Oh goody! Another breast vs bottle stoush.

Cross posted

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.

Take at look at some gratuitous Piri Weepu photos, and especially this one, taken at training just before the big quarter final match in the Rugby World Cup.

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.

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11 comments on “Oh goody! Another breast vs bottle stoush.

  1. Sarah says:

    Going a little off the point – it makes me sad to read about your guilty feelings – I think no matter what the situation, we second-guess and judge ourselves unfairly. I breastfed both sets of twins (and the first, who was a singleton) for 12 months, and I ask myself to this day whether I did the right thing with the twins – I had a great deal of difficulty with each child each time and a ton of support from some very top experts… (In Israel they had consultants in the hospital system, but we paid privately for ongoing help. In NY they also had in the hospital and then I went to the famous “breast whisperer” Freda Rosenfeld) With the first set, I was so indoctrinated into the idea that formula was poison (kind of like the horror I felt when I had to have a c-section with the second set of twins – it turned out to be nowhere near as bad as I had been led to believe), I couldn’t allow myself to give up, despite both of them needing weeks of work with a counselor and me suffering from bad postnatal depression. With the second set, twin B suffered from severe GERD and a premature facial structure – it took two months of work with a consultant, pumping and syringing and tubes – I suspect that I kept at it largely for reasons of ego – I was so determined to do it because I had been able to do it once already, and I felt guilty both times about shortchanging the twins just because they had the bad luck to be born at the same time. I’m honestly not sure that the exhaustion (nursing/pumping/supplementing through the night), strain on my mental health, and my marriage, not to mention, lack of patience/time for the other children were worth it. I’m watching a friend with twins right now, who realized early on that she needed to move to bottle-feeding, and I can’t help feeling that maybe I should have made that decision. Especially when I see the husband able to help out with feedings. It’s so hard to make peace with our decisions… and I liked your point about lady branes being able to take the sight of a man bottle-feeding without mass abandonment of nursing!

  2. homepaddock says:

    I second your view on the over-reaction to the bottle, feel sad that you weren’t given the support you needed and that you were made to feel guilty about bottle feeding.

    I also have a point of clarification on funding.

    One of National’s 2008 election pledges was to fund maternity services to allow women to stay in maternity centres until breast feeding was established if they chose to and funding was provided in the first Budget after the election.

    If women aren’t been given that time – and the necessary support – it’s maternity centre management not government funding at fault.

    I feel very strongly about this because I consider it my major achievement as a National Party member. We were invited to pitch a policy at regional conferences, mine was this one on funding maternity services, it was presented to the party’s national conference, adopted and acted on.

  3. violet says:

    Well OF COURSE La Leche is going to protest about showing anyone bottle feed a baby. They live by the breastfeeding rule and probably have absolutely no situation where bottle feeding would be condoned.

  4. Ariane says:

    Oh for FSM’s sake. Does LLL not have better things to do with their time? Seriously, parenting without guilt – the only way to go!

  5. Mindy says:

    Who’s to say he wasn’t feeding the baby expressed breast milk anyway? Why didn’t they just ask him to do some pro-breastfeeding ads or something?

  6. Tamara says:

    Thanks for your story Deborah and all your points.

    Mindy, it seems from today’s paper that he was feeding his baby special formula because she is “allergic to dairy”. I’m not sure what that means exactly though…

  7. Mindy says:

    She may be lactose intolerant, which means she would be allergic to breastmilk as well. So she would need a special formula.

    • Tamara says:

      Probably. I just thought it was a bit vague since some babies can be intolerant to breastmilk only when the mother eats dairy.

  8. Julz says:

    I feel there is another story behind this…..male privilege. Women do most of the caring as we know and we all want that to change …and we want male role models…But what I see in this debacle is that some women “dared” to suggest that this picture of this ‘wonderful man’ might not necessarily be the best…How dare we criticise a male role model…back you go ladies into your closets and keep your heads down and mouths shut. Piri is not only a man, but an All Black – all bow and scrape please.

  9. […] Deborah at A Bee of a Certain Age writes Oh goody! Another breast vs bottle stoush. It’s time to get serious about the consequences of shaming parents around breastfeeding […]

  10. lauredhel says:

    “She may be lactose intolerant, which means she would be allergic to breastmilk as well. So she would need a special formula.”

    Congenital infancy-onset lactase deficiency is vanishingly rare, but diagnosed on a massive scale. Somehow these diagnoses all happened right as the major formula companies released lactose-free formulas (packed with sucrose and/or corn syrup) onto the general market. Just another way in which breastfeeding is institutionally undermined.

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