Piri Weepu, All Black and devoted father, filmed an ad promoting non-smoking. As part of that ad, there was a few seconds of him feeding his younger daughter, using a bottle. Before the ad was finalised, the makers consulted the La Leche League and the New Zealand College of Midwives, who asked for the clip to be excluded from the final version of the ad, because it sent the wrong message.
The “wrong message” being the bit about bottle feeding babies, instead of breastfeeding.
Right…. let’s just overlook the minor detail that the great majority of men are unable to breastfeed at all, so if Piri Weepu is going to feed his baby girl, then he must use a bottle. We’ll also need to overlook the idea that our feeble lady branes are so feeble that the mere sight of a man using a bottle to feed his baby will result in mass abandonment of breastfeeding. To be fair, Piri Weepu is an All Black, which for non-NZ readers, means that he is a Hero, and to be even more fair, he is even more respected than many All Blacks, because not only is he a great rugby player, but he seems to be an admirable person off the field too (c/f say, what’s his name who spent large parts of last year getting drunk and falling over). Even so, is it really the case that a few seconds of a man bottle feeding his baby in a public service ad about the benefits of non-smoking is going to change someone’s decisions about breastfeeding?
I find the whole breast vs bottle discussion enormously difficult. I breastfed one baby for just under a year, and then after about ten days or so, bottle fed my twins. It has taken me years to shake off the guilt I felt about not being able to breastfeed my younger babies.
And that’s where the La Leche League and the NZ College of Midwives get it wrong. There are enormous structural failings in our society that make it difficult to breastfeed, and for many women, there are physiological problems that make it difficult to breastfeed, yet women who are unable to do so are made to feel that they are inadequate at best, and at worst, people who are deliberately setting out to do something terrible to their children by feeding them with formula.
Things that militate against breastfeeding in our society? How about the underfunding of maternity hospitals and wards which leads to new mothers being kicked out just three or four days after birth, whether or not breastfeeding has been successfully established. If a woman wants to leave within hours or days of birth, then of course she should, but just because some women can do so doesn’t mean that all women should. What about the fact that many women go home to with a new baby to a house full of other children who need to be cared for, but with little home help? Our social structures used to be such that a sister, an aunty, a cousin, a grandmother, could come and stay for weeks to enable the new mother and her baby time to recover from birth and establish breastfeeding before having to take on the full load of running a household, but it is a rare woman these days who can call on such help. Ignoring the changes in our social structures means that individual women are made to carry the blame for not being able to devote all their time and attention to their new baby.
As for the physiological problems… these are unavoidable, and perhaps can be mitigated in some cases, if a woman is given sufficient support. I was not, despite asking for it, and despite having my babies in what was allegedly a baby-friendly hospital. Because I have had some benign breast lumps removed, I have only one breast that can produce milk. It turns out that perhaps the other breast could have produced milk, if I had been given advice and support about tandem feeding right from day one. But that advice and support was not forthcoming, even though I had explicitly asked to talk to a lactation consultant both before, and immediately after the birth. There was no support to help me to overcome the particular physiological difficulty I faced. And some women simply don’t produce enough milk to feed their babies. Or they could, if all they had to do was lie on a couch all day, but the great majority of women in our society don’t have that option. Dairy farmers are fully cognisant of the fact that some cows produce more milk than other cows, even when they are in exactly the same paddocks and being fed exactly the same food. Cows differ from each other in their capacity to produce milk, and so do women. That’s why some women simply must supplement their breastmilk with formula. Otherwise, in the absence of donated breastmilk, their babies will starve. Some women have tremendous difficulties with latching their baby on, and with pain, and with cracked nipples. These are not trivial problems, but they are brushed aside as though they do not matter by many of the pro-at-any-costs breastfeeding promoters.
There are some medical benefits to breastfeeding, but in a developed Western nation with an excellent water supply, they are not large. Meta-analyses of the advantages of breastfeeding show that that there is some reduction in diarrhea, and some inconsistent evidence about other factors which may or may not be associated with breastfeeding (source). All other things being equal, breastfeeding is better for your baby. Even just most other things being equal, breastfeeding is better for your baby. But formula is not poison, and a baby in New Zealand who is fed with formula will do just fine.
Let me be clear. I am in favour of breastfeeding, and all going well, I would have liked to have been able to breastfeed all my babies. Not just “liked”. I desperately wanted to breastfeed all my babies, and I was shocked and distressed by my inability to breastfeed my twins. I was even more distressed because of the huge load of guilt that was heaped on me for bottle feeding.
The answer is not to stop promoting breastfeeding. It is to get serious about offering support for it, instead of just guilting individual women out for being unable to breastfeed. And it is to normalise breastfeeding, to make it part of everyday life. When Facebook can ban pictures of breastfeeding, but ignore pleas for it to remove pro-rape pages and groups, we know which activity is acceptable.
As for Piri Weepu and the La Leche League… I find it bizarre that a small section of the ad showing him caring tenderly for his infant daughter has been removed. Annanonymous puts it well:
Talk about looking at the hole instead of the doughnut. Here was Weepu – national icon and male role model – proudly taking part in childcare, and lending his voice on a key health issue affecting kids. La Leche shot him down for taking part in the feeding of his own baby – a baby who, at six months old, can now be bottle-fed even by World Health Organisation guidelines.
I also recommend Spilt Milk’s excellent post about breastfeeding: Breastfeeding support: less is not more, which takes a different view of the support offered by the La Leche League.