The article “On Breastfeeding: My Body, My Choice”, written by Mirah Curzer and published by Huffington Post on 5 August 2016, raises a lot of points that deserve an evidence-based response.1
Curzer’s comments about health issues 2 can be easily refuted by numerous research papers. 3, 4, 5 A study of a Scottish Birth Cohort (1997-2009)6 showed that breastfeeding is associated with reduced childhood hospitalisation, having taken into account a wide range of relevant variables, including individual socioeconomic characteristics. The study concluded it is likely that there is an underestimation of the association between formula feeding and hospitalisation and that ‘the strength of association between breastfeeding and reduced infant morbidity, which is consistent with other studies, provides convincing evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding on child health in the context of developed countries.’ 7
Looking at the real issue
Aside from the comments on the significance of breastfeeding to health, what is at the heart of this article is the idea of women being pressured to nurse their children. The article states that breastfeeding is something which is being forced upon women by others and that the intention is to make those who don’t breastfeed feel attacked and shamed.
The article is particularly hard on La Leche League and mistakenly claims that our mission is to “tie women to their babies in order to keep them at home”. In fact, when La Leche League was formed in 1956, the hope was that it would give women the information they needed to reclaim their rights in the area of birth and breastfeeding from oppressive medical professionals who claimed they knew what was best. At that time, women felt they were being forced into choices that did not feel right to them.
So, rather than trying to tie women down, LLL wanted to give them accurate information so they would be empowered to make their own decisions.
The first Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, published in 1963, gave women information to help them change things they were not happy about. The book was, of course, of its time. In 1956, women’s lives were very different from those of today’s mothers; however, LLL has always been about listening to women and supporting them in their individual situations. As times have changed, LLL has developed a vast amount of accurate information to meet the dynamic world we live in. At the heart of that, however, has always been the wish to support women who want to breastfeed their babies, and never to pressure those who don’t.
Is this really outside pressure?
The article says that women face enormous pressure to breastfeed and those women who choose not to face bullying and criticism. Many women who breastfeed feel they face the same. There is no doubt that breastfeeding is the cause of a lot of anxiety among mothers and the subject of heated discussion. Perhaps, what we really need to think about is what has led women to think of breastfeeding as something they are being pressured to do, rather than something that they expect to do after giving birth.
Breastfeeding is the biological norm: what has turned breastfeeding from a natural part of motherhood into something which seems to cause pressure, guilt and negativity?
The article says “Women who give up on breastfeeding because of pain live with crippling guilt for years, honestly believing they have failed their children by giving in to the ‘selfish’ desire not to experience excruciating pain.”
Stopping breastfeeding before she intended to can lead a woman to feel guilt, sadness and depression, possibly because of the hormonal changes in her body and because she misses the breastfeeding relationship. Women who stop breastfeeding before they wanted to can be left with negative feelings and the pressure on women to breastfeed is often blamed,
whereas they have really been failed by a system which, far from offering too much breastfeeding support, is not able to provide enough.
Breastfeeding is not something that has been created to try to make women feel bad if they don’t do it, and an organisation like La Leche League would never wish to pressure women to breastfeed. Many of those in LLL know only too well that breastfeeding is not always easy and that timely support can make all the difference. It’s regrettable that offering this much needed support is now regularly defined as pressure.
LLL respects the fact that some women know breastfeeding is not for them, and a small percentage have supply issues. Formula has its place for women who have made a definite decision they do not want to breastfeed, and, as was originally intended, for the small percentage of babies who have no other way to feed. However, it is a biological fact that babies are born expecting to breastfeed and that most women’s natural instincts and bodily functions are at work to make it happen.
Enabling and empowering individual choices
LLLGB agrees with the article’s comment that “Every woman who wants to breastfeed should be able to do so, with full medical, legal and social support.” However, we would differ in the interpretation of what empowers women to make the choices right for them.
When the article says that “Most mothers don’t have the financial ability to take extended maternity leave, let alone leave the work force altogether even if they wanted to”, a positive solution would be to put in place work conditions allowing mothers to breastfeed if they want rather than dismissing breastfeeding altogether.
Instead of arguing whether or not a mother’s place is in the home, perhaps we could create a society where that is a choice all women are able to make for themselves.
The article states that breastfeeding promotion is a war on women and a way to ground women into their biology and force them into the home.
Another view might be that it is trying to give women the chance to achieve their own breastfeeding goals, however that fits into their lives.
Rather than looking at it as a war, constantly fostering negativity and creating pointless barriers between women, the way forward is to aim to create a society in which all mothers feel able to feed their babies in the way they wish.
Written by Anna Burbidge for La Leche League GB
1 Mirah Curzer: “On Breastfeeding: My Body, My Choice”, Huffington Post, 5 August 2016 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/on-breastfeeding-my-body-my-choice_us_57a376a5e4b0f019c3e4f062)
3 “Breastfeeding: achieving the new normal”, The Lancet, Vol. 387, p. 404. (http://www.thelancet.com/…/PIIS0140-6736(16)00210-5/fulltext)
6 Ajetunmobi et al. “Breastfeeding is Associated with Reduced Childhood HospitalizationL Evidence from a Scottish Birth Cohort (1997-2009)”, The Journal of Pediatrics, March 2015, Vol. 166, pp. 620-625. (http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(14)01065-8/fulltext)