Last week, there was a FULL OUT FEMINIST BATTLE in the blogosphere over breastfeeding. I found it, quite frankly, pretty disheartening. We fight for abortion access for all women, even those who don’t want and won’t have abortions, and we don’t judge women for whether or not they choose to have abortions – and, as activists, I don’t think many of us struggle with this. So, why can’t we fight to better support nursing mothers, to break down systemic discomfort and misinformation around breastfeeding, while at the same time accepting, without caveat, mothers who formula feed?
All things being equal, yes, medically speaking, breast is best. But here’s the thing: all things are never equal, and frequently circumstances can drastically change what the “best” thing is for mother and baby. For women and babies for whom nursing goes well (and, yes, both mother and children need to have biology, preference, and temperament on their side), there are quantifiable health benefits to nursing, and many women report really bonding with their baby while they nurse and truly enjoying the experience. But things are rarely so simple. For example, blogger Melissa has written extensively about not breastfeeding her twins. In her post, Breast is Not Best, she writes:
I was a hormonal, terrified mother who had finally given birth to live children and what do you think happened to me when I looked up at the wall where the “breast is best” posters were hung (they were every few feet on the walls in the maternity ward and NICU), and was told by a medical care professional that it was better to continue with the IVs rather than start formula?
We luckily had an excellent neonatologist who knew what was best for our twins, and she stepped in and not only had the nurse reprimanded and removed from the twins’ care, but she explained that while breastfeeding is wonderful, it does not trump getting our twins off IVs so they could learn how to swallow and put on weight. That to keep to a mantra that does not take into account specific situations is to cause damage.
Even in more typical circumstances, breastfeeding can be a challenge. It can be painful; it can be impractical; it can be exhausting. And, most fundamentally – even if none of these reasons existed – there will be some women who just don’t want to. We cannot make these women feel like second-rate mothers for the way they choose to feed their children. We must trust women, and we must trust them in this decision.
If we want more women to have access to the choice to breastfeed, we have some work to do as activists. We need to provide mothers with information not just about the benefits of nursing, but with practical knowledge on how to do it: when and how often, latches and holds, pumps and nursing bras. We need to combat the stigma women face when nursing in public (remember, women have the right to nurse their baby anywhere they are both legally allowed to go). We need to make workplaces more breastfeeding-friendly. When it gets tough, we need to be supportive as friends, colleagues, and partners. We need to make sure women have accurate information on supplementing and weaning. Importantly, we need to address those barriers without judging the women who – regardless of why – do not end up breastfeeding. If you have trouble with this, please follow this chart:
The Real Breastfeeding Support Team Every Mom Needs and why it includes both a breastfeeding drill sergeant and a laissez-faire feeder.
All the Breastfeeding Support Info You Need to be Successful (although, in some cases, all the information in the world just won’t be enough).
Mama Knows Breast, on breastfeeding in the real world.
My favorite books on nursing:
At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeedings and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States by Linda Blum (Best non-instructional book on the topic, in my opinion.)
Nursing Mother’s Companion by Kathleen Huggins
Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding by Ina May Gaskin