Recently the actress Alyssa Milano had a baby. In the throes of motherhood, and keen to introduce her little one to her army of fans, Milano uploaded a “selfie” onto social media . Cue thousands of comments – and I mean literally thousands – some applauding Milano for ‘normalising breastfeeding’, but also plenty of negative responses, many of which adopted the faux-supportive stance of ‘I’m totally on board with breast-feeding but seriously, cover up’, which by the way should only ever be uttered by those who have endured, and enjoyed, eating their meals with a tea-towel over their head.
As with any pro-breastfeeding post, here comes the inevitable disclaimer: I am not against formula feeding, and I have no issue with Mothers who choose to give their wee-ones a bottle. While I did breast-feed, my kid did occasionally have a bottle, and he occasionally had formula. The most important thing is the child is being fed, right? And as I see it, formula is the optimum alternative to breast-milk as developed by very clever scientists, and I trust scientists, for the most part anyway. The way formula is marketed however, and the companies that produce it… well, that’s a whole other blog post (Edit: Screw another blog post. I totally go off about this near the end of this post).
I digress. Yesterday a twitter storm blew up when a mother tweeted a picture of this sign in a cafe in Dorking:
Aside from the fact it’s illegal to ask a breastfeeding mother to stop feeding, or move from a place she has every right to be (for example, a cafe), the sign also begs the question – where are disabled people supposed to go to the loo if it’s full of breastfeeding mothers? (The cafe owner claims the sign has been misunderstood, and they were only ‘suggesting’ mothers might like to feed in private’. Which is fine, except that’s absolutely NOT what the sign says…)
So I started thinking about breastfeeding, and how difficult it can be, even without having to worry that any minute a helpful so-and-so is going to tap you on the shoulder and tell you to put a tea-towel over baby’s head for the sake of ‘discretion’. While it’s great that celebs with huge numbers of Instagram followers are attempting to normalise breastfeeding, it struck me just how depressing it is that they even have to bother. How have we reached the point where breastfeeding is not seen as the norm? Why is it seen as more normal to give our children milk from another animal rather than our own? Again, I’m not bashing formula feeding here, I’m just struck by the language used in this debate, particularly the use of the word ‘normal’ – because for breastfeeding to need normalising suggests that the majority view it as ‘abnormal’. Yet it’s how we humans have evolved to feed our young. How can that be abnormal?
Here are the problems, as I see it:
1. The sexualisation of the female body is now so widespread, so mainstream, that we (and that’s a grand ‘we’ – I mean ‘we’ as a society) have lost the ability to separate breasts for sexual pleasure, and breasts which swell with milk for our young. One now trumps the other, and breastfeeding is the loser by a long way. For many, the issue appears to be not that a mother is breastfeeding her child, oh no – they’re totally cool with that – they just don’t want to see it. So while Alyssa Milano is urged to be more discreet and not post pictures of her sucking baby, it’s completely fine for Kim Kardashian to strip for Paper Magazine in an attempt to ‘break the internet’. One is for titillation, which is fine, and the other is just a bit yuck. Got it?
2. Breastfeeding support in the UK can be a bit pants. Every five years the NHS Information Centre carries out an Infant Feeding Survey. The last results, published in 2012, are promising in that they’re better than the results of the 2005 survey, but they still don’t make for great reading. 81% of babies were breastfed at birth, which is great, but just three months later the figure has dropped to 17%. Come the six month check up, and just 1% of babies are still being breastfed. So what’s going wrong? Well here’s the thing about breastfeeding – it can be bloody hard (and sometimes literally bloody).
When I emerged from the drug-fueled haze of my emergency c-section, breastfeeding felt like an impossible skill me and my little one were destined never to master. The midwives, who were great for the most part, just didn’t have time to sit with me and guide me through it. They were understaffed and overwhelmed with a full ward of new mothers. Eight weeks later, when I thought we’d finally got the hang of it, more problem emerged. Frantic with worry, sleep-deprived, and about to blow my lid from the stress of spending an hour trying to get my screaming newborn to latch every time he needed a feed, I turned to my Health Visitor for support. She wasn’t interested, because he wasn’t losing weight and therefore there wasn’t a problem – even though it was taking so long to get him to latch that we were both a frazzled mess. She brought a Breastfeeding Peer Supporter with her but didn’t let her get a word in edge-ways – because there wasn’t ‘a problem’, before ushering her out of the door after about ten minutes. Luckily the Peer Supporter came back, sat with me, and talked through the problems. This is purely anecdotal of course, and in fact I’m lucky that my local NHS Trust even had a team of breastfeeding support workers – the service is staffed mainly by volunteers, and it can be a bit of a postcode lottery as to whether the service is available at all.
A report in 2012 found that breastfeeding could save the NHS £40 million a year, by reducing breast cancer in women, and gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, middle ear infections and necrotising enterecolitis (NEC) in babies. It’s in the Government’s own interest to provide adequate support for nursing mothers, as this is the only way rates will rise. There’s also the issue of just how breastfeeding is promoted. Right now the strategy seems to be to pile a whole load of pressure onto new mums by constantly reminding them that ‘breast is best’, so that the whole endeavor is tinged with a huge amount of pressure to NOT FAIL because if you FAIL you are a BAD MUM. Breast might be best, but I’m not sure how helpful it is to keep going on about it in that manner.
3. Formula Companies still market their products aggressively, despite the law supposedly preventing it. While I’m absolutely not against babies being formula fed (Disclaimer! Disclaimer!), I do take issue with the way formula is marketed (and come on, we all know about Nestle). It is in the interests of formula companies to promote their products, however, because of the way certain companies were framing their adverts, many parents mistakenly believed formula to be better for their kids than breast milk. So the Government took action, banned the promotion of formula for children under six months, and banned formula companies from positively comparing formula milk to breast-milk. However, clever as they are, the formula companies sniffed out a few loopholes in the 1995 legislation, developed ‘Follow-on’ Milk for ‘older babies’, and carried on advertising as before. Let’s be clear, follow on milk is just formula. It’s pretty much exactly the same as regular infant formula. A survey conducted by the NCT, Save The Children, and Unicef found that 60% of mothers had still been exposed to advertising by formula companies, despite the Government tightening the legislation. The NCT continues to argue that any promotion of formula milk undermines breastfeeding.
I don’t know how to normalise breastfeeding – because to me it is normal. It angers me that we need to keep having this debate. All we can do is keep reminding ignorant cafe owners of the law, nag politicians to provide appropriate support for new mothers on the NHS, and try and claw our way back to a situation in which breasts aren’t just for titillation. Easy, right?