This post is specifically aimed at new mothers or prospective new mothers. Because, if you found this post, you have probably been looking online for advice or support about breastfeeding. And, if you’ve been doing that, you are probably unsure about what feeding method you want to use, or you are struggling with breastfeeding. You may have found some great support and advice. In which case, carry on as you were. But there is always a risk, if you have googled advice about breastfeeding, that you have been dragged into a guilt-ridden swamp of ‘information’ about the magical properties of breast milk, without which your baby will surely die and you will be branded with a ‘worst mother in the world’ stamp right across your forehead. If you have found your way into this swamp, and now feel more vulnerable and confused than you did when you started, do please read on.
Breast milk is not the Elixir of Life. It does not have magical properties. It’s great. It’s an amazing substance. But, actually, so is formula. Some very clever people have made it so. They have manufactured a substance that is capable of being a substitute for breast milk and nourishing a baby. So that’s pretty amazing too, right?
Yes, breast milk has immune benefits. Yes, it is probably easier on the gut. In the scheme of things, these are not really massive differences or benefits. Breast milk isn’t making anyone invincible. It’s not curing ebola.
Does breast milk make children more intelligent, thinner, more successful, or any of the other claims put forward by the breastfeeding lobby? No. It doesn’t. The apparent correlation between breastfeeding and improved outcomes for children in those areas is coincidental. It exists because there is a correlation between those outcomes and greater socioeconomic advantage, AND there is a correlation between higher breastfeeding rates and socioeconomic advantage. The privilege and opportunities afforded in society to the group of women who make up the majority of breastfeeders result in the apparent benefits for their children, not the breast milk. But, of course, it is difficult to conclusively prove that the breast milk is not responsible, because to do so would require experimenting on babies and forcing certain groups of mothers to feed in a specific way . That would clearly be unethical, and so the evidence of correlation between breastfeeding and positive outcomes in areas such as intelligence remains, ready to be preyed on by the breastfeeding lobby as evidence of the benefits of breast milk, despite being almost certainly nothing of the sort. If you look at the children of mothers who, in all respects except for breastfeeding, fit the same profile as the breastfeeding mothers, their children will show the same outcomes. I am such a child.
You will not condemn your child to stupidity, obesity or failure by not breastfeeding. Talk to your child, read to them, play with them, hug them – all the things you obviously intend to do anyway! These are the things that make a difference to development. And genetics, of course. Can’t do much about those.
It is nice to encourage breastfeeding, of course it is. But not ever to the extent that anyone is made to feel panicked or vulnerable, or anyone is encouraged to make a decision that puts them or their baby at risk. No one should be told, as I have seen happen, that taking unregulated breast milk from strangers in Internet exchanges is better than using formula. Of course it isn’t. Do you know that is breast milk? That the mother doesn’t drink alcohol? That she has no blood borne illnesses? That she properly sterilised the pump and containers? Do you know where the milk was stored? For how long? It’s reckless, and no one should be telling worried mothers to do that. If you cannot, or do not want to, give your baby your milk (or milk from one of the regulated milk banks), give them formula. It is fine.
No vulnerable woman with mental illness should become so convinced that her baby needs breast milk that she stops taking medication she needs in order to be well. A baby does not need breast milk that badly, but it does need a healthy mother. No one, in short, needs to be listening to suggestions that breast milk is the be all and end all. That is not true.
So this is my message for new mothers, or prospective new mothers, who are worried about this, who have been panicked by what they see on the Internet, by what the so called ‘breastapo’ say. It is nice to try breastfeeding, if you can and you want to. But it is not that important in the scheme of things. Your child will not end up horrendously disadvantaged by not being breastfed. Don’t tell anyone, but breastfeeding isn’t even the norm in this country. The biological norm, yes, but not the norm in practice. Perhaps that is why some women are being so aggressive about this: it’s insecurity and defensiveness. Trying to validate themselves by putting others down. Because, truth be told, breastfeeding mothers, beyond the first few days or weeks, are a pretty small minority. That is a bit of a shame. But it isn’t your problem. You don’t have to be the one to take responsibility for improving the statistics. You have to do what’s right for you.
And I will tell you – as someone who is a breastfeeder, who has exclusively breastfed two babies long term – no sensible, intelligent, reasonable, relatively caring woman (breastfeeder or not) will see you struggling and tell you that you must breastfeed or your baby will suffer. Not ever. She will never tell you to panic over this, to be stressed about it, to cause your baby to feel stress about it, or to feel guilty about it. She will never tell you that you are selfish or harming your baby if you don’t breastfeed. She will not tell you breastfeeding is easy and everyone can do it. Anyone who tells you those things is not someone whose advice needs to be listened to. Good advice, helpful advice, will always encourage you to do what you can do, what you can cope with, and not to look back. Focus your energy on your time with your baby instead.