I wasn’t going to weigh in on this, but after the furore of blogs and opinions about Chef Jamie Oliver’s comments about a breastfeeding campaign, I had to say my bit. Feel free to switch off now if you’re tired of the “breast is best” or Naked Chef discussion.
Earlier this week, Jamie Oliver suggested that his next campaign might be about breastfeeding. Why breastfeeding? Because it’s easy, of course!
“Probably the most upsetting thing for me at the moment, and I’m desperately trying to scrabble around to get more information on it, breastfeeding. If you breastfeed for more than six months, women are 50 per cent less likely to get breast cancer. When do you ever hear that? Never. It’s easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free.”
He then went on to say that formula is not as good as the companies use some dreadful marketing techniques, before telling listeners on London’s LBC radio that not breastfeeding can lead to everything from “stunting to obesity to ill-health”.
Of course the world has gone batshit crazy over here, with women everywhere fighting over whether his comments were justified or not. Should a man be commenting on how easy breastfeeding supposedly is? Is it not down to personal choice? Is he shaming women who can’t or choose not to breastfeed?
Since making this statement, Mr Chef has since come forward and said he won’t be starting a breastfeeding campaign and that he meant to cause no offence. If I’m honest I do believe him. I think his intentions were probably good, however I wanted to discuss some of my thoughts on why some ladies got so upset about his comments.
From what I know, breastfeeding isn’t easy. Obviously I can’t draw on my own experience because Eden is not and has never been breastfed. But friends have told me varying things. Yes, some of them do find it terribly easy and get off on a great foot and have a lovely journey. Other friends have found it difficult at first before finding their groove and being able to continue. Other friends – and these are the ones that I think about when statements like this are made – have had horrific journeys where they have felt pressured and have endured great personal trauma all for breastfeeding. Have been refused formula whilst their baby screamed with hunger. Have been told that they’re not trying hard enough.
I don’t think people in the UK need to be told any more that “breast is best.” I really don’t. We know. Believe me, we know. Let’s take my experience, for example.
When I got pregnant, at my very first midwife appointment at just seven weeks pregnant, I was given a leaflet about infant feeding. It was about twenty pages about breastfeeding and one page entitled “the dangers of artificial feeding”. Not formula feeding. Artificial feeding. This told me that should I choose to feed my child “artificially”, she would be fat, stupid and would hate me. Research has shown that those things just aren’t true. Obesity, and IQ are more to do with socio-economic background than whether a child is breastfed or not, and whilst I don’t doubt that a breastfed baby has a different bond with its mother, a formula fed baby doesn’t miss out on a bond at all. Eden and I are very well bonded.
Every single appointment (until I changed hospitals) I had “breast is best” rammed down my throat. Every clinic had hundred of posters about how it is “easy, convenient, always the right temperature and always in plentiful supply”. I’m sure the breastfeeding mothers amongst you would tell me that is not always true. It’s not always easy, it’s not always convenient and it’s not always in plentiful supply.
As you know, I was refused formula for Eden when she was in hospital with jaundice. The expectation was that I should just take up breastfeeding. At one point Amy was given an empty bottle for me to express into, even though we had said repeatedly that Eden was bottle fed formula. That was incredibly upsetting and I would go as far as to say I was traumatised by the way I was treated. No one asked why we were formula feeding. It was just assumed that we were stupid and uneducated. No support was offered. They didn’t have my medical records, so for all they knew I could have been a double mastectomy patient, but that hospital didn’t care. It wasn’t about NHS money – I would have happily paid for formula. It wasn’t about the best treatment for Eden. All they cared about was ramming breastfeeding down everyone’s throat without prejudice or thought. It was about “breast is best”.
On the flip side, the hospital that I switched to and in which Eden was born were quite the opposite. The clinics were filled with posters like “have you thought about how you will feed your baby?” We were provided with information about breastfeeding and my midwife actually asked me at an appointment how we were planning on feeding Eden. When I said formula, she asked why. I explained our reasons and she said “ok”. That was it. No judgement. No “but you should breastfeed”. No ramming information down my throat. Our awesome midwife discussed our decision with me, satisfied herself that we had made an informed decision and that we knew the pros and cons of both methods of feeding, and then she moved the hell on.
That’s the way it should be. The vast majority of expectant mothers aren’t stupid. The vast majority of expectant mothers care about their baby from the moment they see two lines on that pregnancy test. Why are we treating expectant mothers and their partners like idiots? Why does the health system assume that it has to hide formula lest women choose it? Why won’t midwives and healthcare professionals talk about formula? Why won’t they talk about bottles? Why do they hide it like it is the absolute worst thing that you could possibly do for your child?
To put it straight, I do believe that people who wish to breastfeed should be fully supported to do so. It is hard and it’s ok to need and accept support. I also think a number of other things too – like healthcare professionals should be realistic that breastfeeding is hard but is worth it if you want to stick with it and that formula is not the devil’s milk and is not dangerous to children. People like to chant “breast is best” at every opportunity and, in my opinion, all that does is imply than anything less than breastfeeding is not best. It’s less. The connotation being that if you bottle feed (whether that be breast milk or formula) you aren’t doing the best for your child. You are not doing your best as a mother. You don’t care about your child. You’re useless and a bad mother. All because of a feeding choice that fairly often isn’t a choice at all. People like to say that only 0.02% of women actually “can’t” breastfeed, but this only covers physical reasons. Psychological reasons are just as real and apart from anything, it is OK to make a choice. It’s fine. It’s your body and your baby and it is your choice to make. Trying and failing to breastfeed is apparently one of the leading causes of Post Natal Depression, which is something worth talking about. How could these women have been supported better? Women like Charlotte Bevan, who walked out of a maternity ward and jumped off a cliff, along with her three day old baby after stopping her psychiatric meds in order to breastfeed. Both of them died. Was breast best in this situation? Or should her individual circumstances have been taken into account and advice tailored accordingly?
This is backed up by the fact that at many hospitals in England, health care professionals are not allowed to give information on formula under the “UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative”. They can talk to you about breastfeeding until you are all blue in the face and you know all you need to know and more, but they will not give you ANY information about formula. Nothing. Not how to prepare it safely – which is super important. Not how often to feed – I had a community midwife tell me “just feed her until she’s sick” when I asked how much Eden should be eating at five days old. There’s no standardised information about formula and in fact a lot of health visitors and midwives claim to know very little about it. Do formula feeding mothers not deserve support and information too?
They will say nothing except how “dangerous” it is. Almost like it’s taboo. Like we shouldn’t be talking about formula. Like we should hide it away lest these “stupid mothers who know nothing” get ideas. In England, you can’t get store points on formula. It’s categorised the same as cigarettes. The same as alcohol. No store points, lest it encourages those terrible “bad mothers“. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone who would choose to formula feed just for the store points! Even the cartons of formula say “breast milk is best for your baby. Please consult a medical professional before using a substitute”. Really? That’s a lovely reminder to a woman who couldn’t breastfeed. Just add a couple more points to the pile of shame there. You can’t access information online about formula feeding without clicking a disclaimer to say that you understand that breast milk is best for babies and formula is less. I don’t know why you would access a formula company’s website if you were offended by information about formula. It’s incredibly difficult to find accurate information about formula.
Indeed Jamie Oliver in his original statement made a point of saying how terrible the formula industry is. Fact is, in poor countries, I agree that formula shouldn’t be encouraged like it was in poor parts of Africa by sales reps dressed as nurses. How do you sterilise a bottle? Where are you getting clean water to make up the formula? All this did was cause women to try to make the expensive cartons last as long as possible and led to malnutrition and children dying – all because those mothers were told “formula is best”. It was disgusting and it was wrong. But in the UK, where we can make up formula safely, we can sterilise our equipment and we can make sure there is enough for growing babies, what’s the problem? A lot of the benefits of breastfeeding are vastly overstated and although you will never be able to replicate the hormones, fats and antibodies that are contained in breastmilk, formula is far from harmful for children. Feeding your child formula is nothing to be ashamed of, but all we do by not talking about it and chanting “breast is best” is make women feel like they are doing something wrong by feeding their children the best way that they can.
Getting back to my original point – we need to concentrate more on education, not pressure. From the moment I got pregnant it was like a pressure cooker. You will be breastfeeding, won’t you? Breast is best you know! Breastfeeding is easy. Breast is best. Did you know that formula fed babies are fat and stupid? Breast is best. BREAST IS BEST. BREAST IS BEST! BREASTS! BREASTS!
Don’t just tell me “breast is best”. How about the NHS produce a non biased leaflet that tells me the pros and cons of all methods of feeding? Give me the whole story. Tell me about the difficulties I might have faced had I chosen to breastfeed, but also reassure me of what support is available in my area. Tell me that if I can’t breastfeed, that’s ok. I’m not a failure and my child won’t hate me. Tell me that feeding my child is the most important of all the things. Tell me that a lot of the myths aren’t true. Formula fed babies don’t necessarily sleep longer and breastfed babies aren’t always healthier. Breastfeeding does sometimes hurt and formula fed babies often still cluster feed. Breastfeeding very rarely comes naturally like some magical Disney movie, but THAT’S OK. Wade through the myths and legends and get down to nothing but facts. Find out WHY women are choosing not to breastfeed and DAMMIT respect the choices of grown adults! But make sure I have all of the information that I need. I’m all for encouraging women to breastfeed, but only if they want to. And only through encouragement, not through shaming. Not just “breast is best”. We don’t need another person chanting “breast is best”. WE KNOW!
Shaming is never best. Breast isn’t always best. Formula isn’t always best. Bottle feeding isn’t always best. Tube feeding isn’t always best. Fed is best, and that’s all we should be worrying about. We’re all doing a fantastic job, no matter how we are doing it. Let’s quit with “breast is best” and start giving women all the information they need, because only telling one side of the story is nothing short of dangerous.
(As an aside, if anyone is having difficulty accessing ubiased information on formula feeding, I recommend The Fearless Formula Feeder’s Website.)