To answer honestly, I’m not really sure why I decided to participate. I think partly it was because I really respect the blogger who was encouraging people to participate; partly because one of the most productive exchanges I ever had with a critic was over the promotion of breastfeeding in the Philippines, so it got me interested in that country’s infant feeding history; and partly because I feel like the fallout from misguided breastfeeding advocacy in the US can be a cautionary tale for those trying to find the right approach. Or maybe the word “carnival” made me think of pony rides and cotton candy, and put me in a celebratory mood. Regardless of why I wanted to participate, I hope that I am not offending anybody by doing so. I want to make it clear that the current status of breastfeeding – and thus breastfeeding promotion – is vastly different in the Philippines than it is here in the States, or in most of the countries represented by regular readers of this blog. There, formula feeding is still seen as a symbol of status; pretty much the complete opposite to what is going on in Western cultures, where formula feeding is correlated with lower levels of income or education. (On that note, I urge you to check out the other blog posts from the women participating in this event, because I truly learned a lot from reading their words. Links are at the bottom of the page.)
But for the very reason that breastfeeding promotion is still in its early stages in the Philippines, I hope that my post can help this country do it right, and not make the same mistakes I feel that breastfeeding advocates have made in my part of the world. Because I believe that positive breastfeeding promotion is not only possible, but necessary and beneficial for all women, both formula feeding and breastfeeding. It frustrates me that most of what I see is the reverse – negative breastfeeding promotion – and I feel that this approach is turning women against other women; society against mothers; and setting women up for failure.
Let’s consider my personal dream world. There’s a woman in this world who wants to breastfeed. She thinks it is something beautiful, a powerful connection that can be forged physically between mother and babe, something that only a woman can do. She doesn’t think formula is bad, or that formula feeding would make her any less connected to her child; she just wants to breastfeed because it seems like the natural extension of pregnancy. She has to go back to work after three months, but she isn’t stressing about it, because she figures she’ll see how things are going after those three months and either pump, supplement, or do a little of both. Since she’s not scared of formula, there is no pressure on her; she is only focused on the positives. The people around her have told her that breastfeeding is easier, empowering, and while it can be tough for the first month, they are all there to help her through it in any way they can. What happens to this woman?
b) If she encounters serious problems, these same people will try and find solutions that work for her. Since there is no pressure involved, but rather her own desire and drive to breastfeed, whatever decision she makes will be guilt-free. Since she is stress-free and knows that no one will judge her for her decisions, nothing is complicating the situation. She works through the problem and goes on to nurse for a year, and becomes a inspiring force for every woman who knows her
c) She hits an insurmountable roadblock, and finds herself unable to breastfeed exclusively. But she still does her best, enjoying every minute of her nursing relationship because there is NO PRESSURE to meet some breastfeeding ideal. And if she nurses for a day, or for six months, or combo-feeds, or whatever – she remains a breastfeeding advocate, possibly even more empowered to help other women avoid the roadblock she encountered.
Now, let’s take a woman who lives in another world, where breastfeeding is promoted chiefly by pointing out how it can maximize your child’s potential – make him smarter, healthier, thinner. In this world, women who formula feed are seen as lazy, uninformed, or uncaring, because if breastfeeding is so superior, who in her right mind wouldn’t give her baby the best?
This world isn’t a dream world, it’s the world I live in. Every day I get emails from women who feel angry, isolated, judged and lied to. And these are women who wanted to breastfeed. The disappointment they felt about not getting the nursing relationship they craved was bad enough, but on top of that, because of the way breastfeeding and formula are presented in Western society these days, they also felt like failures.
Advocates have told me that accentuating the positives of breastfeeding hasn’t worked, which is why there has been a push towards focusing on the risks of formula. Essentially, though, this leads to women being “scared” or “guilted” into nursing. I suppose that if you feel strongly about breastfeeding, then the ends could justify these means – but I suspect that these tactics won’t lead to very productive ends, in the long run. Women who want to breastfeed don’t need to be convinced. And those who do need convincing? Fear tactics are not the way to go. A woman who feels coerced into breastfeeding is not going to go into the process with a positive attitude. And what happens to that woman?
b) She breastfeeds because she feels she “has to”, and is miserable because of it, and tells her friends how miserable she is, which isn’t great public relations for the practice – breastfeeding becomes seen as a “chore” or something to grit your teeth through, like birth.
c) She stops breastfeeding by choice, but then feel like she has to blame it on the infamous “booby traps” (ie, bad hospital practices, formula companies and their insidious marketing, unsupportive community, etc.) in order to save face, even though the biggest booby trap was the fact that she never wanted to nurse in the first place. She should be able to admit that and not be judged, but she knows she will be.
d) She stops breastfeeding, tells the truth about why she stopped, and is made to feel like a terrible mom.
e) She hits an insurmountable roadblock, and has to give up breastfeeding, and feels like she is torturing her child and is unfit to be a mom. A few years down the line, she is still hurting from that experience; meanwhile, she’s seen her child grow to be smart, healthy, and slender. So she starts to think that all the breastfeeding benefits were overblown. Which makes her resent the people who told her that formula feeding would ruin her child. Can you blame her for not being supportive of lactivism?
I want breastfeeding to be promoted and protected. But I believe the way we are currently doing it is wrong.
Expectant friends have asked me if they should try breastfeeding. Now, if someone is asking the Fearless Formula Feeder this question, chances are she wants someone to talk her out of nursing, that she is a bit skittish about the whole thing. But that is not something I will do. That’s not something I want to do. Rather, I want to encourage her to try it, as long as she doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other. So here is my approach: I always start off by saying that first and foremost, it is her choice. That no matter what, her baby will be fed; her baby will be loved; their bond will still be as strong. I tell her I am happy to discuss the relative risks of formula feeding with her, and ways she can counteract those risks (for example, one study suggested that formula fed kids who start solids too early have a higher risk of obesity, yet if they start solids at the recommended 4-6 months, this risk is no higher than that of breastfed kids; on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to matter when breastfed kids start solids. So if she chooses to formula feed, this might be helpful information).
Then, I tell her that if breastfeeding hadn’t been so complicated for me – if it hadn’t been so intricately tied up with my postpartum depression and some other more personal issues – I would have chosen breastfeeding, hands down. For most women, once you get past the initial learning curve of breastfeeding, it is easier than formula feeding. It is free. You can never forget to pack your breasts in your diaper bag. You have an instant way to soothe tears or help your baby sleep (bottles can do the same thing, but this can lead to overfeeding, whereas breastfeeding has the advantage of non-nutritive sucking). You burn like 500 extra calories a day, so you can keep on eating for two (the one thing I miss about pregnancy…!). Many of my friends also found it a bonding experience with other women, not just their babies – some of the best friendships they forged with other moms were in breastfeeding support groups. You will have a new appreciation for what your body is capable of – what a cool sense of pride, knowing you can single-handedly nourish your baby. My nursing friends also tell me that nursing sessions are incredibly relaxing, a way to step out of the rush of the day and just be.
Does this approach work? I have no idea. But I can tell you that 5 out of 6 friends who I’ve had this conversation with have ended up primarily breastfeeding their children for the better part of a year. The other combo-fed and is still a huge supporter of breastfeeding. A small sample to be sure, but 5 out of 6 ain’t bad. And 5 out of 6 women feeling this positive about breastfeeding, on a national scale…? That could create the breastfeeding-friendly dream world we discussed earlier… and not harm the sisterhood of women while doing it.