I always vowed that I would never write about breastfeeding – it has become a far too contentious issue. Today though Facebook decided (for reasons known to its algorithm and marketing strategy) that I may like to read this article from 2013 commenting on the Save the Children campaign calling for large cigarette-packet style warnings on all boxes of formula milk – warnings which would state that formula is inferior to breast milk.
The rationale behind the campaign is that a reported 830,000 babies a year (in developing countries) could be saved by breastfeeding, in particular if colostrum – mother’s first milk – is given within the first hour of life, kickstarting the child’s immune system.
Sadly, formula milk is often inappropriately and aggressively marketed in poor countries which, coupled with a lack of midwife support, can lead mothers to believe it to be a better choice for their babies than breastmilk, even if they do not have regular access to clean water with which to mix the formula. Prominent messaging on all boxes of formula would aim to educate women around the world on the benefits of breastfeeding allowing informed decision making by the mother.
This is a situation that I had not been particularly aware of – so thank you facebook, three years too late, but I am a little more educated.
The irony for me is that had I been directed to this article in 2013, when it was first published, I would not have been able to read it, at least not all the way through and not without dissolving into tears.
It was published a few months after Miss Lizzie was born and I would have been overcome with guilt at my own breastfeeding issues. This article actually places no judgement upon mothers who formula-feed, but I would have felt it. The notion of inferiority in relation to formula milk would have stung so deeply; the words “cigarette” and “warning” would have swum before my eyes and fresh feelings of upset at my inability to breastfeed my child would have floored me. The bigger picture of the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies in developing countries would have sadly been lost on me – I was in the blinkered stages of early motherhood and my single focus was my child. For the hundredth time that day I would have hated myself for failing my child – because as a mother who could not breastfeed her baby that is how I felt, or more correctly, that is how I was made to feel. At the time I did a fairly good job of disguising how devastated I was to anyone save my immediate family, but it was there and it very much affected how confident and how happy I felt as a new mother.
Today we are judged on almost all aspects of parenthood but none more harshly and none more openly than when it comes to feeding. Breastfeeding is the “beautiful” and “natural” choice but where does this leave formula-feeders – unnatural mothers? Ugly? Mothers who formula-feed their babies have become fair game for critics and comment. While I wholeheartedly support the need to educate mothers around the world on the benefit of breastfeeding, we need to address the antagonism shown to mothers who formula-feed. At its very worse I have seen social media threads where formula-feeding has been likened to abuse of your baby. The message is no longer “breast is best” but “breast is best and formula is dreadful”.
This is my plea – do you live in a country where access to information regarding breastfeeding is significantly limited? Are you a healthcare professional working with new mothers? If the answer to these questions is ‘no’ then you do not need to question or comment on a mother’s choice of how she feeds her baby. You do not know the reasons that a mother chooses to formula-feed her child. You do not need to know. You do not need to understand. You do not need to judge. You need to respect that that mother is probably doing the very best job that she can.
Making a mother feel guilty for her feeding choices does not make her a better mother. Guilt makes us angry and it makes us sad. Guilt makes us resentful and makes us turn on each other. Guilt cannot change the impossible into the possible.