I talked about breastfeeding a little while ago and I thought that would be all I’d have to say on the subject. Apparently, though, there’s more that needs to be said!
A few weeks ago I was at my GPs for Squirm’s check up. All was going great until the doctor asked me if I was still breastfeeding. “Yep!” I said, pretty happy that things were going so well at more than four months (especially with teeth coming in). Instead I got a serious look from the doctor, a lecture on the Vitamin C deficiencies of breast milk (?!) and a recommendation that I should give Squirm juice, and told that I really should have started that from 3 months.
This advice, based on an old wives tale, is just another piece of false advice given to me and other breastfeeding mothers. We are bombarded with them constantly from ‘Breastfeeding will cause saggy boobs’ (Pregnancy causes saggy boobs) to ‘When your breasts are soft you don’t have any milk any more’ (Breasts naturally soften after a little while. Thank goodness.) Sadly, a lot of the old wives tales come from the medical profession. I’ve avoided child health nurses since I was told that I had to introduce Squirm to a bottle and that hand expressing would cause mastitis. Then there’s my doctor friend with his concern that I wasn’t giving my (obviously healthy) baby the right nutrients.
A lot of these tales, unsurprisingly, are reinforced by people interested in promoting companies and products rather than breastfeeding. Henri Nestle, whose company developed an early formula in the late 1800s, was an entrepreneur, not a doctor, so obviously it was in his best interests to get as many mothers using formula as possible – whether they needed to or not. To get people to switch to bottle feeding, they had to convince mothers that breast milk was not as good for their babies as formula was. It’s pretty easy to tell mothers that their milk is too thin (compare what breast milk and formula looks like) or that there can’t be enough vitamins – after all we can’t tell what is in breast milk – there’s no handy ingredients label!
To add to the misinformation, there’s the double standard.
Imagine you were (for whatever reason) using formula. The feeding was going great for you and your baby was putting on good weight, but you were having some sleep issues. You turn to an online forum for help when suddenly every fourth response or so told you that you must give up formula feeding immediately and relactate or find breastmilk donors. People would be (justifiably) outraged. How dare they blame formula feeding for an unrelated problem.
But yesterday, a question about sleep was posted on a popular Brisbane parenting Facebook page. A good number of the respondents told the mother bluntly that she should just stop breastfeeding and change to formula. That breast milk was bad for babies, too thin for babies, didn’t have the right nutrients for babies. One person even declared that breast milk can kill babies. Yet, when I contacted the moderator of the page, I was told that she didn’t take a position. Allowing one kind of response (stop breastfeeding) and not another (stop formula feeding) is taking a side.
(This is where I suddenly get comments about how people were made to feel guilty about bottle feeding. Which I agree sucks. But the general population agrees that it sucks. Ask breastfeeding women how many times they get ill informed, judgmental comments too – only they’re not allowed to talk about it, because it might make people feel guilty . . . )
The double standard continues – doctors and child health nurses who suggest things which are untrue and detrimental to breastfeeding or insist that the mother must stop feeding early for no reason are normal. A breastfeeding advocate who suggests untrue things about formula feeding ends up on the front page of the Courier Mail. Breastfeeding a toddler is seen as perverse or disgusting, but we’re bombarded with ads for toddler formula (which was only introduced after formula companies were prevented from advertising infant formula – so their names, brands, and products would still be seen on television and in print). Organisations like the Australian Breastfeeding Association have strict guidelines around what they can and cannot say – even if you’re just an attendee at a regular meeting, while formula companies like Karicare can set up ‘parenting support websites’ like this one.
The statistics are pretty clear – most women in Australia want to breastfeed. But only 15% (and that’s the generous statistic) of women in Australia are able to breastfeed exclusively for six months (the recommended Word Health Organisation guidelines). The question is, how do we get past the myths and double standards to provide real support for all those women who want to breastfeed?
They’ve actually been working on it in Timor Leste – where they now has a 50% rate of babies exclusively breastfed for 6 months. They’ve done a lot of different things to achieve this, including better educating medical professionals about breastfeeding and using women to support other women in breastfeeding. We can easily do that in Australia. It would take very little for Child Health Nurses and GPs to be better educated on breastfeeding (they could read the fact or fiction page on the ABA website and be a lot better off to start with).
Additionally, every woman can help other women who want to breastfeed. It can be as simple as smiling at a woman who is breast feeding in public rather than telling them to cover the baby’s head or to turn and face the wall (a friend was told she should do that because breastfeeding was ‘disgusting’ – she already had a cover over the bub!) Instead of repeating the old wives tales to someone who is having trouble, you can recommend the ABA helpline (which is open to everyone, whether they are members or not) or a lactation counselor. If you’re not certain about whether you’re repeating an old wives tale (lots of grandmothers still suggest giving babies a bottle of water in summer – because that’s what they were told to do) but you really want to help, then take a little time to learn a little more about breastfeeding through visiting sites like ABA or Kellymom – it’s pretty amazing what our bodies can do and it’s cool to learn about!
This isn’t breastfeeding versus formula feeding. This is making sure accurate information is shared. This is making sure that choices are respected. This is making sure that those women who want to breastfeed are supported. This is making sure that the mothers are making the informed decisions, not the formula companies or the media.