“I just don’t know what to say to my friends. They can see me struggling with breastfeeding, and they can’t understand why I don’t just formula feed like they are. They’re all going to the cinema next week without their babies, and there’s no way I can go with them because I can’t be away from my baby for that long”.
This mother was attending our La Leche League group for the first time, with her four-week-old baby, but the topic was a familiar one. It seems to come up every few weeks, in various forms: “my grandmother said that she never breastfed any of her children and they all turned out healthy”; “my mum said there’s no need to keep breastfeeding now my baby’s eating solids”; “my partner thinks I should switch over to formula so he can feed the baby too”. Mothers are often worried that an honest response treating breastfeeding as the biological norm might sound like criticism of those who don’t do it; others find it hard to put into words what’s special to them about the breastfeeding relationship that they have with their babies. Here are some of the suggestions we’ve discussed in our group over the years, with thoughts about when they might be useful.
“It’s good for our health”
You can’t walk through a maternity ward or baby clinic without seeing posters proclaiming the benefits of breastfeeding, and the facts are certainly impressive. You probably know many of the facts about all the wonderful things that breastfeeding does for both babies and mothers (and if you don’t know, read the box below). The NHS and the Department of Health promote breastfeeding as the healthy choice, and for many people this is one of the main reasons for choosing it.
However, feeding babies is an emotive topic. One mother told our group that she had been asked why she breastfed by another mother whose formula-fed children had asthma, eczema and allergies. She told us that she felt she couldn’t say anything about the health impact of breastfeeding without sounding like she was saying “it’s your fault that your children aren’t healthy”. Maybe it’s a question of who you’re speaking to: you might decide that someone who is expecting a baby, or may have (more) children in the future, really deserves to know the truth about the impact of breastfeeding on health outcomes, for her own sake and for her baby’s. Your mother or grandmother, on the other hand, might feel criticised or blamed if you overload them with a heap of facts when it’s too late for them to do anything differently.
“It’s much cheaper”
With formula costing around £40 per month – without taking into account initial expenses like bottles, sterilising equipment, cool-bags for carrying bottles around and so on, or other ongoing costs like sterilising solution and the fuel cost of boiling the kettle several times a day – you can cheerfully think of every breastfeed as a deposit into your savings account, or you can find something else you’d rather spend that money on. Although many breastfeeding mums do choose to buy special breastfeeding bras and tops, these are easily available second hand at bargain prices, or you may be happy to breastfeed while wearing a pre-baby top and an ordinary non-wired bra. If you feel comfortable giving this answer to people who ask about breastfeeding, it’s a good one for shutting down a conversation that you don’t want to continue with, as so many people are squeamish about discussing money!
“It’s better for the environment”
You may have friends who are interested in all things green, or maybe you already have a reputation as some kind of eco nut so this fits right in with what your loved ones expect to hear from you! Either way, the environmental impact of formula is huge: methane emissions from dairy farming, carbon emissions during manufacturing and transportation, the electricity required to heat water, the landfill generated by formula containers and bottles and teats. It all adds up to a compelling environmental case for breastfeeding, if you’re asked about it by someone with green sympathies.
You may have read that La Leche League International recently changed the wording of one of their concept statements from “Breast milk is the superior infant food” to “Human milk is the natural food for babies, uniquely meeting their changing needs”. Saying “breastfeeding is natural” to some people invites smart retorts (“so is cholera!”), but if you’re asked about breastfeeding by someone who’s simply curious, it can be helpful to present breastmilk as the normal way that humans across the world and throughout history feed their babies. For example, I have occasionally answered relatives’ questions with something like this: “I’d be willing to use formula if for some reason I couldn’t breastfeed, just as I’d be willing to use a prosthetic limb if I needed one, but given that my breasts and my legs work fine, I don’t see the need for any kind of substitute”.
“I’m just lazy”
This is one of my personal favourites, possibly because I’m confident that anyone who knows me will believe it! In the early weeks it may look to people unfamiliar with breastfeeding like you’re choosing the hard option, but hopefully you and your baby will soon establish a comfortable breastfeeding relationship which allows you to be lazy in all sorts of ways: no shopping trips to buy formula, no washing and sterilising, no getting up in the night to fetch and heat a bottle, no carrying supplies with you when you travel. When it’s working well, breastfeeding can be very much the easy option.
“I’m doing it to lose weight”
To be precise, several people in our group suggested their main motivation for breastfeeding was “to eat more cake and not get fat”. I’m not sure an article in Breastfeeding Matters can endorse that exactly as it stands… but maybe some friends who ask you about breastfeeding would be interested to know that it’s a way of using around 500 kcal per day, possibly while sitting on the sofa watching TV.
“I’m just doing what I’m told”
This is a gentler version of “we do things differently nowadays”, which was what many mothers said they wanted to respond to older relatives who were concerned to see them parenting very differently from the way that they did. It may be helpful to say “my midwife/health visitor/GP told me to feed the baby whenever he’s hungry rather than sticking to a schedule”, or whatever the issue is. If you want instructions from a higher authority, you can tell whoever’s asking that the UK Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and the World Health Organization encourages mothers to breastfeed for a minimum of two years.
“I’m just doing what that celebrity does”
OK, so as a rule it’s not always a good idea to base your life on what you’ve heard that an actress/model/singer/reality TV star is doing. But I feel a huge amount of gratitude to all the women who have used their fame, and people’s eagerness to see photos of them, to normalise and support breastfeeding. A quick internet search will find many beautiful pictures that celebrities have released on social media and even glossy magazine photoshoots of them breastfeeding their babies and toddlers.
“I enjoy it”
Some people who are really unfamiliar with breastfeeding, or who struggled with it for a few days or weeks before stopping, might find this answer a little odd. But although it may not be the reason why most mothers start out breastfeeding, often it plays a big part in their decisions to continue with it. It’s not widely talked about, but breastfeeding can be a really lovely experience: a time of connection with your child, the pleasure of knowing that you are able to meet his needs, a moment of calm in a busy day, or the physical sense of relaxation and happiness that comes with the rush of breastfeeding hormones. If the person asking you about breastfeeding is pregnant, I think it’s only fair to let them know that although the early days can be hard, persevering with breastfeeding can be a truly enjoyable experience for both mother and baby.
“It works for us”
As a group, this was what we settled on as our favourite answer for situations when what we really wanted to say was “I don’t think this is any of your business and I don’t want to discuss it with you”. Sometimes you don’t have anything to gain by getting into a discussion about the merits of breastfeeding. I was once approached by a much older woman in a café, a complete stranger, who spoke kindly to me and my children, then started to tell me in great detail about her horrendous experience of breastfeeding and how terrible it had been for her. This wasn’t an invitation for me to persuade her that she was wrong, or to tell her how brilliant my own experience was; all I needed was something gentle along the lines of “I know it doesn’t work out for everyone, but it’s working well for us”.
“I’d like to give it a good try”
One new mum talked about how hard it was to get support from her friends who were formula feeding their babies. When she talked to them about the struggles she had with establishing breastfeeding, they told her to abandon it rather than cause herself any more anguish. Although they were trying to take care of her, what she really wanted was encouragement to help her to continue breastfeeding. Sometimes you may need to make it clear to those around you – partner, friends, parents – that you would like them to listen compassionately when you talk about any difficulties you are having, but that breastfeeding really matters to you and you would also appreciate their help to get through any difficulties that you have with it.
In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter what you say? Well, I think it does, partly because we all know what it feels like to be confronted by someone, say nothing at the time then spend days afterwards re-running the conversation in your head and saying all the things you wish you’d thought of at the time. But I also think that we owe it to other potential breastfeeding mothers (and potentially breastfed babies) to be honest about the delights of breastfeeding. Speaking up about breastfeeding can also let other mothers know that you might be sympathetic to them if they need someone to speak to about their own experiences; our LLL group has spoken often about the need for “breastfeeding friends” for those conversations that others might not relate to. And even those people who aren’t going to breastfeed – your dad, the older woman in the café, your friend who formula-fed – may be in a position to influence other people’s decisions. Formula milk has a vast advertising budget behind it; mothers who feel confident enough to speak up can be powerful advocates for breastfeeding when answering other people’s questions about why we choose to nurse our babies.
Written by Emma Taylor, LLL Colchester, and first published in Breastfeeding Matters issue 221