GUEST POST by Kim Lock – Breastfeeding: Promote or Protect?
is the author of three novels, and is currently working on her fourth (I can’t wait! She is one of my favourite authors). She is a long time advocate of women’s rights – particularly in breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding doesn’t need PROMOTION – it needs PROTECTION
It is safe to say that in the developed world at least, most parents know that breastfeeding is healthy. Yet globally, breastfeeding rates remain critically low. Despite years of pro-breastfeeding health initiatives, in Australia, less than 2 in 10 babies are exclusively breastfed to even five months.
Why? If breastfeeding is largely acknowledged as optimum, why are the majority of parents not doing it? The fact that formula is everywhere, along with the widely accepted message that breastfeeding is ‘hard’, would suggest an answer as being: Because breastfeeding often doesn’t work.
But from an evolutionary perspective, the mass failure of lactation makes no sense. If all of human history matched today’s rates of breastfeeding, it is implausible that our species could have survived, let alone thrived.
So an urgent and more fundamental question needs to be asked: Why are we so willing to believe that women’s bodies en masse simply don’t work?
Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, yet powdered infant milk mix – labelled ‘formulae’ to increase scientific appeal – was first used in orphanages about 130 years ago, and only began commercial production in about the 1960s. As I discovered when I was researching for my book, unfortunately for the human breast, by the 1960s, two centuries of male-dominated medicine had treated the female body with disdain and bewildered mistrust. Doctors, therefore, were only too eager to believe – and pass onto mothers – formula manufacturers’ anti-woman propaganda. And from then on, breastfeeding rates began a global nose dive.
Lactation is a bodily function. And like most bodily functions it is generally robust. As the World Health Organization says, ‘Virtually all mothers* can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large.’
Information. Support. Health care system, society at large. It sounds simple, but in reality, it is all the areas where women are being let down.
Almost all health professionals would say they support breastfeeding. In maternity wards, GP’s offices and child health clinics, breastfeeding is encouraged and its importance reiterated. However, too often in a busy health care system, what is called breastfeeding ‘support’ does not equate to true support, and seems to new parents more like pressure. The same health professionals tasked with increasing breastfeeding rates are also beholden to policy and procedure sometimes at odds with the establishment of a breastfeeding relationship. For instance, excessive focus on newborn weight, despite the fact that some weight loss in the first weeks is completely normal, sees some health professionals frowning at the scales, and the first thing suggested is formula top-ups. When a new mother laments that her baby won’t sleep long stretches, a health nurse might tell her that baby is not getting enough milk. Popular baby ‘whisperers’ claim support for breastfeeding, and then go on to instruct parents to time, schedule and restrict feeds according to an arbitrary routine – also completely at odds with best-practice breastfeeding advice.
The health care system can encourage a woman to breastfeed, but it seldom has the capacity to support her through unpacking why she might feel like she CAN’T: her negative conditioning, her self-doubt or trauma. High rates of sexual violence mean that for many women breastfeeding can be triggering. For others, the lifelong message that their sexual availability is their primary worth can cause breastfeeding aversion – feelings of unhappiness, disgust or even revulsion at the abrupt de-sexing of their breasts. (This is especially true if a woman has an unsupportive partner who sees a suckling baby as taking away ‘his’ breasts.)
Because most fundamentally, we live in a world that too easily believes women’s bodies are flawed and faulty.
Often the first thing blamed for any difficulty in the early weeks of life with an infant (tiredness, sleeplessness, unpredictability) is mother’s milk – the woman’s body – either by those around her, or by the mother herself.
Until relatively recently, women learned to breastfeed by observing the women around them. Breastfeeding is physiological but it takes time, patience and perseverance to master. Because of the way modern society is structured, most new parents have rarely seen another infant breastfeeding, and are unfamiliar with the normal, contrary, round-the-clock behaviour of a newborn until they have their own.
All of this – all of the above – comes from ‘society at large’, and it all affects a woman’s breastfeeding experience.
Yes, virtually all mothers* can breastfeed with support, but finding the RIGHT support in a society structured on oppression of the female can be easier said than done.
Today, women and parents know breastfeeding is healthiest, no matter what latest fantastic evidence about the properties of breastmilk is discovered. Today, women aren’t weaning in droves because they don’t care about health – but because they’re long-conditioned to believe they can’t breastfeed.
For this reason, we don’t need to promote breastfeeding – we need to protect it.
So we need to change the narrative.
We need to talk about the protection of breastfeeding as part of a wider conversation about women’s emancipation from oppression. We need to be able to discuss critically low breastfeeding rates, and unpack the primarily sociocultural reasons behind these, without it devolving into ‘which is best’ and infantilising ‘mummy bullies’ discourse. We need to see that breastfeeding is a topic inextricable from the greater issue of women’s ongoing bodily subjugation – an issue that carries centuries of collective pain.
If we can understand that the demise of breastfeeding is yet another symptom of systemic misogyny, we can have a more productive conversation about increasing breastfeeding rates. We can talk about the need for better health care practices, better information, and better support and empathy at a social, cultural and economic level for the mother-baby dyad.
And – most fundamentally – we can stop seeing breasts as likely to fail, but instead see them as they actually are – perfectly robust, and perfectly fine.
*if they want to. Women’s bodily autonomy is paramount.