Is breastfeeding a form of state sponsored sexism?
Posted by burdzeyeview
The following is a guest post from Mairi Campbell-Jack, who blogs about poetry at www.alumpinthethroat.wordpress.com and spews out whatever thoughts randomly come into her mind on Twitter @lumpinthethroat . All comments and views, especially differing ones, welcome!
There is one area of life, I have discovered, in which you will find women driving themselves to masochistic extremes to achieve an ideal which other people (mainly women) are pushing them to. It’s not the catwalk, or any magazine. It’s breast feeding.
I can’t actually believe I was stupid enough to swallow all the hype myself. I’m middle class and I have always been terribly middle class in my tastes, so when I became pregnant with my daughter there was no question about how I would feed her. “Breast is best” is the mantra drummed into women, and so I believed.
Until I came across a catalogue of mothers and friends who had the most terrible time feeding their first children. The mother who couldn’t breast feed because of the antidepressants she is on due to terrible postnatal depression. Every time she was told that breast is best, and encountered the army of people intent on persuading her so, her already low self esteem took another blow.
Then there was the mother who had low milk supply (not calorific enough) and so her baby fed every hour and a half– that’s every hour and a half of the whole twenty four – right through the night. Exhausted, she asked her midwife if she could use a bottle, the midwife advised no, and the baby ended up in hospital on a drip because she was so dehydrated.
Another mother who had a biopsy due to a lump, whose baby refused a bottle, had to feed her on a freshly biopsied breast. Midwives and health visitors tell you not to give a baby a bottle until four weeks because of nipple confusion, (stop sniggering at the back – and read this Daily Mail article by a midwife casting serious doubt on nipple confusion and other tactics used to increase breast-feeding) by which point many babies will refuse a bottle because they know it’s not mum. Delaying mothers from trying a bottle aims to extend the time during which a baby is exclusively breast feed.
That biopsied woman was me. It was utterly excruciating. At the time I said I would rather give birth than go through those feeds again – and I gave birth without any drugs.
It got me thinking, talking to other mums, doing a bit of research. Why would health professionals tell women to breast feed no matter what, even when not good for the mental or physical wellbeing of the mother and in some circumstances, downright dangerous for the child?
The reasons, as I see them, are complex and political. There are breast feeding targets set by the Government. To measure these targets, how a baby is fed is recorded, health visitors’ statistics are collated and then trotted out to prove how hard government is working to give every child the best start in life.
Why the targets? Scotland has a very low breastfeeding rate, although breastfeeding rates in many western countries are also low. Breastfeeding provides health benefits for the mother and the infant, well into adult life. Breastfeeding is regularly touted as a “silver bullet” for all manner of problems, such as being a bit thick, being allergic to stuff, obesity, diabetes, cancer… the list is endless, almost as impressive as all the stuff you can make out of a whale. Not only should every mother breast feed their child, but any mother who does not might actually be in dereliction of duty! The attitude towards women’s ownership of their own bodies has shifted from lie back and think of England to sit down and squirt for Scotland.
However, there is disquiet among many medical professionals about breastfeeding being promoted as some kind of cure all, and some, such as Michael Kramer, professor of paediatrics at McGill University, Montreal and Sydney Spiesel, clinical professor of paediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine, have started to question the evidence.
Joan B. Wolf, a mother and academic – who did breast feed – has also conducted research into publicly funded campaigns to promote breast feeding. Woolf’s study covered Northern America, but here in Scotland there is public money being pushed into breast feeding campaigns which are very similar to those she studied. Wolf casts serious doubt on the ethics behind these campaigns, and the way they treat mothers. Some of the claims for breast feeding that we see in America, Scotland and Europe were described by Michael Kramer, professor of pediatrics at McGill University, in the article above as “false information” – a polite euphemism for lie. To me, the current approach to breastfeeding amounts to little more than state sponsored sexism.
Current guidelines issued to pregnant women on breastfeeding don’t just propagate the “false information”, but they also ignore the difficulties that can be faced when breastfeeding. They give women even less of an accurate picture.
Benefits for babies touted by NHS Scotland include protection against illnesses such as “diabetes in childhood” and “obesity”, while breastfeeding helps the mother “return to your pre-pregnancy weight” and protects her from “hip fracture in later life, caused by the bone disease osteoporosis.” Research has shown all these effects to be “negligible” or “there was no relationship”. Apparently, “Breastmilk is always best”, ignoring when it is clearly not always best, due to recurring infections, mental ill-health, drug addiction or very low milk supply. This begs the question, best for whom? Best for meeting your targets?
The same NHS Scotland publication quotes happily from the World Health Organisation, conveniently ignoring the fact that its recommendations are global and are most pertinent for mothers who live in areas where good available diet and clean water can not be relied on.
The chapter on Expressing your Milk fails to mention that not every woman is able to store expressed milk due to an excess of the digestive enzyme lipase – a problem, incidentally, that no medical effort has been made to research and resolve.
Low milk supply? Not addressed. Instead, the focus is on Poor Weight Gain with the language used implying blame rather than offering manageable solutions. The prevailing feeling that is given to new mums is that if they haven’t breast fed their child they have somehow failed, failed as a mother, at the beginning of what is a very long process. We take these kinds of things to heart, they are upsetting.
One reason why we have woefully low breastfeeding rates is to do with the sexual objectification of women’s bodies. I’m sure I don’t need to explain this. This low rate combined with the “benefits” of breast feeding is why we now have government set targets to increase the number of mothers who breast feed and why we have such a push to get mothers to breast feed their children exclusively. This push is why women are not being given the whole picture on the benefits or the difficulties of breast feeding and being supported in making a choice which is best for them, and their family’s individual circumstances. It amounts to sexism: either we choose not to breastfeed and give into cultural sexism or breastfeed and give into state sponsored sexism.
To not give women full or proper information is to infantilise them and fails to recognise that in most cases, given full information, the best person to make a decision on how a baby should be fed is the mother herself. Sometimes, when mothers are not able to make what is seen as “good” decisions for her child, there may well be under-lying issues more substantial than a decision between bottle and breast. She should be supported rather than chastised. Anything less is treating us like cows.
So what do I want? I want to see the Scottish Government (whomever that may be after May) revaluate all the scientific evidence on breast feeding, completely. I want to see arbitrary targets, which pressurise women at a very vulnerable time in their lives, scrapped. I want to see midwives and health visitors not puritanically preach whatever the latest approved message is, but to genuinely help individual women to understand information, without propaganda, and to treat their decision in a holistic manner. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask, that we be treated as people and not statistics on a chart.