This post was most recently updated on July 4th, 2019
GUILT…5 little letters that pack a punch way above the space they take up on the page. 5 little letters that are a heavy cross to bear when you are a parent. For some reason, that burden seems to fall even more heavily on mothers. Every tiny thing we do comes loaded with worry, doubt and GUILT.
The guilt I come across the most is formula-feeding guilt. I see it etched across women’s faces on a daily basis. They are bearing the weight of the way they are feeding their babies. Worried about other people’s judgement. Feeling the need to justify their choices.
Except that word ‘choice’ annoys the heck out of me. ‘Choice’ makes it sound like these women freely opted to formula feed; that there was a level playing field with various equal options laid out for her to pick.
Except making a ‘choice’ is never like that.
Even choosing a brand of toothpaste is never completely free will. There may be very persuasive adverts for that particular brand. Or your dentist strongly recommends it. You may not know what the ingredients are, or may try to choose a brand with more, or less, flouride according to your knowledge and opinions about flouride, or according to whether you have fluoride in your water. Your dentist may tell you that because you are using another kind of drug, you can’t use a particular type of toothpaste, so your choice may be restricted. You may not be able to read the ingredients on the tube, especially if you need reading glasses, struggle with the language or don’t understand the scientific-sounding words. It may be that you just prefer a certain flavour and pick one to suit your taste.
Infant feeding is likewise strewn with situations that may restrict us from exercising free will. What we do know is that more than 90% of women start off wanting to breastfeed their babies. Research also tells us that more than 80% of those women will later admit that they didn’t breastfeed for as long as they wanted. So SOMETHING is taking away free choice from all these women.
So it’s a about time we stopped talking about CHOICE. It’s a word that implies that the way these women feed their babies is somehow their responsibility. That somehow individidual mothers bear the blame and the guilt for not breastfeeding.
And that…well, that’s complete and utter TOSH
So, what is happening to this 80% of mothers who didn’t nurse for as long as they dreamed they would? Well, it’s a combination of things:
1. No support
There are still vast swathes of the country with no support groups, no breastfeeding counsellors, no International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, not even any peer supporters or well-informed friends. There are women who have no social support networks at all. Or who are too shy to reach out. Or who don’t realise that there even ARE people who can help. So they struggle on alone and fix their issues as best they can, because they are good mums, doing their best.
2. Sabotaging Support
Sometimes some help is worse than none. People who think they know about breastfeeding but only know how it was for them. People whose job it is to support infant feeding but who haven’t been given the training and up-to-date information they need to do their job well. People who are too busy to try to help mothers reach their goals with breastfeeding, so reach for the easy-fix of formula. And then there are those who see breastfeeding and are triggered into feeling guilt and sorrow for their own feeding story – and unconsciously need this mother to formula feed in order to feel validated in their own decisions. Mothers are often told they must wean – because their child is “too old”, or because they are taking a certain medication, or because they are encountering a breastfeeding challenge. This advice is almost always wrong.
3. Marketing of formula milk
Not just those ads you see on the TV, but the branding stalks us all day, every day, and ramps up as soon as they know you’re pregnant. Even the Bounty bags the NHS give you will have formula company logos in them. The health professionals who care for us are given free lunches, free holidays and free study days by formula companies. Their professional publications are often full of scientific-looking adverts proclaiming the efficacy of their product. You will be offered free gifts and support from ‘care-lines’ and online forums; as they pretend to be giving dispassionate, non-judgemental support they are actually fuelling the fires of distrust between formula feeding and breastfeeding mothers.
4. Social and Governmental apathy and fear
Our leaders are merely human. They have their own personal baby-feeding stories, or they have believed the marketing hype and truly think that formula is equal to breastmilk. They may even believe it is a scientific advance on nature. They might even believe it is better to formula feed, so that women can go back to work and contribute to the economy. They may worry that having an opinion on this controversial subject may lose them votes. It may not seem a priority to spend money on infant feeding support when there are so many other things to spend ever-decreasing budgets on.
5. When Nature or Nurture lets us down
Rare, but very real health issues, medical problems or social and emotional challenges that make breastfeeding very difficult indeed or even impossible. These are uncommon, but mustn’t be forgotten in our zeal to change the world and make breastfeeding more accessible to more women.
6. Your habitat or social context.
If you’ve never seen a woman in real life breastfeed, if you’ve grown up surrounded by attitudes that belittle breastfeeding or make it seem slutty or embarrassing or just, well…ikky, then why would you be blamed for feeding your baby the way your tribe feeds babies?
So, 6 reasons women don’t breastfeed. Do any of them seem a valid reason for blaming women? Do you think there may be anything that makes it logical to blame yourself? I’m saying this in no uncertain terms:
It’s not your fault
No. Of course not. It is SOCIETY’S job to stand up and take responsibility for this public health issue. Breastfeeding is the one single most powerful way of evening out social inequalities. Breastfeeding saves millions of pounds and massive resources for the NHS. Yes, even here in the UK, breastfeeding saves lives. So it’s time we stopped silencing mothers with platitudes and guilt and started helping new mothers to do what most of them actually want to do: nurse their babies.
Unicef, the worldwide child health charity has launched a Call to Action for the UK. Yes Unicef – that charity which we are more used to seeing asking for money for starving kids in war-torn developing countries. Why on earth are they focusing their attention on us, I hear you cry? Well, because they’ve looked at the evidence. They’ve looked at our stats. They’ve looked at our record of child health and child poverty and frankly, they’re appalled. We have pretty much the worst breastfeeding rates in the whole world – yes, even worse than the USA, which has a 6 WEEK maternity leave, hardly any midwives and no postnatal home visiting at all.
Like Unicef, I think it’s time to Change the Conversation around infant feeding; to take the heat and the blooming guilt out of the equation and start talking about it like any other public health issue and to start doulaing women a bit more by:
Sitting with women where they are and helping them get where they want to go, without judgement and without conditions.
If you’d like to add your voice to the Call to Action, please sign here. Because together we are strong.
And if you’re a mother who has been told you can’t/shouldn’t breastfeed, please consider not taking that at face value and reaching out for some support. The quickest way is to ring a breastfeeding helpline:
National Breastfeeding Helpline:
0300 100 2012
NCT Breastfeeding Helpline: 0300 330 0771
La Leche League GB Helpline: 0845 120 2918
Association of Breastfeeding Mothers: 0300 330 5453