Until recently, I confess that I had a fairly simplistic view of those who formula feed their infants: basically, they were either uneducated/ignorant/brainwashed, or they just couldn’t be bothered to do what is best for their babies. And there are certainly many formula feeders who do fit one of these descriptions to a T. My experience with breastfeeding, furthermore, has been with the mothers of my three children (my ex-wife and my currently breastfeeding wife), both of whom found breastfeeding easy; and the women I’ve met through AP groups who also seem to have no problems.
But more and more, I’ve had my eyes opened to the fact that there is a sizable chunk of the maternal population that really sincerely intended to breastfeed, who tried to do it, and who just didn’t manage to succeed. As a result, they feel frustrated, bitter, guilt-ridden, and angry at those who dismiss or minimise their efforts. And I’m increasingly concerned that lactivists do not shine enough of a light on this part of the story.
There are, as with most things, blurry lines, shades of grey, involved. How much of a factor are violations of WHO codes? Non-baby friendly hospitals with their formula samples and spotty or nonexistent lactation assistance? Lack of support and guidance from extended family, the broader kinship group, society generally? Normative cultural and media portrayals of bottlefeeding? Pathetically inadequate maternity (and paternity) leave? I could go on, but a group called Best for Babes has compiled a great list of “Breastfeeding Booby Traps” and I’ll invite my readers to take a look at that.
Still, I’m increasingly seeing signs that a not-insignificant number of women evade these “traps” pretty successfully, have the knowledge and motivation, seek professional lactation help when needed, but their breasts just don’t produce the milk. Even famous lactivists, it turns out, are not immune.
As this blogger notes in a well-researched post, the problem seems to be on the rise; yet very few researchers are trying to develop treatments to help women overcome insufficient supply. And as another blogger at the same site points out, the options for “crunchy”, whole foods eating, Michael Pollan reading types are not good: nearly every brand of formula contains corn syrup solids as its primary ingredient (eccchhh). Blame for this I lay directly at the result of our megacapitalistic, factory farmed, monoculture processed food system. We as a society should insist on higher standards for formula. Maybe the government should step in, and subsidise the cost for those with lactation failure while working hard to make sure that those who can lactate, do.
So what do I feel we as lactivists have to do differently? First and foremost, the mantra that every woman’s body is perfectly designed (by evolution, or by God, if you believe in her/him/it) to feed her baby is clearly not always accurate, and thus is unfair to those with lactation failure. A variation on this theme is the arched eyebrow and the question: “how did babies survive before formula?” (well, they didn’t, always; and closer kinship groups provided aunts to be wet nurses if needed). So instead of just insisting that women need to “trust their bodies”, lactivists should be beating the drum for more research on lactation failure, and improving formula for those who can’t breastfeed.
At the same time, though, some women who have gone through lactation failure don’t always make it easy for lactivists to be their allies. There is an understandable but troublesome tendency of human nature to gravitate toward “sour grapes” rationalisations as a coping mechanism to reduce the mental anguish that comes from being bitterly disappointed at not being able to achieve something, only to see others around you able to do it with no problems. Specifically, I’m talking about comments minimising the considerable scientific evidence for the nutritional superiority of breastmilk, like “my child THRIVES on formula” or “no one can tell the difference ten years later between kids who were FF and those who were BF”.
To a lactivist, these statements are always going to be like fingernails on a chalkboard. We know the importance of breastfeeding, and to hear it minimised like that feels deeply wrong. Furthermore, when it’s on a public forum, we feel we have to object and correct misinformation, in case any fence-sitters are reading.
But it’s my hope that lactivists (including me) can try to better focus our efforts on educating the ignorant, removing “booby traps”, taking on unethical formula marketers, pushing for research into lactation failure, and reaching out to those women who wanted as much as anyone to breastfeed but were unable to, and maybe even enlisting them as allies.