In the 1993 film Groundhog’s Day, a reporter (Bill Murray) gets stuck in an endless time-warping loop, which forces him to repeat the same day over and over again. He’s aware of the constant rewinding, but no one else seems to be; everyone around him repeats the same lines and actions every day, with no knowledge that they did the very same thing the day before.
I’m starting to feel a bit like Bill Murray.
Every year or so, someone (typically a journalist or academic) writes an article for a major news outlet about the breast/bottle issue, and the universe explodes into a toxic cloud of overwrought responses and painfully long comment sections. I’m not casting stones from my glassy little house; I’ve contributed to these explosions many times by posting the catalyst articles on Facebook and Twitter, written my own overwrought responses, and added my unnecessary two cents to comment threads.
But that’s what you do, when you’re caught in a Groundhog’s Day situation. You go through the motions, say what people expect you to say. You play your part.
Here’s what my personal Groundhog’s Day looks like:
An article comes out with a controversial, negative title about breastfeeding, containing one or more of the following points:
-Breastfeeding studies are flawed and therefore can’t be trusted.
-The studies proving that breastfeeding isn’t the cat’s meow are somehow exempt from the same criticism, and can be trusted implicitly
-Everyone trying to help women breastfeed is a bully
-The person writing breastfed, but thinks formula feeding is a perfectly viable option and resents the pressure she couldn’t resist; or, she formula fed, and this is a sad, penitent story about her breastfeeding failure and how hard she tried.
Next, a response piece comes out, making one (or more) of the following arguments:
-The author of the original piece isn’t an MD or IBCLC, but rather a political or social scientist, so she’s got no business having an opinion on medical issues. (Let’s ignore that some of the most prominent voices in breastfeeding literature are anthropologists.)
-People who speak out against the pressure to breastfeed are anti-breastfeeding, hate breastfeeding mothers, and must be bitter/anti-feminist/in the pocket of Big Formula/uneducated/uninformed.
-There is no such thing as the Mommy Wars, and moms don’t really feel guilty about not breastfeeding, because our 6-month exclusive breastfeeding rates show that they are in the majority, so why would they ever feel bad?
-Because breastfeeding mothers also have problems, that negates the problems of non-breastfeeding parents.
-All of the research cited in the article means nothing, because (add circular argument here about how the AAP and WHO support breastfeeding, based on the same studies that are being questioned).
-Anyone who cares about women and babies should boycott said article and the godforsaken newspaper/website that published it.
Then, a follow up to the follow up will be written, reiterating the points of the first article, and we all act as if any part of this tone-deaf conversation is news. And so on, and so forth, until we find ourselves back at the beginning, ready to start the cycle over.
If this were a movie, I’d make a dramatic, heart-stirring speech, grab a stick, and draw a literal and proverbial line in the sand. On one side, I’d invite the the rational, kind people – regardless of their opinions on breastfeeding, or how they fed their own kids. As long as they respected other people’s points of view, and were willing to listen and have a real conversation, they would be welcome.
On the other side, we’d leave the zealots and judgmental jerks. Then something magical would happen, maybe involving a fairy godmother who’d been disguised as a gruff barkeep for the whole movie, watching and waiting for the protagonist to figure out the Big Lesson. Sparks would fly, and those of us on the “nice” side would miraculously wake up 24 hours later and go on with our lives, while the others would be stuck in that same day, having the same tired arguments. (Don’t feel bad for them. They’re happier that way.)
But there isn’t a fairy godmother, or even a barkeep, so I’m stuck reciting my lines. I’m not going to be poetic about it, because I’ve written the same article like 7000 times already and I would only plagiarize myself (is that possible?), so I’m just going to list some bullet points, in no particular order, which detail my response to the all the articles and responses and responses to responses, in no particular order:
- Breastfeeding moms struggle. They deserve help, and resources, and the right to feed their babies anywhere and in any way they see fit.
- Formula feeding parents struggle. They deserve help, and resources, and the right to feed their babies in whatever way they see fit.
- Infant feeding studies are inherently flawed. All of them. The ones that say what you want them to say, and the ones that say what you don’t. The best we have are sibling studies, of which there are approximately three. Those three do show very negligible benefits of breastfeeding. However, just because research can’t prove that breastfeeding guarantees a healthier, smarter child, does not mean it’s not worth supporting. It is still the biological norm, and there are many reasons it is worthwhile and wonderful that have nothing to do with science. (Incidentally, I find it ironic that SCIENCE is what we use to promote breastmilk, while at the same time being seriously pissed off at SCIENCE for making a damn good substitute for it. Those science-y bastards!)
- We do NOT have solid evidence that breastfeeding is the panacea (at least in western society) that organizations like WHO and UNICEF make it out to be. But remember that WHO and UNICEF are worldwide organizations, and in many parts of the world, not breastfeeding really can be a death sentence. So that might cause a bit of understandable zealotry on the subject.
- It is unfortunate that the only people speaking up about these issues are political scientists and bloggers (one exception: Dr. Amy Tuteur, who has a book coming out very soon which tackles this topic). Consider, though, that it’s basically career suicide for anyone in the medical profession to speak out against breastfeeding pressure. Until we can have more balanced discussions that don’t result in knee-jerk responses and accusations, I don’t see many practicing MDs volunteering to lead the charge. (There’s a really long discussion on this form of innate censorship in my book, not that anyone has read the damn thing. Because, you know, it’s Groundhog’s Day, and it doesn’t exist in this alternate reality. Or any reality, really, looking at my book sales. Sigh.)
- Infant feeding politics are greatly affected by region, race, class, and social group. What happens to one patient in one hospital doesn’t have much bearing on another patient in another hospital, even one down the street, let alone in a different part of the country. Some people live in breastfeeding-friendly communities where they really are the only person reaching for a bottle. The fact that their statewide statistics show that 50% of the people in their state are also reaching for bottles means nothing, unless those 50% hang out in their neighborhood, with their social circle.
- What happens in Baby Friendly Hospitals is not uniform. What Baby Friendly says in its literature can easily get lost in translation. Many, many parents report feeling bullied and pressured, and left without any resources or support once they chose to formula feed. Telling them that this isn’t happening just because it isn’t happening at the hospital YOU work at, is gaslighting, pure and simple.
- Likewise, just because you were treated like a criminal for asking to supplement, doesn’t mean someone else is lying when they say their child was given formula without reason or consent. Some hospitals are very breastfeeding unfriendly.
- Speaking of which, the whole reason for the huge push with breastfeeding is that for a long time, formula was the norm, and breastfeeding was discouraged. That said…I actually think a case could be made that the truly anti-breastfeeding period was about 2 decades, or about 25 years (50s-mid 70′s). Formula feeding became the norm in the 50′s, and that’s when pediatricians started telling women it was “better” to use commercial formula than their own milk. The pendulum swung the other direction in the mid-70′s (post Nestle disaster) and breastfeeding has been the “right” choice ever since. As it is currently 2015, and the pendulum has been way over on the breastfeeding side from around the early 90s, that means we’ve been pro-breast longer than we were anti-breast. This might be the reason for all the recent backlash – it’s time for another pendulum swing, this time (hopefully) towards the middle.
- Instead of questioning the quality of the breastfeeding research, why aren’t we questioning why we’re still doing meaningless observational studies which do nothing but frame infant feeding (and therefore, necessarily, women’s bodies) as the only element in childhood health and development? Instead, we could be using the money, time and energy finding better alternatives for those who can’t make breastfeeding work, or finding ways to support breastfeeding without harming the psyches of new mothers or marginalizing new dads or adoptive parents. Even studies which look at the chemical composition of breastmilk would be helpful and interesting. But we know that observational studies on the long-term effects of breastfeeding are bullshit, so why do we keep doing them? Seems like an exercise in frustration, to me.
- Breastfeeding supporters (IBCLCs. CLCs, nurses) are not the enemy. I think there are fundamental flaws in the training programs and governing boards that oversee these credentials, things that make it difficult for care providers to do their jobs with empathy and sensitivity. For example, the way IBCLCs are restricted by their code of conduct makes it hard to truly support formula feeding parents, in my opinion. But for those who want to breastfeed, these professionals are a GODSEND. And many do stray from the party line and help parents feed their babies, however that may happen, end of story. Stereotyping is stereotyping, no matter which way you cut it.
- The previous point does not negate the fact that many women have been mistreated and hurt in the name of breastfeeding. The individuals and organizations that perpetuate this behavior must be held accountable, just as much as the formula companies need to be held accountable for their marketing tactics, past and present.
- Speaking of marketing, formula companies have done some god-awful things. But we must be careful not to confuse their modern, generic capitalist behavior with the sins of the past. Sending a formula sample (which can be donated to a food bank or burned at the stake, you choose) is not quite the same thing as sending fake nurses into a resource-poor nation and creating conditions that killed hundred of babies.
- The experiences of formula feeding parents are just as real, valid, and important as the experiences of breastfeeding mothers, and vice versa.
- Listen to those experiences: breastfeeding mothers talk about shame around feeding in public, attitudes towards extended breastfeeding, and a lack of practical support at the hospital. Formula feeding parents talk about shame around the entire first year of feeding, being made to feel like they are harming their children, being chastised by care providers, and having a lack of practical support at the hospital. There are problems and gaps and room for improvement on both sides. It’s not a pissing contest.
- When a new voice arises on the infant feeding debate scene, don’t immediately dismiss it. Maybe there’s a reason for all these articles – maybe there are some real issues going on here, and if we solved them, the articles would stop.
I could say more, but I’m boring myself. I hope you’re bored, too; bored of the constant back and forth, bored of defending yourself and your point of view; bored of fighting. It won’t change until the people in real positions of power – physicians, members of the AAP and WHO and numerous other medical organizations, government officials, parenting “experts” – decide to take a long, hard look at what this “debate” is doing to parents and babies, and realize that if the end goal is a happier, healthier generation, they are failing miserably.
All we can do in the meantime is take care of ourselves and those around us; to tell our stories and talk to those who are willing to listen, and explain why breastfeeding is not, and never will be, the same sort of public health issue as obesity or smoking. Some will put their hands over their ears and refuse to listen, but that’s okay. Keep talking. Force it to be a dialog instead of a lecture. Read the articles you agree with, and the ones you don’t agree with. Find people who support you, and pay it forward by supporting others.
And one day, if we’re lucky, we will all wake up in our beds and find that it’s February 3rd.