Monday, May 10, 2010

Things I Learned about Breastfeeding, Part 1: The Context

Get ready for a long post; as it turns out, there's a lot to learn about breastfeeding! In fact, there is so much to say, I've split the topic into two posts. My next post will address my specific experience; but first, I will help frame this experience by elaborating on breastfeeding as a context.

I've discovered that the topic is highly political, so broach it with caution! As it happens, many people -- mothers, hospital staff, random people -- can suddenly become defensive, guilt-ridden, smug, or downright angry at the mere mention of breastfeeding. Worse still, these unprovoked blowups are not limited to one camp; the "formula's fine" crew and the "lactivists" can be equally volatile.

Paradoxically, though, breastfeeding NEEDS to be talked about! The fact is, there is a minority of women who are milky goddesses, able to easily feed their baby with no problems or help. There is also a minority of women who simply cannot (or should not*) make milk, regardless of how much help they get. The rest of us, and I'm guessing we're the vast majority, fall in the middle -- we're physically able to make milk, but we need help in figuring out this new and seemingly strange process. (It's not easy!)

Current (American) statistics indicate that the majority of mothers leave the hospital having initiated breastfeeding, but by 6 months, not even 14% are still exclusively breastfeeding. Such a dramatic decline is surely due to many factors, but it cannot be addressed, let alone solved, without first resolving the vitriol-fraught nature of the breastfeeding dialogue. Both sides need to let go of their baggage and resolve the following:
  • to agree that, thanks to modern scientific advances, formula is perfectly acceptable food for babies;
  • to acknowledge the numerous scientific findings proving the quantifiable nutritional superiority of breast milk;
  • to ensure that breastfeeding information and assistance exists for all new mothers;
  • to ensure that said assistance is ample, accessible, and that it is adequately promoted and supported by the medical and health communities;
  • to condemn public attitudes of breastfeeding being "gross" or obscene;
  • to support mothers, especially those experiencing difficulty with breastfeeding, in whatever solution is appropriate for their individual situation. This includes formula use.
  • to reinforce that while breastmilk is superior to formula, a breastfeeding mom is NOT superior to a formula-feeding mom!
If everyone were to shed their attitudes and find common ground, we could foster a culture that could give the support that moms need. We must trade in our judgement for compassion, our blame for solutions, our righteousness for humility, our silence for meaningful dialogue.

In sum, we must say "enough!" to the current "damned if you do, damned if you don't" paradox of breastfeeding; the job of raising a child is hard enough as it is.

And thus concludes Breastfeeding Politics 101! ;-) Now that you have a better idea of the current context, my personal/specific observations to come Part 2 may have more resonance. Until then!

(* due to taking medication, for example)


Phat Girl said...

Hallelujah! Thank you, thank you, thank you for finally putting this in terms that it needs to be presented in. I'm SO sick of the debate and the polarized nature of said debate. We're being horrible to each other. Having been a breast feeder and a formula feeder, I know all too well how each one goes and it sickens me to see how much guilt we go through regardless of our choices. Thank you!

The Fearless Formula Feeder said...

Can you fall in love at first post? Because I think I just did.

This is a BRILLIANT post. Simply brilliant. I'm retweeting it, pronto.

As a relatively vocal "persona" on the formula feeding side, I want to assure you that I agree with you on all accounts. I *hate* that this battle has become us vs them. When I started blogging about these issues, I really didn't see it as black and white. I felt as you did, that both sides needed to calm down and look at things rationally.

Unfortunately, since then, I (and my readers) have endured numerous attacks by breastfeeding "advocates" that just cannot fathom how someone can be pro-breastfeeding without being anti-formula. And this kind of vitriol causes the defensive attitude you speak of - this assumption that breastfeeding moms are judging us, etc, etc. I've actually found that most breastfeeding moms are 100% supportive of those who've struggled with nursing; it's a small but very vocal minority whose radical (and highly judgmental) views are ruining it for the rest.

The problem, as I see it, is that most formula feeders I know are NOT anti-breastfeeding. In fact, many desperately wanted to breastfeed, and were unable for a variety of reasons. So while we aren't going around slamming breastfeeding (quite the opposite, really), we see all this anti-formula crap being spewed all over the blogosphere and Twitter and it pushes some of us over the edge. I try and remain logical despite the anger I feel about the unfairness of it all, and encourage my readers to do the same... but honestly, it's really freaking difficult at times.

Anyway. I just wanted to let you know how awesome I think this post is. I hope many will read it and rethink this debate. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Breastfeeding is primative and for primates. Put on your bras and keep your boobies covered in public.

Anonymous said...

Great post. It also corresponds with a current item on the news about a Mum asked to stop breastfeeding her baby poolside while she was watching her other little child during swimming lessons. This issue pops up on the news quite regularly, yet the topic is never really explored. The 'pool people' issue some silly statement about no 'eating' next to the pool, and the mother responds about why she doesn't want to feed her baby in some smelly old locker room/bathroom.
The topic itself is never treated seriously. It's good to hear both sides of the debate, with the only ultimate goal being the best welfare each individual Mum&Baby!

Anonymous said...

These are a result of an opinion poll conducted by the WPG Free Press recently - FYI

Should women breastfeed in public?
Yes. It's perfectly normal. 35%
Yes, but they should use a blanket or cover. 52%
No, breastfeeding should be done in private. 11%
Total Votes: 5963