Before we begin, a get-out clause. If you are not interested in breastfeeding then look away and enjoy your day. I wouldn’t want to chuck any talk of breasts or nipples in your face. Unless, of course, you are involved in public policy which increasingly undermines breastfeeding rates and facilitates commercial exploitation of low breastfeeding success.
To start, how about the personal. Having breastfed my children is something I will cherish until the day I die. Not something I say very often, but, actually, as a human experience of bonding, nourishment and sensuality between two people who love each other, it is right up there with the best.
And now, the political. Two facts to give a flavour of where we are: legislation permits the advertising of ‘follow-on milk’, something formula companies created only in order to circumvent advertising restrictions on the promotion of breastmilk substitutes; and Parliament has failed to update legislation to ensure compliance of foods marketed at infants as ‘suitable from 4-6 months’ with worldwide health organisations’ guidance that solids need not be introduced until around 6 months. That’s right – those jars and rusks can stay on the shelf.
I will stop here and say that, actually, some people get pretty irate at all this: as though talking about the reality of what the guidance is (rather than the merits of it) and what companies who promote products as suitable for a four-month-old are doing and why (rather than a parent’s individual choice to spoon some mush into little mouths) is somehow off-limits. In the field of infant feeding, commercial interests rely on consumer squeamishness about questioning their actions and motives – look at Nestle.
The recent Shared Parental Leave rules have also thrown up issues which directly affect the guidance of the NHS, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (to name three) that, for optimal health and development of infants, babies should be nurtured exclusively at the breast for the first six months, with continued breastfeeding alongside suitable complementary foods for 2 years and beyond if mutually desired. A TWO YEAR OLD? Yes, that really is the second half of the oft-quoted ‘six-month breastfeeding thing’. AT LEAST TWO. I won’t even go into studies about IQs and the normal milk of our species save to say that the downplaying of the ‘advantages’ of breastfeeding is just one part of the environment which raises artificial feeding with commercial produce to a cultural ‘norm’ and downplays the physiological and evolutionary norm of breastfeeding and human milk – to the huge benefit of companies which exploit low breastfeeding rates.
Why does Shared Parental Leave have anything to do with breastfeeding? Because only the mother has the equipment. Inconvenient, that, in the age of equality.
The promotion of Shared Parental Leave before the baby is six months old manifestly undermines the State’s own health organisation’s guidance – that babies should be nurtured exclusively at the breast during that time – because it encourages mothers to go back to work from TWO weeks postpartum and leave the baby with Dad. It is a direct contradiction in message, let alone ignoring the fact that mothers need time to recover from childbirth and to bond with the baby that lived inside her for nine months. That is before you even consider the pervasive images of bottles on the Government website promoting the idea of the equality utopia, as though its own NHS guidance – and the compelling public health basis for it – does not exist. I have talked before about the State not knowing its bottom from a hole in the ground. When it comes to breastfeeding, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it doesn’t know its nose from its nipple.
This is a controversial subject. It has already provoked debates on the Internet which sadly descend at times into heartfelt and anguished recrimination from mothers who have felt let down by ‘the system’ which, in their perception, bullies a mother into breastfeeding and then renders her guilty for ‘failure’.
Well, we can do better than that, and the only way to start is by making breastfeeding education (for mothers AND health professionals) and practical support a priority in public policy. Sadly, the opposite is happening.
First, the outgoing Government abolished funding for Breastfeeding Awareness Week. Then it cut funding for the Infant Feeding Survey. Then it closed Children’s Centres at which many breastfeeding support groups provided support to mothers nursing their babies. It oversaw promotion of full female employment as though mothers have no place raising their own children full-time. Now, it brings in a law to encourage mothers to leave their babies in the care of fathers at two weeks old. Through it all, the State relies on women (and I have been one) who devote their own time to train and then volunteer to help mothers and babies breastfeed – but let’s save the State exploitation of unpaid care and work for another time. All that takes place in a commercial context which allows formula companies too great an opportunity to promote their products – their aim? Necessarily the undermining of breastfeeding and confidence of mothers to breastfeed. The result? Quids-in for shareholders.
What next? Forcible mastectomies alongside C-Sections to truly screw up a woman’s chances of nursing her baby?
Well, that’s a bit harsh, I hear you say. Well, yes, it bloody well is.
Because Western culture has got it all wrong. Tits are everywhere, cleavage on show wherever you care to look. But get a woman and child sitting down together in a restaurant to nurse and everyone loses their minds (as that fantastic meme said) or grabs napkins or points out corners or wails crude analogies about other natural bodily functions.
The reality is that public attitudes towards breastfeeding go beyond public perceptions of modesty. It goes straight to the freedom of mothers to mother their babies, to the power of the female body to nurture a child, to the free and environmentally-friendly act of nursing a baby from the breast. To the freedom nursing mothers have from commercial exploitation of paying for an artificial substitute with which to feed their babies. The ‘nursing in public’ side of the debate is the thin end of the wedge – the freedom and support to breastfeed at all without continual undermining and sabotage is the true issue, and one which has been wholeheartedly neglected by public policy and investment.
It all comes down to this: for formula companies to make a profit, and the State to reap the tax, mothers need to fail to breastfeed their babies or believe that there is no value in breastfeeding. Policymakers know it but do nothing to improve mothers’ chances of success.
I doubt we will find that printed on a tin of Aptamil anytime soon.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/33868550@N07/6654951573″>Wide Head Mama with Baby in hammock</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>