WHEN I was pregnant with my second child some years ago, a lactation consultant offered me a brochure on how to express milk for an older child while in labour with the next one.
Because what anybody going through one of the most arduous experiences known to humanity needs is to try to simultaneously manage a painful and clumsy suction device attached to their nipples. Right?
My memory is that I responded politely to the consultant’s offer of assistance, though I suspect that was mostly because I was too gobsmacked to say anything much at all.
I’m by no means antibreastfeeding. I was committed to the practice with both my children, was fortunate to be able to do it relatively easily (once we got through the cracked nipple stage, anyway), and found it rewarding and convenient.
But I’ve always been disturbed by a certain kind of breastfeeding fundamentalism that seeks to shame women who, for whatever reason, don’t breastfeed their babies.
As a society, we have mostly, if belatedly, accepted that women have the right to decide what they should do with their bodies. When it comes to breastfeeding, not so much.
Sometimes, the rhetoric is beyond extreme. A Brisbane breastfeeding counsellor told an antenatal class that formula was “a little bit like AIDS” back in 2012, prompting widespread condemnation, including from medical organisations.
According to the Courier Mail, the counsellor told the class: “Every 30 seconds a baby dies from infections due to a lack of breastfeeding and the use of bottles, artificial milks and other risky products. Every 30 seconds”.
That’s an unusually hardline approach, but journalist and medical student Amy Corderoy has been taken aback by the stigma attached to formula after having her first child earlier this year.
“As a health writer and medical student, I was very pro-breastfeeding,” she wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I’d done classes before birth and read the long lists of everything breastfeeding had and could do compared with formula. I had also naively accepted maternity care’s new dogma: that people who didn’t breastfeed weren’t really educated, interested, or, worse, had been tricked by the marketing of wicked formula companies.”
The reality was something of a shock.
Corderoy’s newborn daughter just couldn’t get enough milk. Distressed and hungry, the baby lost 13% of her birth weight in the first 3 days.
Australian guidelines say that weight loss of up to 10% is normal in the first week.
When a midwife suggested supplementing with formula, Corderoy felt sick: “She may as well have been suggesting I give my baby Coca-Cola”.
Corderoy still hates having to reveal her “dirty formula secret” to new health care professionals and is left distraught when the response is a raised eyebrow or disapproving tone.
She wrote her article in the hope it would help other women struggling with breastfeeding and help to promote “evidence-based, non-judgmental health care”.
With that in mind, she tried to share a link to the article with a feminist Facebook parenting group she belonged to.
The response from the site’s moderators was a surprise.
They refused to allow the link to be shared, saying the article came across as “deliberately provocative” and might pit women against each other as happened in other “anti-women” media.
It’s beyond me how it could be considered “pro-women” to censor discussion of an important topic in this way.
The moderators did offer Corderoy the opportunity to resubmit her article with more justification or clarification, but she chose at that point to leave the group.
Breastfeeding is clearly a good thing, but more important is the welfare of mothers and babies. A fixed focus on breastfeeding as the only acceptable option will not always deliver that.
We need to be able to discuss such complex issues in more nuanced ways, without trying to shame or silence those whose experiences may not fit the mould.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
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