Breastfeeding is not a dirty word

Most women, but not all, intend to breastfeed after birth.
Most women, but not all, intend to breastfeed after birth. Photo: Getty Images

How quickly parenting attitudes change. Breastfeeding was in vogue for about five minutes this century, supported by a mountain of health research, before it was decried as a torturous bore that enslaves women and causes mental health problems.

Jamie Oliver found himself caught up in the fray this week after having the temerity to suggest that increasing breastfeeding rates in Britain could lead to better health outcomes.

In opinion pieces such as this one from Daily Life (also a Fairfax publication), the TV chef was told that his attitude was "cruel" and the best thing he could do was "shut up".

Now I know that women don't like being told what to do by men – mothers even less so – but Jamie's comments were hardly controversial.

He was correct in saying that breastfeeding for up to six months may reduce a woman's risk of breast cancer by up to 50 per cent. And when breastfeeding is working well, it is indeed "easy, convenient, more nutritious and free".

So why the outcry? Why is it now almost verboten to even state the benefits of breastfeeding before hurrying to add, 'of course, formula is just as good'?

I believe that the reaction to Oliver's statement is indicative of a shift over the past 10 years, a shift I have witnessed up close during my time as a mother and parenting editor.

When my first child was born in 2007, breastfeeding was promoted by health organisations, governments and online parenting forums and blogs.  The "pressure to breastfeed" was real, and was a source of stress when my own son was born and had trouble feeding.  But when I shared my problems, other mothers would give advice about boosting supply with herbs or medications, and pass on home remedies like cabbage leaves or warm face washers to soothe sore breasts. I was given recommendations for lactation consultants and Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) meet-ups.

Almost 10 years later, a mother who is struggling with breastfeeding is much more likely to be told "If you don't like it, just quit!"


What's changed?

I think there are a few things at play.

Firstly, there was a grassroots backlash against high-profile public health campaigns promoting breastfeeding, particularly the notorious 'breast is best' tagline. Mothers found it simplistic, alienating and unrealistic.

The counterattack on militant breastfeeders (as some refer to breastfeeding advocates), was bolstered by Hanna Rosin's hugely popular article for the Atlantic, The Case Against Breastfeeding.

Rosin's central argument was that breastfeeding benefits had been overstated, and that pressure to breastfeed was keeping women out of the workforce and chained to a baby or breast pump.

The piece was rebutted by the American Academy of Paediatrics, among other high profile groups, who noted that Rosin had "skimmed the literature" and ignored key research findings.

Nevertheless, The Case Against Breastfeeding was a call to arms for many women. Rosin's article became a reference for thousands who wondered if the occasionally difficult first weeks of breastfeeding were really worth it.

Somehow, all the slanging matches over 'lactivism' and 'big pharma formula pushers' seemed to miss a crucial point: that perhaps breastfeeding is not the problem. Perhaps the real problem is the lack of tangible support for new mothers.

There is no doubt that breastfeeding can be difficult and painful for some women – so is childbirth, and indeed, parenting –but it can also be wondrous. With two children, I've had both experiences.

What I'd like to know is, what would breastfeeding look like if it was properly supported by our society?

Most women, but not all, intend to breastfeed after birth. I certainly did after having my first baby. I'd read the books and attended the seminars, I'd even practiced my latch on a baby doll. But my milk took a long time to come in, my baby was unsettled, and we struggled. I wanted to see the hospital's lactation consultant but she was too busy to visit my room. I was sent home with nipple shields and told that we'd get the hang of it soon.

To cut a long story short, we didn't, and my son lost a lot of weight before I hired a private lactation consultant who discovered that my son had a sucking reflex issue which should have been picked up in hospital. We'd both been let down by the system. Supplementing with formula was the only option and one I was grateful I could afford.

Gradually my anger at the world for the poor experience we'd had faded and was almost forgotten after a straightforward start to breastfeeding my daughter, who latched on straight after birth and fed contentedly for almost two years.

But what if I'd been able to see a lactation consultant at the hospital the first time around? What if we had enough health nurses to visit women's homes and sit with them patiently while they learn to feed and care for their babies?

What if we gave women a minimum of six months paid parental leave, so they could establish breastfeeding before returning to work?

If governments and health organisations are serious about improving breastfeeding rates then this is what they need to invest in – not catchy slogans and public service announcements.

It upsets me to hear the idea that breastfeeding is considered a privilege. It should be a right for women to breastfeed if they want to, and for babies to be fed the optimal first food for growth and development.

We need to keep agitating for mothers to receive the support they need. This will help mums – breastfeeding is associated with a 50 per cent reduction in the risk of PND – as well as babies.

We don't help mums by sharing scare stories. We help mums by investing in top-quality education and support. 

Amber Robinson is Fairfax Media's national parenting editor.