prepared to receive when they enter this world.

    James Akre Geneva, Switzerland

  2. Karen says:

    Thanks James for your wise words, but you see what I mean about preaching to the choir!