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Is “Breast is Best” a Harmful Message for New Parents?

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BlackBirdEvolution

Site Contributor. Motivated to do most things by food.

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If you are not a parent, you can’t begin to guess how often people “share” their opinions with you (read: talk to you about things you should or shouldn’t be doing because they are “trying to help”). This happens with everything imaginable, but I personally have experienced it more with breastfeeding than any other issue.

There are many organizations, the World Health Organization to name the most prominent, that abide by the mantra of “Breast is Best.” This is not only catchy but it emphasizes the nutritional power of breastmilk for babies. The argument could be made that this is leaps and bounds better than just a few decades ago when formula was heavily pushed, as more recent studies have shown that breast milk has many benefits.

I am not arguing the benefits of breast milk or the benefits of breastfeeding. My issue with this campaign actually has nothing to do with breast milk itself. It is that it shames the hell out of the individuals who cannot, or choose not to, breastfeed.

This, like everything else related to parenting is highly problematic in that it is all-or-nothing. It was decided that breast milk is better than formula and then suddenly everything is about breast milk. Guidelines are created, expectations are set, and practitioners begin to encourage this approach. More education is never a bad thing, but education that dismisses alternatives can hardly be considered comprehensive. The “Breast is Best” campaign runs the risk of completely dismissing the health and well-being of the parent who is expected to provide the milk.

We are doing more harm to the parents in our communities by only speaking of the value and the positive aspects of breast milk and never sharing the negative aspects. Breastfeeding is hard work. It demands a whole different level of attentiveness, of sharing your body long after you have delivered your child, of navigating any and all complications that may arise, from sore nipples to low supply to over-supply and everything in between. And if a breastfeeding parent needs to be away from the baby, the individual is then introduced into an entirely new set of pressures around pumping, often resulting in obsessing over ounces, adding pumping times to meet a child’s needs, and taking time away from self care to pump. And I swear, if I hear one more person say that breastfeeding is free, I might absolutely lose my mind. I’ve had to purchase four pumps (this is in addition to the pump I got through insurance) in my time feeding my two children. Not to mention supplies for the pump, bottles, milk bags for the freezer, sanitizing bags, a hands-free pumping bra, multiple kinds of nipple cream, and so on. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication, time, and money.

Breastfeeding should be a choice that involves free will, not a choice that is made because there is no other realistic option. That means continuing to provide free breast pumps (which for the moment is covered under the Affordable Care Act), actually providing paid leave, giving working parents time and space (and here’s the kicker: no guilt trips) to pump as often as needed during their work day, offering free lactation consultation and support around the clock, and free therapy and medication management if needed.

There is not only space to have rich conversations around the varieties and combinations of feeding options, but we have a responsibility to parents to do so. This would work to eradicate the shame of making a decision that is best for the baby because it is best for the family and not the other way around. The organization Fed is Best states: “The Fed is Best Foundation believes that babies should never go hungry and mothers should be supported in choosing clinically safe feeding options for their babies. Whether breast milk, formula, or a combination of both – #FedIsBest.” Simple and beautiful. A parent completely draining themselves to give their baby the “best option” is doing the opposite, despite the best of intentions. Providing breast milk but being a parent who is unable to be present or engaged due to the pressure and stress that comes with it cannot possibly be more beneficial than reconsidering feeding options. Suzanne Barston has a blog called Fearless Formula Feeder
and spoke to Clare Wilson about this very issue. She shared that more than half the people who comment on her blog have had postpartum depression in part because of the pressure to breastfeed.

It is examples like this that make it clear that in our society, women are considered less important than their children. I disagree. We cannot have healthy children who thrive if their parents are unable to care for themselves. Let’s have conversations about healthy development that realistically describe breastfeeding rather than glorify it. Let’s create a culture in which parents who are trying their best for their families are supported no matter what their choices in feeding are. We’re all in this together.

4 comments

  1. If you support things like women being given the correct information and support on how to breastfeed, I don’t understand why you would support Fed is Best. They are attempting to undermine breastfeeding education and support when they scare women with stories of babies who starved to death, attack Dr. Jack Newman who has the most informative books/website out there in regards to breastfeeding, attack the breastfeeding lanyard by to show women the correct stomach size of a newborn by reporting it to the FDA as causing starvation, are attempting to attack and undermine the BFHI. It also irks me that breastfeeding “pressure” is cited as the cause for PPD. Studies have either found no association between breastfeeding and PPD or that breastfeeding actually lowered the rates of PPD. We don’t look at depression or anxiety and say it was caused by one thing or another. We understand that these mental illnesses are not the fault of the individuals or their choices. Saying PPD is caused by breastfeeding is just another way women are blamed for their own mental illnesses rather than an actual cause being found. We experience the same thing in breastfeeding. We don’t need to know why someone had low milk supply if they have formula right? Which never really goes towards fixing this issue, but burying it, shift the guilt and blame onto the mother rather on science itself who have not bothered looking at answers…because well we’re women.

    1. Thank you, Brooke, for demonstration how much effort the Lactivists put into presenting a one-sided and false agenda.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. My son and I had a very difficult time breastfeeding and were told by various healthcare professionals to just do x, y, and z, then do them more, to get better at it because, of course, basically everyone can breastfeed. No, actually, they can’t. A majority can, but the minority isn’t as insignificant as many lactivists claim. And even if my son and I met the medical definition of “rare” with the extent of our breastfeeding difficulties, so what? We still deserved to know what was happening to us and that formula is a perfectly fine alternative. Anything else is ablist and unethical.

  3. ‘Breast is best’ is not a particularly helpful thing to say, I agree. However, promotion and education of it should definitely continue. And this does NOT cause PPD. Also, we need to be asking the question ‘is formula fine?’ People need to be informed about the risks associated with bottle feeding and fully aware of the ingredients in industrial milks and their effects on the debeloping human body. There needs to be honesty about all feeding methods.

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