The 'Breast is best' understanding that we are attempting to cultivate in our community is such an important one BUT it needs to be done right... it needs to be done in a manner that supports all women who want to do the best by their babies when it comes to feeding them (which, let's face it, is the vast majority of new mothers). Instead, through our efforts to promote breastfeeding we have inadvertently developed a culture of harsh judgment.
Of course there has always been a sad culture of judgment around breastfeeding because in our society breasts have been sexualised and, therefore, their use for feeding children in public has, by many, somehow been relegated to a perverse and/or offensive act. I, personally, find such a view abhorrent and do my very best to make clear my stance on this, mostly through supporting women who wish to breastfeed, educating others about breastfeeding, and proudly breastfeeding my children in public.
However, I am also very disturbed that this same sort of ill-founded harsh judgment is dished out to women who want to breastfeed, and try to breastfeed, but can't breastfeed. I've not done the research on this, but I have no doubt that for the huge majority of women who start out breastfeeding but do not carry it on for more than a few weeks, the reasons for giving up are NOT because they no longer wanted to breastfeed. I know of many women who desperately wanted to breastfeed but who ultimately chose to bottle feed within the first couple of months. Actually, they didn't choose to stop breastfeeding their babies, not unless you consider it a choice when the alternative is to starve your baby (which was what they were essentially told was happening). The reasons the women I know who gave up breastfeeding early on were varied, but all amounted to the same thing... they were unable to adequately produce enough milk to feed their babies sufficiently. To them, there really was no alternative. And rather then being supported through their grief at not being able to carry out this 'most primal of mothering acts', many were instead chastised and punished - deemed guilty of poor parenting, when all they ever wanted was what was best for their child.
The most common reason for giving up breastfeeding early on is due to a 'lack of milk supply'. Many times I have heard women, midwives and other health professionals speak of a 'perceived' lack of supply when discussing milk supply issues (I've used this term myself), inferring that the woman thinks she lacks milk when, in actual fact, she doesn't. For example, a woman who has the pre-conceived idea that newborns only need feeding every three-or-so hours, and whose baby is 'asking' to be fed every hour (sometimes more, and sometimes for very long periods at the breast) may believe that she is not producing enough milk when she actually is; she doesn't realise that the behaviours her newborn is displaying are quite normal and appropriate and, instead, thinks that her baby is starving due to lack of milk. She has a 'perceived' lack of milk, rather than an actual lack of milk.
While there are, no doubt, many cases of 'perceived' lack of milk that lead a woman to give up breastfeeding, I also don't doubt that many women experience an 'actual' lack of milk supply. Although statistically only 5% of women ought to be physiologically incapable of producing enough milk for their babies, I think this figure is in reality quite a bit higher (in Western society, at least). The reason I think this? I believe that women are frequently not given the support they need to enable them to produce enough milk, and they are encouraged to have unrealistic expectations around newborn behaviour... women are too stressed, tired, malnourished and distressed to support their bodies to produce enough milk, and they are unaware of normal newborn behaviours that are important for assisting the production of milk.
Our society sets women up to fail at breastfeeding... then we punish them for being bad mothers. It's wrong, it's cruel, and it needs to change. Let's examine the dual expectations that our society puts on our new, vulnerable mothers:
- We expect her to know how to care for her newborn, but provide her with virtually no training in this field
- We tell her that 'demand feeding' is best, but that her baby should be sleeping through the night by x months of age
- We tell her to rest up to encourage her milk production, but we expect her to clean the house, do the washing, cook the meals, look after her other children, and we allow the father barely any paid leave from work to help support her
- We make it clear that breastfeeding is the only acceptable way to feed her child, but not in public
- We tell her that 'breast is best', but don't offer the financial support her family requires to keep her from having to return to work when her baby is still a baby
As a society we do an extremely poor job of supporting new mums to fulfill the expectations that that same society places on her. And then we blame her for failing to do a good job of parenting.
We are mothers. We are women. We know how to look after our babies and each other, we know what our hearts tell us is best for our families and IT'S JUST SO BLOODY WRONG AND TRAGIC that we are not given the support we need to be the parents we want to be. Our job is the most important job ON EARTH. It is the hardest job and most demanding job imaginable, yet it is the least valued job in our society.
So, to all the women and mothers out there can I make this plea to you... Can we stop judging other women for not parenting the way we believe is best. We don't know what another's journey has been to get to where she is, and kicking her when she is down will do nothing to improve her circumstances. Instead, let's take every opportunity we can to offer our support and encouragement and to right the wrongs of our society. When we educate and guide others, let's try and do our best to do it in a way that is supportive rather than judgmental. Lets make breastfeeding an achievable experience for all women who are capable of it... and for the mother who is not, lets wrap our arms around her and say, "You did your best. You are a wonderful mum."
And to our men out there, we need you to be on our side with this too. We need you to show pride in us when we do our all to nourish your children the best way we know how (including in public... actually, especially in public). We need your practical support, like cooking the meals, preparing our lunch before you leave for work, doing the washing and cleaning, and helping out with the other kids. And we need your emotional support - give us lots of affirmations and regular hugs, and frequently remind us that we are doing an amazing job of nurturing our children. When that pesky great aunt or well-meaning but ill-informed grandmother try and suggest otherwise, please stick up for us and remind them that we know what's best for our baby.
Finally, there are many wonderful, supportive, empathetic, knowledgeable and sensitive midwives, support networks (La leche league is an obvious one here), mothers and fathers out there who do their very best to assist and sensitively guide our struggling new mums. Keep up the great work! And let's do our best to get as many others on board as we can with regard to all this. We play an incredibly important role in the lives of the women and babies who receive our love and support.