Who needs Breastfeeding Awareness Week?

The breast v bottle debate has turned a practical issue into a moral guilt-trip, starved of compassion or common sense.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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It’s national breastfeeding awareness week – and the moralists have got the teat between their teeth (1).

The UK Department of Health on Monday advised mothers to breastfeed their babies exclusively at least for the first six months of their lives, as ‘exclusive breastfeeding…provides all the nutrients a baby needs’ (2).

This brings the UK’s recommendation into line with that of the World Health Organisation (WHO). It has won the government friends in the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, the Royal College of Midwives, and those champions of earth-motherhood, the National Childbirth Trust (NCT); and it has made absolutely clear who the enemy is: those irresponsible formula-milk mothers, who turn to the bottle when things get rough.

‘We want to support women in their decision to breastfeed and help them continue to do so’, said public health minister Hazel Blears (3). Those who make the decision not to breastfeed can presumably expect no support at all.

So conviction politics has come to this: where the only debates on which government ministers have a crystal-clear sense of what must be done are around issues such as how, precisely, it is best for a mother to deliver milk to her growing baby. What should be a personal, practical decision about breast or bottle, or a combination of both, has become a political and moral battleground, on which the ‘breast is best’ lobby pitches the full weight of its arguments against an imaginary ‘bottle-feeding culture’ (4), and against guilt-tripped mothers who just want a decent night’s sleep. What is this all about?

The strongest argument put forward by the breast-feeding lobby is that a baby’s health benefits from breastfeeding. Breastmilk contains certain properties that help protect babies from illnesses, and this is particularly important in the first few months.

But from the number of healthy people walking around who were bottle-fed as babies, and women’s experience of bottle-feeding their babies today, it is self-evident that formula milk is not poison and bottle-feeding your baby does not amount to sending him to an early grave. Not that you’d know this from the ‘breast is best’ publicity – the relentless hyping of breastmilk’s health-giving benefits clearly implies that formula mums are actively damaging their children.

The promotion of breast-feeding is a moral argument, not a health-based one. This is highlighted by the Department of Health’s emphasis on ‘exclusive’ breastfeeding. Combining breastfeeding with bottle-feeding is a solution adopted by many parents, for obvious reasons: babies get the health benefits of breastmilk, while people other than the mothers – fathers, babysitters, nursery workers, grandparents – have the ability to feed the baby.

But even this straightforward, pragmatic solution falls foul of the strict standards of the breastfeeding lobby, because, one can only assume, it is seen to imply less than 100 percent commitment to the constant needs of your child.

Writing in the London Evening Standard, Lucy Cavendish describes her experience of breast-feeding as ‘a full-time job’. ‘Day in, day out I have something attached to me’, she writes. ‘If it isn’t Leonard, then it’s the expressing machine. As soon as the baby stops feeding I know I have an hour and then I must express so that I can be ready to feed him again two hours later. Absolutely nothing else is achieved.’ (5)

Exclusive breast-feeding means that a mother gives over six months of her entire life to the process of feeding her baby. This, of course, is what those self-appointed experts in good parenting in Whitehall and the NCT like about it: unquestioned commitment, slavish dedication, Putting The Baby First. But as Cavendish points out, the reality for mothers is something quite different.

‘What is even more worrying…is that I would probably be considered a breast-feeding success’, she remarks, having detailed just how much she has let breast-feeding take over her life. ‘Maybe they’ll give me a government approved Good Breast-feeder certificate to encourage me to continue.’ (6) It’s scant consolation – even for mothers like Cavendish, who find breast-feeding relatively easy (‘I’ve never had to deal with the excruciating disappointment of a baby who just won’t latch on’), and whose babies gain reasonable amounts of weight (‘”You must be producing super milk!” they say’).

Her message is simple: if it’s bad enough for me, what about those other mothers who can’t, or choose not to, breast-feed? The last thing they need is yet another moral demand, by people who seem to have little clue about what it is actually like to bring up a child.

If the ‘breast is best’ zealots put more thought into the realities of motherhood and less into snappy new slogans about breastfeeding awareness, they would notice the inconsistencies in their arguments. They would notice, for example, that breast-feeding is a guilt trip even if you decide to do it: that everything you eat or drink is supposed to be examined in advance for healthy-baby properties. They would notice that, the minute a baby falls below the ideal weight on the chart, a supplementary bottle is recommended – presumably to compensate for one of the obvious disadvantages of breast-feeding, which is that you never know exactly how much milk the babies are getting, and some may not be getting enough.

They would notice that ‘breast is best’ is applied selectively – that if mothers have triplets, suddenly bottles are okay. And they would notice the paradox of ‘involved’ fatherhood: that at the very time parents are being beaten over the head with demands to involve the dads, the proposed feeding method is entirely mother-centric. Health visitors might chirp about the virtues of expressing breast-milk into a bottle so that Daddy can do the night feed, but if you have to go through the palaver of expressing, surely you might as well feed the baby yourself.

The ‘experts’ don’t, of course, notice these things. Because by transforming breast-feeding from a practical matter of how best to feed one’s baby into a moral statement about The Kind Of Mother You Are, genuine attempts to help new mothers through the disorienting first few months have been abandoned in favour of a deluge of contradictory advice and unbridled prejudice.

‘Breast is best’? Forget that. When it comes to feeding her baby, Mother knows best.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents

(1) See National Breastfeeding Week, 11-17 May 2003, on the BBC website

(2) Ministers promote breast benefits, BBC News, 12 May 2003

(3) Ministers promote breast benefits, BBC News, 12 May 2003

(4) Breastfeeding Awareness Week 2003, National Childbirth Trust

(5) Bullied into breast-feeding, London Evening Standard, 13 May 2003

(6) Bullied into breast-feeding, London Evening Standard, 13 May 2003

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Topics Politics


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