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Breast is not always best

The obsession with breastfeeding is hindering women’s freedom of choice

Another year, another world breastfeeding week has been and gone. What did you do to celebrate – free the nipple? Give a round of applause to the woman struggling with a blanket and a grizzly toddler in your local cafe? Get yourself some breastmilk ice cream (no, really)? This year’s catchy ‘theme’ was announced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as ‘support breastfeeding for a healthier planet’, calling on governments to up women’s access to breastfeeding counselling.

Breastfeeding has become something of an obsession – not among babies, or even mothers, but among policy makers. Official guidance states that mothers should exclusively breastfeed for six months and then combine breastfeeding and bottle feeding for two years. But in reality, women aren’t listening – a Channel 4 Dispatches aired on world breastfeeding week back in 2018 found that ‘less than one per cent of babies are exclusively breastfed’. As is the case with official guidelines on health, it seems that individual mothers are making up their own minds about when to stop breastfeeding. The reason why bottle feeding is favoured by so many women isn’t because they’re afraid to bare all in public, but because a bottle means freedom – anyone can take the kid anywhere without having to worry about latching on. Cue cries of shock and horror from the breastfeeding brigade.

Why is there such an obsession with breastfeeding, when so many mums aren’t choosing to do it? Breast-is-best campaigners often make a fuss about the supposed stigma around breastfeeding, but in fact its mothers who give up on full-time breastfeeding who are demonised. While it’s true that the odd granny might scowl at a woman breastfeeding today, bottlefeeding is not only condemned but restricted by law – despite the fact that there is no evidence to prove that a child raised on formula will come to any harm. EU legislation (which was updated in 2016 and remains in place after Brexit) stipulates that infant formula milk is not allowed to be advertised (only ever as follow-on milk for older children). In case women get tempted away from being on tap 24 hours a day, the directive states that companies cannot use ‘pictures or text that imply that infant health, happiness or wellbeing, or the health, happiness and wellbeing of carers, is associated with infant formula’. Women are too influenceable, you see, we won’t do what the WHO says if we see fancy packaging with happy babies drinking bottles. This nonsense is backed up by quasi-political campaigns organised most often by earth-mother types still breastfeeding their kids when they’re old enough to chat about the benefits. Spoken-word Hollie McNish’s poem ‘Embarrassed’ featuring the ‘white powder’ of formula milk being compared to cocaine was met with applause from yummy-mummies from Stoke Newington to Westminster. The same behavioural psychology that is used to hide chocolate bars from us at the checkout has long been used on women to nudge them in the direction of breastfeeding – despite the fact that unlike eating 20 Mars bars, bottle-feeding is a perfectly normal and healthy way to feed a baby.

In fact, the obsession with breast-feeding is so mad that this year the WHO warned mothers not to stop breastfeeding even if they feared they might be suffering from Covid-19. That’s right, even when a woman is coughing her guts up or sweating with a fever, according to the WHO she should still force herself to breastfeed rather than give in to the bottle. Instead, women with Covid-19 who can’t bring themselves to sit sweating over a suckling baby should hook themselves up to a breast pump or seek out donor milk. That’s right, in the eyes of the WHO bottle-feeding is so evil you should go out touting for stranger’s breastmilk during an international pandemic rather than feed your baby formula milk.

Any new mother will tell you that breastfeeding can be difficult and exhausting. While many women will try it, especially in the first few months when the nutritional benefits are most important, having to be available on the hour every hour for a potential feed soon gets old. Of course, some women love it – but that’s the beauty of freedom. Thanks to fights against sexism, women are no longer expected to be the sole caregivers for children (at least not officially) and so they have the choice to decide how and who will feed the baby. Expecting mums to sit pumping milk like a cow just so dad can go to the park with their bouncing baby boy for a few hours is unreasonable. During last year’s breastfeeding week, the WHO called on governments to provide women with ‘access to breastfeeding breaks; a safe, private, and hygienic space for expressing and storing breastmilk; and affordable childcare at or near her workplace’. Even when we decide to go back to work, we’re expected to spend our lunch break running back to the nursery to feed our child, hot-stepping it back in time for the afternoon meeting.

Pressurising women to breastfeed is cementing the idea that only mum can really care for the baby

While feminism has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, with the success of the #MeToo campaign and calls for every politician and celebrity to adorn themselves with the F-word, a new kind of sexism has been allowed to fester around motherhood. Pressurising women to breastfeed isn’t simply about making sure children have the right antibodies, it’s cementing the idea that only mum can really care for the baby. Women should be allowed to choose what’s best for their child – and, more importantly, for themselves – without being shamed into feeling like they’re doing something wrong. Like other debates around women’s freedom – from access to abortion services to equal pay in the workplace – having the choice to make our own decisions is crucial.

And if you’ve come down with Covid-19, ignore the WHO (they’ve been wrong about a lot over the last few months), get your partner or sister or friend to give the kid a bottle and let you have a lie down.

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