When mothers have support, breastfed babies thrive

Author Tara Moss with daughter Sapphira, 6 months. Photo by Tara Moss/Twitter.
Author Tara Moss with daughter Sapphira, 6 months. Photo by Tara Moss/Twitter. 

 The decision about how to feed a new baby is often unnecessarily fraught.

Last year, when supermodel Gisele Bundchen made her infamous comment that there should be a "worldwide law" that mothers breastfeed for six months, I was one of those who jumped up and down with outrage. Bundchen retracted her statement, but it was too late. Women hated her.

I don't want to be told what to do, let alone with my body. The right to choose must be protected and ''breastfeeding bullies'', as they are often called, do no one favours. What I wasn't prepared for, then, was the sheer weight of anti-breastfeeding myths I've found since I became a parent this year. And now I realise these sentiments found their way into my psyche long before I even thought about starting a family.

My reservations were largely informed by comments about pain, pushy midwives, ''saggy'' breasts, and the more ''liberated'' modern choice to skip breastfeeding altogether. I worried I would be embarrassed in public. I mistrusted my body's ability to do it at all. On some level I expected to fail, and feared being made to feel guilty by some nosey ''Breast is Best'' advocate.

Instead, what I found surprised me. Breastfeeding, when it works, is as enjoyable for mums as for babies, and while nursing is natural, it is also learned. The most basic reason for this is that we don't see breastfeeding. We don't watch babies regularly attach to nipples and suckle every day the way people in more traditional cultures do.

We have made breastfeeding all but invisible and taboo. As Germaine Greer has written, in our culture breasts are viewed as sexual organs, not as a source of nutrition.

There was something of a furore in 2008 when Angelina Jolie appeared on a magazine cover breastfeeding. Similarly, a photograph of Miranda Kerr breastfeeding her son caused mixed reactions of praise and disapproval, while provocative photographs of her in lingerie and swimwear don't cause a whiff of controversy.

Breastfeeding has become a battleground. A mention on my Twitter account of public breastfeeding earned me the comment, ''Many folk are made uncomfortable by it. Think of others.'' On the US TV drama Game of Thrones, breastfeeding was used as a metaphor for perversion and madness when a mentally unstable queen breastfed her son of age seven or eight while addressing her court. One of the more popular gross-out skits on comedy show Little Britain concerned an adult man who still breastfeeds on his wedding day.

In a 2009 article in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin called the breast-is-best movement an ''upper-class parents' jingle'' and suggested breastfeeding is ''an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down''.

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No wonder we are confused. Between the breast-is-best push and its backlash, we are giving women seriously conflicting messages. Sometimes infant formula is necessary. But when women choose not to breastfeed let's make sure they are informed about exactly what they are choosing.

What I didn't expect, after some tough moments in the early days that nearly saw me quit, was that I would benefit so much from nursing. I am yet to find a stress relief quite so instant and gratifying. Six to eight times a day my shoulders relax, my hormones do wonderful things for me and that happy drug hits. When my daughter is unsettled, I need only attach her to my bosom to see that tiny fist relax.

According to UNICEF, breastfed children have 15 per cent fewer GP consultations in the first six months and at least six times greater chance of survival in the early months than non-breastfed children. The benefits don't stop there: medical experts report that breastfeeding has the potential to prevent 1.4 million deaths in children under five in the developing world; and people who were breastfed have lower mean blood pressure and lower total cholesterol, and perform better in intelligence tests. If a pill did all that, we'd race out in droves to buy it.

Every parent does the best they can and things don't always work out the way we desire. But with more supportive workplaces for nursing mothers, more breastfeeding-friendly communities and better support in the first crucial days, most obstacles are avoidable and better outcomes for mothers and babies possible.

Tara Moss is an author, and UNICEF Australia's new patron of breastfeeding for the Baby Friendly Health Initiative.