Breastfeeding support: less is not more

It’s been a bad weekend for media representations of breastfeeding.

Saturday’s Age and SMH ran a feature in the Good Weekend supplement detailing French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s opposition to what she sees as the tyranny of motherhood, especially physically demanding practices like breastfeeding. Like Hanna Rosin’s, Badinter’s views on breastfeeding have been carefully deconstructed over the past few years by other writers. Take this piece by blue milk:

But then you can’t entirely blame feminists like Badinter for being nervous about any ambitions to elevate motherhood either. They haven’t seen much good come out of the institution of motherhood for women – servitude, guilt, martyrdom, rampant biological determinism and invisibility. Still, given that most women end up being mothers, and given that a good deal of us even strongly desire motherhood there is no point throwing that particular baby out with the bath water. We won’t elevate women anytime soon by denigrating motherhood.

Make no mistake — denigrating physiologically normal (though by no means universal) processes of motherhood, like the physical changes of pregnancy and birth and the work of breastfeeding, is denigrating motherhood. It is also, I think, a mistake to underestimate the level of maternal desire driving some of our choices. But more than this; assuming that the holy grail of feminism is solely an ability to centre paid work, alternative achievements and other relationships in women’s lives (as men have always been able to under patriarchy) is extremely limiting. Why not instead seek new ways of working, earning, living, doing mothering and making families which enable choices to stretch beyond the starkness of:  A) bottle feeding and long daycare or B) long unrewarded hours at home in an isolated mother–child dyad?

Those long hours alone can be devastating for a new mother’s mental health; I know this from experience. Even when a parent has company of some kind, they may feel figuratively alone if their actions are not supported with both compassionate reassurance and practical assistance. This is the concern raised by Beyond Blue’s deputy chief executive Nicole Highet who was quoted in The Mercury today. Dr Highet isn’t wrong in saying that breastfeeding difficulties and anxiety about feeding choices can contribute to the stress and even despair felt by many new mothers. In the early days and weeks breastfeeding is difficult for most (impossible for some) and severely overworked (because that is what they usually are!) post-partum women are particularly vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy. The physical pain of cracked nipples, mastitis, thrush or engorgement is all too real. So is the emotional pain of being confronted with choices which seem patently unfair and yet take on the importance of life-or-death decisions. Mothers in our culture are bombarded with all manner of ‘expert opinions’ and given the distinct impression that everyone — health professional or self-styled baby whisperer or mother in law — knows our babies’ needs better than we do and yet, somehow, when it comes down to getting the actual work of mothering done the buck stops with us. And when it comes to taking the fall for choices that are made, it’s all mothers all the time.

When was the last time you saw the mainstream media ask for fathers to step up and do something about low breastfeeding rates?  (Research shows that a male partner’s attitudes towards and willigness to assist with breastfeeding is the single biggest determinant of whether a woman will continue to exclusively breastfeed once she has left hospital, but strangely it’s mothers who are always targeted when feeding choices have to be accounted for.)

Although I completely deplore the employment of the term ‘Breastapo’ in that inflammatory Mercury piece, it’s important to acknowledge that the trend Beyond Blue has picked up on is real. Some women are, for whatever reason, experiencing pressure or negative attitudes about their feeding choices and that is harmful, both to those individual women and to the cause of lactivism generally.

Dr Highet and many others (including Leslie Cannold who tweeted the Mercury piece this morning) seem to take the experiences of women who felt that breastfeeding advocacy or advice given in hospital was shaming in some way as evidence that the ‘breast is best’ message has gone too far. I tend to draw the opposite conclusion.

At the moment, mothers (and actually when I say this, I mean mothers in the ‘Western’ world) seem to experience a particularly insidious form of blame-shifting. Women are told, usually repeatedly, by health professionals that breastfeeding is the best ‘choice’, and the vast majority believe it. (Over 90 % of Australian women choose to initiate breastfeeding). Breastfeeding advice, in many cases, seems to constitute little more than a bit of information about how to do it and a very clear intimation that it’s what good mothers do. What it all too often doesn’t include is sensitive, individualised, and knowledgable information delivered in a mother-centred way. What it definitely doesn’t come with (if it’s being delivered by a health professional or, well, just about anyone) is actual real-life support to achieve the mother’s breastfeeding goals.

In short: most women hope to breastfeed. Most women are let down by a lack of practical support.

Complicating the picture is marketing from formula companies and ingrained cultural practices (like expecting babies to ‘sleep through’ or feed by the clock and expecting mothers not to feed openly in public) which make breastfeeding seem like perhaps the ‘best’ but not at all the ‘normal’ choice to make.

By the time a woman has been ground down by the sheer exhaustion of birth and her first week of overworked parenthood, ‘normal’ can seem pretty good. ‘Normal’ can seem attainable.

This makes me sad not because I am a genocidal fascist who wants to see mothers suffer through mastitis (for crying out loud, can we just stop with the Boob Nazi slurs?) Rather, I feel saddened by the alarming regularity at which women give up their desire to breastfeed because breastfeeding is not the ‘best’ way to feed babies. It’s the normal way.

The idea that breastfeeding is somehow extraordinary persists because we live in a culture where very limited paternity leave is normal, where an expectation to continue cooking and cleaning and exercising and socialising in the post partum weeks and months is normal, and where a perception that unpaid work (especially if it is physical and monotonous) is pointless drugdgery is normal.

What good breastfeeding advocacy has to offer mothers is more than admonishments and informational pamphlets. Breastfeeding advocacy is at its core advocacy for mothers and babies, and although many of the people doing it do not identify as feminists, their organisations frequently do work which could be described as feminist.

I find it odd when people choose to promote women’s choices by standing against grass roots lactivism. Organisations such as the Australian Breastfeeding Association and La Leche League are run by mothers, for mothers. They grew out of a need, identified by women who were living in the era of Betty Friedan, for woman-to-woman support. Volunteers run them, they do not make profits, and they can’t pay for the kind of lobbying and marketing that formula manufacturers buy each day before breakfast. In short; I don’t think they’re the enemy.

If mothers are experiencing pain and anguish from ‘all the pressure to breastfeed’ I think we need to be asking why, and certainly, we need to ensure that any breastfeeding advocacy is sensitive and shame-free. But I have a feeling that less support for and information about breastfeeding is not what will help Beyond Blue’s cause. (And not only because breastfeeding hormones can sometimes help stave off depression, although this was my experience.)

What we need are real choices, not rock-and-hard-place compromises. And for that to be possible, much more needs to change than the message they put on posters in the maternity ward waiting room.


Filed under Breastfeeding, Lactivism and Doula-ing, Feminism, mental illness, Motherhood and Parenting

31 responses to “Breastfeeding support: less is not more

  1. Possibly irrelevant anecdote, but pondering this post put me in mind of it: My mother once asked my father’s mother how on earth she managed having 8 babies, the first 4 born within 5 years. Specifically, she asked how she managed looking after the newborns. My grandmother laughed at her and said that one or two of her sisters would move in for a couple of months and look after all the older kids and the house, and the only thing she had to do was look after the new baby. Thus solving both the overwork and isolation problems.

    In this world, where we parent on our own, trust almost no-one else with our kids and are generally pretty crap at either offering or accepting help (well, at least I am, quite possibly I don’t speak for anyone else), it’s impossible to imagine having one or two other people moving in and running our households. Of course, it was set in a strict gender role world, and I’m not endorsing the all-female nature of this solution. But I would like to see a shift to towards community being for more than just moral support. Sadly, I pretty much suck at trying to make this happen.

  2. possible linley

    Yes! Thank you!

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  4. I found breastfeeding really hard and I’m so proud that I can say I persevered and fed my daughter until she was 1 1/2. But my decision to fight through mastitis and cracking and 2 hourly feeds had nothing to do with the ‘breast is best’ message and everything to do with the fact that breastfeeding is so much cheaper. It’s easier – there are no bottles to wash and it’s portable if you can manage to go outside in that first few months. It gives you time to sit with your baby and do NOTHING and not worry about dishes or other kids or work – you are forced to sit down and just be with your baby. and not only are the hormones a bit of a rush, the sense of pride and satisfaction I got from being the sole provider for my children’s nourishment still carries me today, 3 years later.
    I think breastfeeding advocates should maybe step back with the science and the ‘breast is best’ and the health benefits for children and mothers and perhaps concentrate on the practical parts of breastfeeding. Because I’ll pick spending time simply relaxing with a feeding baby over ‘lactation experts think breastmilk aids brain function in 17 year old, but their not quite sure…” any day.

  5. You said it all, you said it so well. Thank you!

  6. When was the last time you saw the mainstream media ask for fathers to step up and do something about low breastfeeding rates? (Research shows that a male partner’s attitudes towards and willigness to assist with breastfeeding is the single biggest determinant of whether a woman will continue to exclusively breastfeed once she has left hospital, but strangely it’s mothers who are always targeted when feeding choices have to be accounted for.) <—I think this is so SO huge. Sadly, I think if breastfeeding had more universal male support, there would be a lot less visible anti-breastfeeding sentiment, and in my utopia truly breastfeeding-friendly policies in employment would follow. Because the people in power (usually men) setting the rules would get it. I hate that I'm saying that…

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  8. Let me start by saying that I love this blog, and you. And overall, I think you make some excellent points in this piece, especially about the need to focus on support for all mothers.

    I do tend to agree with Beyond Blue and Leslie Cannold, however. I know that LLL is women-run, but historically, they have been rather unfriendly to working mothers and those who opt not to do everything in their power to breastfeed. Feminism to me is about respecting ALL choices, and I do not believe that most breastfeeding orgs are doing this. They seem to adhere to this belief that all women want to breastfeed, and this is just not the case. Breastfeeding may be the biological norm, but so is dying of cancer. Not that I’m at all comparing the two; merely pointing out that just because something is biologically “normal” does not necessarily mean it is the choice we would make, given the complexities of human nature. Social evolution happens, for better or for worse – and considering the prevalence of wet nursing and paps in past centuries, the desire of women NOT to nurse their own babies probably didn’t start with the advent of commercial formula.

    There are many reasons women do not breastfeed; for some women, working full time is preferable. I have met quite a few couples where the father is the primary caregiver and this is an incredibly awesome, modern thing, IMO.

    The bottom line is that we need more practical breastfeeding support, as a previous commenter suggested. I do think that the current state of breastfeeding advocacy has done far more harm than good, and while I don’t believe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, a definite change in attitude and approach is desperately needed – the current backlash is ample proof of that.

    • I can understand this position. I fight the urge to refute all pro-breastfeeding messages because it always feels like a direct attack on me (and I did breastfeed, but not for as long as is recommended). As soon as we talk about “best” or “normal” or anything else normative, we’re placing a value judgement on people who who choose the other option. On the other hand, if we don’t place value on breastfeeding, it’s very hard to argue for it to be supported systemically. This is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

      Also, it’s so tangled up with all the other mother blaming that goes on. If breastfeeding were the only decision that mothers were ever held accountable for, we’d probably all be much more resilient and comfortable in the informed choices that we make. But we’re not. Mothers are blamed for pretty much every choice they make, regardless of which one it is. It’s very hard not to see the breastfeeding discussion as yet another attack. The key point that I see missing in the debate, that I think would help stop the implied blaming of those who choose not to breastfeed, is that breastfeeding is best all other things being equal, but if breastfeeding causes significant stress in the mother, or has other negative impacts on the family, the net effect of breastfeeding may not make it “best”. If this was acknowledged more openly (and I’m NOT suggesting Spilt Milk doesn’t acknowledge this, but lots of lactivists at least don’t often mention it), we could move towards minimising those other influences that impact negatively on breastfeeding, while acknowledging that here, now, women may sometimes be making the best choice for their baby and family by not breastfeeding.

    • Penny Piercy

      “Breastfeeding may be the biological norm, but so is dying of cancer. Not that I’m at all comparing the two; merely pointing out that just because something is biologically “normal” does not necessarily mean it is the choice we would make, given the complexities of human nature.”

      Except you just did compare the two, didn’t you? Dying of cancer isn’t “normal” either. Most people who die don’t die of cancer. Most people with cancer don’t die from it. You made a lot of other relevant points in your comment but this particular analogy is every bit as offensive and incorrect as “formula is poison” and other such divisive lies.

  9. Claire

    Thanks for this. I had PND and I really think I’m only alive because breastfeeding was the one thing I knew I was doing right.

  10. @Ariane – for some reason I can’t reply to your post so I’m doing it here. ;)

    I could not agree with you more on the statement that breastfeeding is best all things being equal. That has pretty much been my stance since I started blogging/writing about these issues, and it frustrates me to no end that no one seems to be satisfied with this message. It seems so freaking simple, doesn’t it? I often cynically think that the only reason this type of thinking doesn’t work in the mainstream is that people inherently don’t trust women. That they think “well, if we give them an out, they’ll take the out.” (For the record, I would feel fine with women “taking the out” b/c I believe breastfeeding should be a choice, and there are all manner of reasons why it may not be best for someone and it is never our position to judge – but I digress…)

    And yes. If mother-blame wasn’t such a popular pastime, I doubt the breast/bottle debate would get so much play. Nor the working/SAHM debate. Or the homebirth/hospital birth. Etc, etc, etc.


  11. Kris

    Meaningful practical support was absolutely essential in my being able to continue to breastfeed my second daughter. I really wanted to by my daughter couldn’t attach properly. I was lucky enough to have access to. A community service that involved free sessions with a lactation consultant and midwife visits twice a day. I also have a partner who was with me at every visit, and every feed, trying to figure out angles, timing, baby tongues with me. We also had my dad down to help with my other daughter, and very generous leave provisions.

    The experience reminded me that for some (many?) women, breastfeeding doesn’t just happen but occurs at the intersection of community and family support and advice, institutional resources and practices, physical and emotional abilities, desire, and a whole bunch of other forces as well.

  12. I volunteered for a short time as a breast feeding peer supporter when my youngest child was a baby still, and what always struck me was that pregnant women were being told to breastfeed, told that it was best for their babies and that it was, as you say in your piece, ‘what good mothers do’. There was a lot of pressure to do it. And then as soon as their babies were born they began to immediately receive a different message. The health visitors fretted over the scales and made noises that alluded to ‘top up’ formula feeding, their husbands and peers said they looked ‘tired due to constant feeding’. There was a sad lack of properly informed breastfeeding support.

    My point is, is that it’s almost like we are setting women up to ‘fail’. And when a proportion of them do ‘fail’ due to lack of support and other reasons they then feel extra shit about it because of the unrelenting ‘breast is best’ message.

    It’s all very well telling women that breast is best, but if we don’t have the continuity of care and support there will always be women who feel that message like a knife in the back. It’s such a shame.

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  14. I find it interesting how the question of “what is feminism” is currently being examined in mainstream media. The other week it was “can you be pro-life and feminist?” and now “can you be anti-maternal and feminist?” (to, I appreciate, grossly simplify the issues). I think it’s great that this is a topic considered worthy of mass attention rather than perhaps just an academic question. Most of our population is female, so it ought to be a popular topic.

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  17. M-H

    I’ll chip in as someone who was a LLL Leader for several years in the 1980s and was for a while their Publicity Officer for NZ. I still believe that for many women, getting any support they’ve asked for will make their breastfeeding experience less stressful and more satisfying. However, I know (and I always knew) that many women don’t want to breastfeed and that’s fine with me too. My daughter didn’t breastfeed her children for very long; that was her decision and I made no attempt, at the time or since, to discuss this with her.

    Maybe I’m not the norm among LLL women; maybe the organisation has changed. I had no problem supporting breastfeeding women who wanted to work; my only interest was in supporting them to do what they felt was best for themselves and their families. Breastfeeding isn’t a competition, it’s a way of feeding babies which has some benefits for both mother and baby when it’s going well. If it’s not going well, or if the woman doesn’t want to continue doing it, then there are perfectly good alternatives available.

    But I very much agree with Gappy: women aren’t given the support to make these decisions properly; they are often made in angsty, desperate situations without good advice, and lead to the kind of guilt she describes so well as “a knife in the back”. That’s a failing of the health system, but there are alternatives. Get yourself some other support, and tell that health visitor what *you* want to do.

  18. I am going to be very careful here as this really isn’t my place, as a man, especially as a man without children, but it is an issue in which I do have a passionate view. And you know I always love your writing.

    I can only imagine the stresses a new mother must go through, all the worry about how to be a mother due to the expectations placed on her by society, the physical symptoms that come with not just the pregnancy but the post-partum. Add to that the pressure from society to breastfeed (but of course not where anyone can see).

    It is bad enough to be bombarded with messages about how you are supposed to be, to act, to dress or drink when it is directed at only you, but when it becomes directed at your **baby**, it elevates the pressure to a whole other level.

    So I am pleased at least with some of the PSA advertisements seen on television here in NZ. Where “fathers” (see comment later why I put it in quotes) are encouraged to do all they can to help. While they may not be able to help actually breastfeed, they can do other things.

    I like it because it doesn’t place any value judgements on the mother.

    I am an advocate for public breastfeeding, but only in the context of choice and ability. The amount of shame and disgust heaped on women who are able to, and choose to breastfeed in public is … well … disgusting. Only in part because it is part of a culture that tells mothers how they are supposed to behave, about what is expected of them, and how nurturing isn’t as important as what certain other people care to see.

    With regard to the debate about “best” or “normal”, I prefer to think of breast-feeding as “natural” with a strong qualifier that “not natural” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    I put “father” in quotes because it really should be “partner” – the mother’s partner may not be the father, and may not be male.

    Thanks for allowing me to comment.

  19. Great article.

    I think the ‘fathers support in breastfeeding’ point is really crucial. In fact, I think there is a whole area in which men’s involvement in parenting needs readdressing, and the earner/carer divide that seems so prevalent in our society is at the heart of it. But finding ways to break this divide without sacrificing breastfeeding or living off breadcrumbs is almost impossible for most. I’m blogging about this issue at the moment (only one post so far as baby keeps me too busy to write!)

    @Gappy I’d never thought of difference between pre/post birth messages before but I think you’re right- women who aren’t lucky enough to easily breastfeed are set up to fail/burnout.

    Like many other issues that involve parenting (or many other things), it is hard to hold a pro-something stance without then degrading/judging the people who choose to do something other than what you’re advocating. But unless we find a way to do this, we simply form ourselves into entrenched gangs of opinion- which leaves little space for dialogue or genuine community wide support for everyone.

  20. Bea

    Very well put. I have often said I am alarmed at the number of women who claim they can’t breastfeed. Statistically, it just doesn’t make sense. Now, for some of them it is the real truth. Fair enough.They have my sympathy that they didn’t have the full set of choices that others enjoy. Others may be lying to avoid judgement. And honestly? That’s fair enough, too. At the end of the day, it’s mainly their business.

    But what concerns me is that some of them – and I don’t know which ones – undoubtedly believe that they were physically unable when, in reality, they just weren’t given the necessary preparation and support. Even when that isn’t coupled with the notion that formula is damaging or that bottle feeding = bad parenting, we are bound to see a dent in women’s self-esteem. Speaking as someone who has experienced problems in a related area (fertility), I can vouch for the fact that these sorts of failures can have a real impact, and to think that women are experiencing this sort of distress unnecessarily is just a sorry state of affairs.

  21. Bea

    Oh. The point about male awareness is also great. I know there is at least one woman in the world who tries to address that point in her prenatal classes with couples.

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  23. bookwurm

    I do not plan on breast-feeding. And when my baby is born, those who feel the need to try to shame me into anything, will feel my wrath.

  24. The rough run on media representations of breastfeeding continues… Harper’s Magazine ran a hit piece on La Leche League and breastfeeding in their February 2012 issue without mentioning that the author, Elisabeth Badinter, has substantial financial stake in the issue. The article is “The Tyranny of Breasteeding: New Mothers vs La Leche League.” Elisabeth Badinter is an advertising billionaire, heir to and partner of Publicis, Nestle’s ad agency. Badinter prefers to brand herself as an intellectual with a feminist critique of La Leche League, rather than an ad women selling artificial baby milk. Harper’s Magazine needs to be publicly and loudly chastised for representing free advertising time for Enfamil as journalism. Email Harper’s at to let them know how you feel.

    The main pitch in the article is her claim that LLL erases “..all the other aspects of breast feeding: the loss of freedom and the despotism of an insatiable child.” Buy formula and your infant will be less demanding. Buy formula and parenthood won’t change your life. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

    Her article is a publicist’s case of envy over the success of the La Leche League’s success in reducing the amount of baby formula sold. She modestly passes on the opportunity to extoll the successful and lucrative campaign by baby formula companies, with the help of Publicis, which popularized the profitable idea of replacing breast feeding in the first place.

    As a feminist working mom, I am infinitely fascinated by babies, women, moms, nursing, dads, society and family, and childcare. I love this thoughtful post, and the posts linked to it. Badinter is kind of interesting, but she is dishonest about the conflict of interest between her financial benefit from the sale of artificial baby milk via her partnership in Publicis and her claim to intellectual feminist critique. I can’t help but read “BUY ENFAMIL” in most everything she writes.

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