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The Breastfeeding Rebellion: A Step Back For Womankind

It never fails. Every year as we near World Breastfeeding Week, 1-7 August, articles come out on the subject of breastfeeding intended to stir up emotions and debate among mothers.  True to form, The Guardian has just published  an article by Viv Groskop, “Let the Breastfeeding Rebellion Begin“.  It catalogs, yet again, the controversy that surrounds breastfeeding in the 21’st Century.

Although at first glance it appears to be an even handed examination of the issues, the overall tone leans toward the negative.  As local and national health groups gear up to promote breastfeeding, this article calls into question whether these efforts may be foolhardy and be putting too much pressure on mothers.

I have been in the trenches throughout the period in question and have observed the same issues raised in this article.   I will outline what Ms. Groskop deems to be the “Breastfeeding Rebellion”.   In a followup post, I will take these points and put them into a more positive light, calling for a “Breastfeeding Revolution.”

Mothers are struggling with breastfeeding and abandoning it.

The article starts with the story of a mother, Sarah Butters who apparently admitted to the author that she hates breastfeeding. “As a mother you feel you should be able to feed your child and I just couldn’t do it.” 

Ms. Groskop, tells us how this mother Sarah, after 6 days of trying and failing, went to bottle-feeding and five years on, still harbors resentment about having to make that choice.  She adds that there is an increasing chorous of mothers in the blogosphere who share similar feelings of guilt and/or resentment about their breastfeeding experiences.  So it is not surprising that “Despite concerted efforts, only one in 5 mothers in the UK are breastfeeding at 6 months.” 

Breastfeeding promotion puts too much pressure on women and may be counterproductive

It is obvious from the statistics that breastfeeding promotion efforts haven’t made much of a dent in the numbers.  She cites a few examples of academics looking at this issue in the UK and the States.  

-Dr. Michele Crossly, a psychologist from the University of Manchester apparently found “far from being an ‘empowering’ act, breastfeeding may have become more of a ‘normalised’ moral imperative that many women experience as anything but liberational”. 

-Sue Attersby, a researcher and lecturer in Midwifery at Aston Uiversity says, “We need to support women who use formula.  Mothers who formula-feed are treated like second class citizens.” 

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Ms. Groskop adds, that “even breastfeeding promoters are concerned about the guilt and bad feelings being reported by increasing numbers of moms about their breastfeeding experiences”. 

-Pam Lacey, chair of The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, said …”It’s the system that has failed them by failing to support them.”

Breastfeeding has become a war and is tied to what it means to be a good mother.

Lumped in this section are several snippets that speak to the notion of maternal identity, feminism and polarization of women around their experiences of breastfeeding.

-A British academic researching breastfeeding and maternal identity feared a backlash from those in the pro-breastfeeding lobby and anonymously commented, “Breastfeeding has become so strongly tied to what it means to be a good mother. There is no space to say, ‘It didn’t work for me’.”

-Hannah Rosin’s inflammatory article, “The Case Against Breastfeeding” is held up as an example of a huge backlash in the US against the breastfeeding lobby.  Ms. Groskop tells us, “this debate is polarizing into the “lactofanatics” vs. the “formula apologists.” 

Stigma and guilt can be common for women whether they breastfeed or not .   

According to Ms. Groskop,  ”Both here and in the US very few mothers are entirely comfortable about their breastfeeding decisions and many admit they wish they didn’t have to do it.  Some see the promotion of breastfeeding as part of the problem.”

She elaborates on this theme by sharing her thoughts on the recently released 20′th Anniversary edition of the book by Gabrielle Palmer, “The Politics of Breastfeeding”.  It is hard to miss her bias when she writes about this book that examines breastfeeding in a bottle-feeding world:

“Dubbed “the Freakonomics of motherhood”, the book demands that the advertising of formula milk be banned, calls for breast milk to be given an award for the fewest food miles, and praises women for producing “the most ecological food product in the world”. So now not only is breastfeeding nutritionally correct, it’s also environmentally ethical.” 

Ms. Groskop does acknowledge that breastfeeding advocates are adamant that promotion is needed ” because the rates are poor.” 

-Mary Renfrew, professor of mother and infant health at the University of York, describes the health benefits of breastfeeding as being equivalent to “a very powerful broad-spectrum drug”. 

Lest that engender guilt, we are yet again treated to more from Ms. Rosin’s article: 

“The difficulty with the health argument, though, is that it lays women open to the charge of selfishness if they don’t breastfeed. Which, argues Rosin, is demeaning. “In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework.” In the 21st century, it is not the vacuum cleaner keeping us down, Rosin adds, “but another sucking sound”. 

It is very telling that this article closed with this quote from of a report on mothers who use formula by Dr Ellie Lee, a sociologist at Kent University:

“There is no one who would not concede that breast milk is good for babies. But the body that provides the milk is connected to a whole set of social relationships.”

“When it doesn’t work, women take it so personally. They will say, ‘My baby hates me’. It’s such a destructive thing to do to mothers. And I think the pressure is getting worse.”

Houston, we have a problem. We have just celebrated the 40′th Anniversary of  the first walk on the moon, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”  Yet,  in 50+ years, we have not been able to figure out how to help women breastfeed without angst.  

To be continued…


1 comment

1 Tony Nelson { 08.05.09 at 4:22 am }

To Maire Clements

Well written critique – I have forwarded your article to http://www.medialens.org to ask whether they are aware of whether the Guardian receives advertising revenue sponsorship from any infant formula manufacturers. Do you know if they do?

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