Not ‘best,’ just normal

NS July 21st, 2009

In the last 24 hours, two major UK newspapers (The Times and the Daily Mail) have run articles questioning, decrying and even outright criticising breastfeeding as the ‘best’ method for feeding an infant. The tagline on the Times article reads: “Mothers are constantly urged to breastfeed yet there is little evidence to suggest that it is better than formula milk.”

How odd that sounds, I thought. Why is the onus on breastmilk to prove itself better than the artificial alternative? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Where are the studies holding breastfeeding up as the norm and challenging formula to prove itself just as nutritious, safe and healthy for babies and mothers? I imagine they don’t exist because they can’t prove these things. Besides which, who is going to sponsor and undertake a study on whether or not an artificial means of feeding ourselves is better than just ingesting readily available food meant for our digestive systems? And if artificial food did become a necessity, wouldn’t we want to make it as close as possible to real food while finding ways to make real food more easily accessible? Doing it the other way round just doesn’t make sense to me.

Still, culture is a powerful thing and scientists (and the companies funding them) are not immune to its lures and demands. So they see the public voicing concerns on subjects relating to health and they look for news ways in which they can refute or justify certain claims. The problem is, they often disregard whether the claim is actually a scientifically worthy one. Should studies be done on how we can make formula safer and more like breastmilk? Absolutely. But in controlling for the experiments involved in that research, breastfeeding must be held as the norm, the control group, the standard, not the other way around. Breastmilk is the yardstick against which other infant feeding methods should be measured, not forced to prove itself against its artificial alternatives or denigrated as some kind of ‘special bonus’ thing you can do if you want to be extra healthy, like taking a flaxseed oil supplement. Breastfeeding isn’t an extra special health benefit and it isn’t best, it just…is.

It seems to me that these studies are done not because they make scientific sense, or because there really is any doubt over whether artificial milk is better than the stuff we make ourselves, but because many women want justification for why breastfeeding is considered better than the choice they made: better than their mother’s choice, and their friends. They are angry at the “breastfeeding lobby” (often called “boob Nazis”) for making them feel guilty; telling them (by promoting breastfeeding as normal) that what they’ve done is selfish, or unnatural, or even harmful. Even if those words are never spoken, the inference is there to these women. But why is it there? Why is all this anger directed at those who uphold breastfeeding as the normal way to feed a baby, and fight for their right to do so while out in public and holding down jobs? Why are their suggestions on better positioning or latch, or firsthand knowledge of how to treat mastitis, or an explanation of the supply-and-demand process of milk production automatically treated as judgmental and pushy?

I know that some breastfeeding advocates are indeed judgmental and pushy in their approach, but did it never occur to anyone that perhaps breastfeeding women can be just as insecure and defensive as those who use formula? That maybe someone’s dismissal of breastfeeding is as hurtful as the dismissal of those who use bottles, for whatever reason? I’m not trying to get into the Opression Olympics here but put yourself in their (my) shoes: try hearing one of your most treasured relationships called “showing off,” or your breasts called “udders” in a derogatory way, or have your modesty, decency and even mental health challenged by those who think it’s “disgusting” and “weird.” Try listening to your baby cry in hunger as you desperately search for somewhere inoffensive to feed her, out of the way of disapproving or uncomfortable stares. Try hearing the very same health care providers, lactation consultants and friends (both ‘real’ and online) who helped you in one of your most difficult times, as a new mother struggling to learn how to relate to and care for your baby, compared to a murderous, fascist regime. Try being thrown out of a shop or ordered off an airplane for feeding your child. Then tell me you can’t understand why some breastfeeding advocates can get a bit testy when we’re told to shut up and stop making everyone ELSE feel bad.

Regardless of who suffers what wrongs, that doesn’t stop there being bad feelings and a deep mistrust on both sides. Women who breastfed with ease can be ignorant of and insensitive to the struggles other mothers face in their efforts to nurse their babies in the early days and weeks. They could do with some tact and understanding. Similarly, some of those who tried and “failed” at breastfeeding direct their feelings of anger, sadness and doubt at the ones who succeeded, taking that ‘victory’ as an insult to their loss. The thing is, that anger is often misplaced. Where is the anger at the culture that sets us up to fail, telling us our bodies are broken or not under our control and instead are more useful as men’s playthings and advertisers’ moneymakers? Where is the anger at a maternity care system that forces interventions on birthing women that later interfere with or impede breastfeeding initiation? Where is the outrage that most nurses, midwives and even pediatricians are not required to learn about breastfeeding in their medical training, or keep up-to-date with it once certified? Where is the disbelief that so many myths and misinformation are floating around out there that one has to actively and independently seek out help from specially trained consultants to get proper, evidence-based advice? It’s not just having the right health care provider and support network, but knowing that these services exist and where to find them.

Many women who were able to overcome problems simply lucked out in stumbling across an acquaintance or website that held the answers they needed. I know that if it hadn’t been for a member of an online forum I belonged to (not related to parenting) at the time of my daughter’s birth who suggested the kellymom and La Leche League sites and an NCT peer support network, I would’ve believed the midwife who squeezed my breast and said I didn’t have any milk and ordered me to supplement or risk hospitalizing my baby. I wouldn’t have seen the connection between my low supply problems and the formula top-ups I was giving TNC and been able to stop mixed feeding and get her onto breastmilk exclusively. I wouldn’t have ever figured out that I was nursing too infrequently and in the wrong position and that that was causing my many bouts of mastitis and sore nipples, not my body’s lack of ability or my baby’s over-active hunger.

It’s just such a damn shame that we can’t help each other out anymore without being deemed up in other people’s business for totally selfish and horrible reasons. Since when did sharing information with our female brethren on an experience we share (motherhood — and more specifically, newborn care) become a hostile act of aggression instead of helpful advice?

I’ll tell you when. It was when motherhood went public, got itself a PR agent and started doing two shows each day: the daytime show, performed for the audience watching intently with critics’ pens poised, and one at night, put on only for ourselves and our familes. The daytime show that feels like a yoke, a drain, a straighjacket of expectations that restricts our true potential. The late show, though — what a joy! Standing alone with only the adoring faces of our hearts’ loves shining up at us, we shed our masks, our stage makeup and our wigs. We leave our designated marks and ignore the director’s calls. We move freely and lightly, saying and doing what comes naturally instead of what’s printed on the script. We embrace motherhood as the art it should be, not the duty-bound chore it’s become.

Each night, when the curtain closes, we prepare ourselves for a new day and the critics’ reviews. We doubt ourselves and start listening to what the “experts” think instead of what makes sense to us, what comes instinctually. We see the other actors on stage, each honing her craft individually, and start to question whether our way is the best way or if we’re doing it all wrong. Instead of recognizing that each person will have a different way of going about putting on their play, we start to withdraw into ourselves and put distance between our spots on the stage. We get paranoid, thinking everyone else is watching and mocking and taking note of every mistake, every flubbed line or missed cue. We grow weary of this and get defensive whenever another actor sees us struggling and offers a hand or shares what method works for her. We insist that our method is best and that no other could possibly compare, and look for studies and research to prove it. We stop smiling at the other actors and retreat further backstage, deciding to go it alone lest any more criticism breaks our spirit completely.

This is the nature of mothering in public — always on display, always on a script, always up for review. And so breastfeeding, because it has such a strong association with what it means to be a mother (providing for and nurturing our babies), is a very emotionally charged subject. Sometimes I stop and think “How can something so supposedly simple be so darn complicated?” Because in this day and age, it really isn’t easy to breastfeed. The demands of work, partnership, romance, family, keeping home, looking good, being fit, accumulating wealth and success…they are the demands that we have grown up with and that we have to deal with constantly, in direct conflict with many of our biological, emotional and psychological desires.

Breastfeeding has been going on for centuries upon centuries but it’s never been as difficult as it is today. There is a lot of work to be done to normalize it again, to make it accessible and achievable for nearly all women again. But touting it as ‘best’ isn’t doing women any favours. We’re all trying our best just to be good enough. Holding up breastfeeding as something so special and perfect makes it seem unattainable to most women. In our efforts to reach and encourage these women, we’ve put breastfeeding on a pedestal that makes it an easy target for stone-throwing. The British public loves nothing more than taking someone or something down a peg or two when it gets too big for its britches. They don’t like any trace of smugness or being told that something they’ve done isn’t good enough or even not ‘best.’

So my response to these articles claiming that breast really isn’t best? No, of course it’s not. It’s just normal.

[h/t to The Brinkster]

21 Responses to “Not ‘best,’ just normal”

  1. Charlotte says:

    “Breastfeeding has been going on for centuries upon centuries but it’s never been as difficult as it is today.” Amen to that. For centuries women trusted that their bodies would feed their babies, and they did. Suddenly with too much information – and the anxiety that you so well describe around breast being best – it’s become hard and scary and something you need to monitor.

    Well done on your superb, reasoned response to the articles which I read and had fuzzy thoughts about. I knew you’d come up with something articulate. Now are you sending this to the F-Word for publication?

  2. Karen says:

    Great post on a difficult topic which encapsulates much of what I’ve been thinking about breastfeeding and mothering recently – thank you :-)

  3. I agree 100% with everything you’ve said above. Breastfeeding is simply normal. If our ancestors hadn’t been breastfed, none of us would be here today. Unfortunately the formula industry is massive, as you know, and books like “Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding” discuss this succinctly. There is no money to be made from breastmilk which is the largest part of the problem.

    Women need more support and help breastfeeding and less articles like the ones you quoted in The Times and The Daily Mail. Article such as those only serve to embolden formula companies and mothers who need validation that their formula-fed baby isn’t going to suddenly sprout horns on his forehead, thus discouraging women who may be on the fence when it comes to breastfeeding.

    What I’ve found though is that if you list the many components of breastmilk that simply aren’t found in formula along with the reasons why breastmilk is best, you get a riot of angry women all convinced that somehow you’re looking down upon them rather than women who will listen to your message, eager to learn. It’s a sad state of affairs all ’round.

  4. April says:

    Sooo true. I am not a fan of the “breast is best” slogan and I think you articulated so well exactly why that is just the wrong thing to say within British culture…thankyou!

  5. grit says:

    i feel we are moving into a world where we are simply no longer allowed to follow our instinctive parenting feelings.

    increasingly our parental behaviour is monitored and assessed and we are in many subtle ways given a scorecard with our pass/fail results.

    our compliance with sanctioned and official procedures will then be the means to access other benefits and privileges. it thus becomes much more difficult to be independent, or to be ‘an off-template parent’.

    and sadly, i feel that the template for the new ‘ideal parent’ is one which is created by business interests. for them, it would be perfect if we became unchallenging, non-questioning consumer parents.

  6. Carina says:

    I’m going to start arguing with,

    What’s with apples? No one can prove that apples are any better than fruit-flavored roll-ups in a foil wrapper.

    Come on APPLES, PROVE IT.

  7. A Free Man says:

    I get that this isn’t your primary point, but the Times (““Mothers are constantly urged to breastfeed yet there is little evidence to suggest that it is better than formula milk.” ) is wrong. There’s a fair bit of evidence, actually. I could give them some if they like.

  8. Sara says:

    Unicef have also published a response to the recent articles, commenting on the significance of study results.

  9. NS says:

    @Charlotte – Not sure I’ll send it to The F Word. Anything that promotes breastfeeding and natural birth seems to go over like a lead brick there with a lot of the (rather young and childless) readers.

    @Karen – Well, glad I could save you some time writing about it yourself. ;)

    @Frost at Midnight – Great comments, thank you. I agree with them all, especially the bit about formula companies having a vested interest in sabotaging women’s ability to breastfeed. It makes me so angry!

    @April – Why, you’re welcome. Oh, and thanks for the mention in the MDC thread!

    @grit – I’ve been thinking a lot about parenting and consumerism lately, specifically as it relates to women, so watch out for an upcoming post about that! Thanks for stopping by.

    @Carina – You apple nazi, you! /sarcasm

    @A Free Man – If the media didn’t twist research to suit its own nefarious purposes, wouldn’t we have pigs with wings crowding the skies? :D

    @Sara – Thank you for the link, I’ll read it right away!

  10. Geekymummy says:

    What a well thought out post, you speak such sense. I’m a biologist and I can tell you that there are likely things in breastmilk that science still knows nothing about. I discovered an obscure paper describing that large quantities of a little understood growth factor, maybe involved in intestinal growth is found in large quantities in breastmilk and there are sure to be others. Formula will always be playing catch up, and will never beat nature. I have been learning a lot about omega 3 fats recently though, and if you are breastfeeding I’d take some of that flaxseed oil!

  11. Geekymummy says:

    Great post. Testing if I can comment using myiphone here, apologies

  12. Natalie says:

    I’m glad that you made the comment about breast not being best, just normal. However, at the same time, unfortunately, some, not me, would infer even from that, that to make the choice that isn’t breast, is abnormal. This is a really informative read that I know a lot of women will relate to. Aside from the constant critiquing of women and holding up what they do and don’t do for inspection and analysis, as always with a lot of the issues that affect how much women take them to heart, it’s validation. Whatever way a woman chooses to feed her child, she needs to get behind her choice and stop looking for validation from all and sundry, particularly as 99% of the people we seek validation from, don’t matter. I’ve breastfed both of my kids, currently breastfeeding my 14 week old, and I wholeheartedly believe in my choice. If and when the time comes and I decide to give her formula, I’ll get behind my choice then too.

  13. NS says:

    @Geekymummy – I’m constantly amazed at what can be done with breastmilk, other than feeding babies of course. The fact that it can be used to treat minor skin irritations and eye infections is pretty cool. If its topical use is that powerful, imagine what it’s doing to your baby’s insides! Very neat.

    @Natalie – Yes, I did think that someone out there would probably be offended that I’d called breastfeeding normal because that would mean, to them, that I’m saying formula is abnormal. And to some extent, I do think it’s abnormal, but only in the sense that it is the artificial alternative to a biological substance, just as having an artificial leg is not “normal.” Abnormal doesn’t mean “bad” it simply means “not typical.” I prefer use of the word normal to “natural” because while I believe that breastMILK is natural, the act of breastfeeding is not, at this time, natural. Let me explain.

    There are hormones released at birth that encourage us to put our babies to our breast but they are squashed or hindered in many women through widespread use of drugs, epidurals, interventions and the stress and discomfort that can often accompany birthing in a hospital setting where one has little control over what is happening and what is done to one’s body. BreastFEEDING is a learned skill that, in the past, was passed down from generation to generation. Seeing everyone (well, the females) in your family breastfeed as you grow up and seeing women openly feeding in public, not to mention hearing it discussed and tips and knowledge traded, is how women used to gain not only the right positioning and latch but also how supply and demand actually works, how to treat common problems (sore nipples, mastitis, blocked duct, latch problems, etc..) indeed made it seem the natural option to women of subsequent generations.

    These days, women don’t grow up with a breastfeeding-friendly culture and it has become denormalized to the point where it is seen as some kind of “nice bonus if you can manage it, but not necessary and, in fact, a bit strange and inconvenient” activity. That’s why I prefer ‘normal’ as opposed to natural for the act and skill of breastfeeding itself. Also, because there has been such a backlash to the natural birth movement and there is beginning to be one to the green movement as well, with their touting of natural food and natural toys, etc.. I think promoting breastfeeding as simply ‘normal’ is a better bet, at least at the moment. Just my 2p (or £2, more like!).

  14. blues says:

    Great post. While I don’t have kids yet, this is something I worry about. I’ve heard very hostile attitudes towards breastfeeding from my own friends. Most recently, a friend of mine, a physician, was complaining that a woman she worked with, a fellow medical professional, left her pumped breastmilk in the communal refrigerator in the break room. I just don’t understand where and how this all became so objectionable.

  15. Sierra says:

    I have been pressured by doctors and nurses alike to breatfeed . Forcing information down my throat and when i tell them I am not sure I want to breastfeed they look at me with sour faces . I don’t understand why people get so touchy on the subject of breastfeeding . I still havent decided whether or not i will go through with it . I just wish I could make this decision without looking like a bad guy or being oppressed by either side for “making the wrong choice” .

  16. NS says:

    @blues – Oh, that kills me. A doctor complaining about breastmilk being near his precious food, as if it’s biohazard?! That’s pitiful. There are potentially toxic chemicals in formula but I don’t see anyone grossing out over that! I hope his colleague hasn’t sensed his disgust as it will surely make her more self-conscious than she probably already is about having to pump and store milk at work.

    @Sierra – I don’t think that giving you lots of information on breastfeeding and encouraging you to do it constitutes “forcing it down [your] throat” as you have said yourself that you haven’t decided yet. If you are truly on the fence then more info shouldn’t do any harm — it’s just there in case you need it. If you are leaning more towards *not* breastfeeding, that’s when all of the info and pep talks seem over the top and patronising. So if you’re already leaning that way and the breastfeeding stuff is just annoying you, tell them in no uncertain terms that you will decide what you’re going to do when the baby is born and you have all the info, thankyouverymuch.

    I think the reason many medical professionals stress breastfeeding is because not only is the healthier option but there’s often no “do over” if you decide later that you would’ve liked to try it after all. It’s much easier to try to breastfeed and then go to bottles if it’s not working out than to do it the other way round. Good luck to you, whatever you decide.

  17. kat says:

    What a fantastic post, just what I would have wished to say myself if only I were measured and eloquent.

    Attitudes to BF are so odd these days. I’m feeding both of my children (2 & 5 months) and occasionally get jokey comments about featuring in a Channel 4 documentary. We are so far removed from the natural norm that a person who feeds their child beyond tiny baby-hood qualifies for the freak show treatment. Thankfully these comments are few and far between!

  18. Jane says:

    I loved your post – it was sane and sensible and well written. As a mother who was unable to breastfeed (post partum haemhorrage – antibiotics – blah) I struggled to but apart from having a midwife jam baby onto my flinching nips, there was very little support. What I really liked was the phrase ‘breastfeeding is normal’ – an unpressured, natural and simple statement. Much better than Breast is Best. Perhaps a new campaign should be started: Nipples are Normal

  19. [...] one from the lovely Noble Savage on Not Best, Just Normal – or as I’d say, how the media have gone tits up then down about [...]

  20. For many years, scientists have been playing out the ingredients that make breast milk the perfect food for babies. They’ve discovered to day over 200 close compounds to fight infection, help the immune system nature, aid in digestion, and support brain growth – nature made properties that science simply cannot copy

  21. clareybabble says:

    Just found this through Cave Mother – what an excellent post! Fully agree with you.