Bottling It

It’s World Breastfeeding Week until Sunday. The purpose of World Breastfeeding Week is to raise international awareness – through a number of initiatives, including several Brestivals across the island of Ireland.

Infant feeding is a divisive, and contentious, issue when it really shouldn’t be. Women who don’t breastfeed their babies are judged, while those who do are also judged – especially when we continue to breastfeed past the six month mark.

‘Breast is best’ is countered with ‘Fed is Best’. As it happens, I was neither breast, nor formula fed. In 1968, a few months shy of her 22nd birthday, my mother gave birth to her first child. She tried to breastfeed him, but was told he was ‘a hungry baby’ and she ‘didn’t have enough milk’ so she was left feeling like a failure. She then developed mastitis and abscesses in both breasts – a clear indication that there was plenty of milk in them. Like so many women in the post-WWII era, she was not supported in her endeavours to breastfeed. The information she was given was incorrect, and her baby was cast as ‘the enemy’ who wanted more than she could give, and who was too hungry for her body to nourish.

So, she fed him the same way she fed the next four of her babies (my youngest brother, born in 1985, was fed SMA because it was recommended by the hospital after he’d been born with whooping cough) – with boiled, cooled, cow’s milk. It’s far from an ideal source of nutrition for human babies, especially when you consider that it’s made for bovine babies, but we all survived. We all lived to adulthood (though I had a few close calls), but the ‘Fed is Best’ slogan indicates that surviving is good enough – even though our babies could be thriving if only mothers, and families, were supported to breastfeed.

Doctors, nurses, and other health care providers are still very ignorant about breastfeeding, and they can’t pass on information they don’t have. As a result, we have women being told things like*:

There is no nutritional value in breastmilk after six months.
You shouldn’t feed once the baby has teeth.
Formula is just as good.
Feeds should be timed.
Feeding on demand spoils the baby.
Once they start on solids, you should stop breastfeeding.
You can’t drink alcohol and breastfeed.
You’ll ruin their teeth.
You’re just not making enough milk – that’s why s/he’s always hungry.

Of course there are women who – for many reasons – can’t breastfeed. I’ve worked with several women who have histories of child sexual abuse for whom even the thought of breastfeeding is traumatic. My contention, however, is that if more women were truly supported, if more women were provided with correct, recent, evidence-based, information our breastfeeding rates would increase. And, with the increase in breastfeedeing rates, our population’s long-term health would improve, too.

We’ve all heard that it takes a village to raise a child (and I have spoken of how it takes a village to abuse a child, as well); in the same vein, we need to realise that mothers don’t breastfeed – societies do.

* These are things that were actually said to me, or women I know. Feel free to add your own!

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