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Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Of course breast is not 'best' – it's normal

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Hello everyone!

Having been flat out with other writing for quite some time, I'm pleased to dust off the cobwebs (blogwebs?) to present a guest post for you. 

This post was written in response to an article published in Australia's Daily Life: 'Breast is Best' has become another way to control women's bodies'. Author Kasey Edwards argues that breastfeeding advocacy robs women of their right to bodily autonomy. Although this piece far from the first to argue against breastfeeding promotion and protection, it is a good example of the sociocultural messages still facing women who want to breastfeed or women suffering breastfeeding grief or anger, and the myths that breastfeeding advocates continue to debunk – over and over and over.

In response to this article, Jessica Armstrong – mum of one, science geek, feminist and breastfeeding peer supporter and advocate – deconstructs the tired old discourse of arguing whether or not 'breast is best' with particular acumen. I loved Jessica's response, and I hope you will, too.

GUEST POST: Of course breast is not 'best' – it's normal

For a long time now, breastfeeding advocacy has discouraged use of the message that 'breast is best'. This particular line of reasoning fell out of favour many years ago, because breastfeeding advocates realised it was the wrong message to send to mothers. (Little Leaf ed: Why? Because there isn't anything 'gold standard' about breastfeeding at all. Human milk evolved as the biological norm for human babies. It isn't a magic bullet, it isn't a guarantee of a super-baby immune to any illness or disease with an IQ of 230. Breastfeeding is, quite unremarkably, nothing more than normal, and offers human young the chance to grow and develop as optimally as their genetics and environment allows.)

As the World Health Organization says
'Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large.' (emphasis added)
The only people who are still using the 'Breast is best' message are the hopelessly out of date, or formula apologists constructing a strawman argument. So please, if this message ever strikes you, take this argument outside and set fire to it.

If you think the fight for breastfeeding support has been won you are sadly ignorant of the facts. Go and read the comments section on any article about breastfeeding in the mainstream press and you will see just how much work there is to be done on educating the public about breastfeeding. There is very little support from workplaces for breastfeeding mothers. Recent legislative changes have not suddenly morphed into cultural changes in workplaces and there is still much more to be done in this area. 

Nuance is a thing people can have. I am a breastfeeding supporter, lactivist and radical feminist. I don't actually care how a woman as an individual feeds her baby. Because I respect her bodily autonomy. But I will fight for the rights of women in general to breastfeed their babies any time and any place they wish, and their right to good support in doing so. I will not be silenced – because in doing so, the patriarchal ideas of the silently suffering mother are perpetuated. If you are struggling with feelings of guilt or shame in relation to motherhood, try repeating 'How I feed my babies says nothing about my skills as a mother' or 'I will not allow patriarchial ideas about motherhood to shame me'. Setting women to disparage each other, argue amongst themselves, and police each others behaviour is yet another way that the patriarchy robs us of our power. Resist.

There is a non-exhaustive, enormous body of excellent research about breastfeeding. Resist cherry-picking from studies (and headlines) designed to appeal to those with a vested interest in the findings. For example, Dr Julie Smith at the ANU has done research into the costs to Australia of not breastfeeding. Those Boomers who were not breastfed as babies are costing our health services a whole lot extra because of increased rates of chronic disease – asthma, diabetes, obesity, cancers – among this cohort. So while society may not have 'crumbled' (although, rates of mental illness are at epidemic proportions) we are all having to pick up the bill for what they did not receive.

While we are at it can we please, please, please avoid applying population level studies to individuals. Science does not work that way. Studies may show increased risks for various diseases in people who were formula-fed, but they cannot be applied to you, or your children directly because we cannot yet determine your individual risk for any given disease. Also small increases to risk factors might not seem much by themselves, but they can have big impacts when applied to whole populations. Like Australia. Or the world.

A mish-mash of anecdote, personal experience, unsupported opinion and absolutely no self-reflection is sadly common amongst articles such as this one in question. For every doctor who has pushed breastfeeding, there is another who has told a mother to wean unneccessarily. Pumping may have been a nightmare for one, but other women embrace it. Also, did that group of mums you overheard know that they were becoming national spokespeople for breastfeeding support? Do I really need to point out that ideas discussed in a private setting do not represent what is being advocated for by actual breastfeeding supporters?

Finally, the question I pose to those who continue to argue this 'breast isn't best' message – who are you actually angry with? Women who promote breastfeeding and provide advocacy and support? Because these women are your sisters, and they are fighting for the very thing you seem to want - actual, real support for new mothers. Not platitudes, not 'try harder' because that is not support. Support is asking a woman what she would like to achieve in a given situation and then helping her get there. Support is giving practical suggestions that work for an individual woman's situation. Support means turning up, sitting beside a woman and really listening to what is going on for her. Very few mothers receive that in my experience. 

I call on all mothers, irrespective of how you feed your babies, to come together and demand better support for new parents. Collectively, we could do so much better in our help for new families. Other women are not our enemies. We are being let down by a broad lack of respect for women in our culture, a lack of respect for mothering and for those with care-giving responsibilities. 

It's time to stop blaming breastfeeding supporters for trying to talk about these things, and instead, get angry with a society that did not support you when you were most vulnerable.

By Jessica Armstrong

A huge shout out to Catherine of Bellabirth (follow her Facebook page here) for introducing me to Jessica.