Wednesday 15 April 2009

Breasts and idiots.

Here's a good post from my friend Gary about the way that the promotion of breastfeeding has turned into a rather distasteful moral crusade in which those who do not comply are given a good solid kicking. Much like every other aspect of modern life, then. Gary gives this example of, amazingly, one of the more reasonable and less OTT objections, by Morgan Gallagher:

But when I see a media image of a baby bottle...

...I see death.

I see all the the real maggots crawling in all the real bottles.

I see the tiny white bundles being put in the shallow shallow graves.

I see corporate greed and profiteering, being put before baby’s lives.

Of this, Gary, says:

It’s a bit dramatic for my taste, but she does have a point.

And I find this puzzling, because, as far as I can see, it's very much the sort of crap Gary is quite rightly complaining about. Thing is, Morgan also says this:

Fighting for informed, equal choices in infant feeding.


Inevitably, many comment that it's an attack on mothers who formula feed, and use bottles to do so. And every time this is raised the hoary old spectre of The Women Who Can't Breastfeed is also thrown into the mix.


The biggest misunderstanding about all this, is that when we object to images of bottle feeding, we are objecting to women's choices to formula feed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

OK, so imagine you're a woman with a new baby and you're discovering that, for whatever reason, you can't breastfeed. It happens. My own daughter, Daisy, just refused to do it (and is absolutely fine, by the way). Now imagine you come across Morgan Gallagher's description of bottle-feeding:

when I see a media image of a baby bottle...

...I see death.

I see all the the real maggots crawling in all the real bottles.

I see the tiny white bundles being put in the shallow shallow graves.

You further see that your own situation is dismissed as a "hoary old spectre" with what certainly looks like a clear implication that Ms Gallagher doesn't really believe you. I know exactly what you'd be thinking: "Now, there's a woman who'll fight for informed, equal choices in infant feeding, has absolutely no objection to my using formula, and is in no way attacking me."

And this from a post the entire point of which is that the implications of the words and images we put out there are important. Absolutely clueless.

Obviously, having had a child, Vic & I have been exposed to a fair amount of this crap ourselves. What annoys me about all the people who insist that everything should be done naturally — no formula, no caesarians, no painkillers — is not so much that they're pushy intolerant unsympathetic self-important overbearing bastards (if only that could be avoided merely by not having kids) but that they're so profoundly and unimaginatively pig-ignorant.

Take formula. By concentrating exclusively on whether formula is better or worse than breast milk, they miss rather a huge bloody great point. In many cases, the alternative to formula isn't breast milk; it's nothing. For every other species on Earth, the baby either suckles or dies. Thanks to technology, we humans do not have that problem. It's all very well discovering that there's a slightly increased risk of SIDS among formula-fed babies compared to breast-fed, but you know what? Without even needing to do the research, I can exclusively reveal that, in the group of babies who can't or won't breastfeed, there is a massively decreased incidence of cot death among those who are fed with formula compared to those who are given fuck all.

And then there's one of my pet hates: people who reckon they believe in evolution but haven't taken in any of the implications of Darwinism. We've been saving babies who won't breastfeed for millenia now, feeding them on goat's milk or cow's milk or formula or whatever. Any baby that lacks the genetic urge to breastfeed gets to pass that lack of inheritance on, instead of dying like it's supposed to. If a few of your ancestors did this — and they might well have — chances are your kid just might not breastfeed. This is not something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, using technology to overcome certain death should be something to be proud of.

And then there's the fact that breastfeeding in primates is learned behaviour, not instinctive, so every single person, including midwives, who tells you that babies and mothers just "naturally" know how to do it actually has no idea what they're talking about. It's not true of chimps, and it's not true of us.

Back to Gary:

Most women who don’t breastfeed are ill-informed, the argument goes. Which may be true, but most is not the same as all. Not all women who choose bottle feeding are doing it because they’re uninformed ...

In this country, I'd go further and say that not a single one is. You don't give birth in the UK without going somewhere near the maternity ward of a hospital, every wall of which is plastered with posters telling you that breast is best in fifteen languages. Every single member of staff in that maternity ward will go out of their way to tell you the same thing. And there is no such thing in the UK as a carton of formula that doesn't have a label on its side telling you that it's not as good as breast-milk. This is like the anti-smoking lobby: "Some people are still smoking! They must not know that it's bad for them! It's the only explanation! Make the text bigger!"

Now, I'm not an idiot. I am aware that, as well as the mothers whose babies won't breastfeed, the adoptive mothers, the gay adoptive parents, and the widowers with small babies but no breasts, there are people who could breastfeed but don't for often entirely stupid reasons. I happen to think they've made the wrong decision. But there is simply no way that they've made that wrong decision because they genuinely hadn't heard the news that breastfeeding is better than formula. The message is ubiquitous.

There are even adverts now aimed at the stupid people who don't care what's good for their baby but might respond to some other line of reasoning. "Breastfeed and you'll get your figure back more quickly so that young men will fancy you!" Seriously.

Should formula companies be ashamed of themselves for the way they’ve marketed their products? Sure.

Well, since what's prompted Gary's post is affluent Western women slagging off other affluent Western women, no, I don't think so. What those firms' marketing may be like in the Third World is immaterial here. (As an aside, I will say that the outrage against that tends to be based on the assumption that poor foreigners don't have free will or intelligence.) In the UK, there simply isn't a problem with their marketing. And neither are people as susceptible to advertising as some would have you believe. In the hospital, we were provided with free SMA for Daisy when we needed it. And I believe I may have seen a handful of SMA adverts in my time, but certainly not enough to remember. Daisy, once out of the hospital, was brought up on Aptamil, a product for which I have never seen an advert in my entire life. SMA's marketing appears not to be working too well on me. Course, I could conclude from that — as so many seem to — that this is because I'm some sort of superhuman and mere mortal plebs don't have my amazing powers of marketing-resistance. But I don't.

And, let's remember, this is a life-saving product they're making. Why the hell shouldn't they advertise it? I'll advertise it for them, right here and now.

My daughter wouldn't breastfeed. She's alive and healthy today thanks to Aptamil powdered infant milk formula stuff.

Should more effort be devoted to encouraging mums to breastfeed? Absolutely.

Again, I don't think so. As mentioned above, it's hard to see how much more effort could go into this. And, while our experience of midwives was in most respects very good, on this one issue they fall down: when it comes to breastfeeding, they are overbearingly pushy — the importance of their moral crusade overrides any thoughts of common decency. Seriously, just try having a baby in a British maternity ward and telling them you're not going to breastfeed. You'd get less hassle if you just stuck used syringes in the kid three times a day.

Furthermore, in case you're wondering who'd be doing all this encouraging, what Gary's talking about there is "the issue of whether governments should promote breastfeeding". And I don't think anyone will be particularly suprised to hear that no, I don't think they should, and they can stop promoting any other kind of feeding while they're at it. This is not what governments are for.

Should mums who can’t or won’t breastfeed be made to feel like Hitler? I’d like to think not.

Well, OK, I agree with that. What an anticlimax.


For some reason, I omitted to mention our own situation. As I said, Daisy wouldn't breastfeed. But this was only relevant for the first week of her life. After that, as long-time readers of this blog may remember, Vic was diagnosed with multiple pulmonory embolisms and put on Warfarin in order to keep her alive. Warfarin not only thins your blood but also turns your breast-milk into poison. Once you're on it, you must on no account attempt to breastfeed your baby. In this situation, formula saves the baby's life and also, by giving her the option of not breastfeeding her baby and therefore making it possible for her to take life-saving drugs, the mother's.

Blood clots are apparently quite common after births, especially caesarians, so there are quite a few new mums out there on Warfarin. I imagine there are also other conditions which necessitate other drugs which make breastfeeding impossible. I struggle to see the advantage in telling all these parents, who surely have enough on their plates as it is what with nearly dying and all, that bottles equals maggots equals shallow graves equals death.

Update to the update:

Vic has reminded me of something I'd clean forgotten: there was disagreement between doctors over this. The doctor officially responsible for her care at the time believed that Warfarin made breast-milk poisonous and said on no account should she breastfeed. The obstetricians and the haemotologist — i.e., the ones who knew what they were talking about — said this was nonsense and that Vic could breastfeed all she liked.

All of which became moot shortly afterwards, when Vic was given a CT scan. When they give you a CT scan, they inject dye into your blood. The dye gets into your breast-milk and is poison. And then, of course, Vic got put into a medical ward so full of highly infectious diseases that you can't possibly take a newborn into it.

That's the thing about that period of our lives: just considering one aspect of it inevitably leads to more and more memories of disaster. Tsk.

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