Thursday, 5 May 2011

It's in the words where normality is created (or denied)

So they found yet another "benefit" of breastfeeding. This time it's all about the child's metabolism: "It could impact your child's metabolism." The article goes on to describe the different behaviour of the metabolism of a breast fed versus a formula fed baby.

What strikes me as wrong about this article is that it talks of "benefit of breastfeeding" and breastfeeding having an effect on the child's metabolism.
This implies that the "normal" way to feed a baby is formula feeding. And if you're brave and breastfeed, hey, you may reap a benefit!

However, it's really formula feeding that impacts on the child's metabolism. This is because in a world where the baseline is breastfeeding (we're mammals, hello?), this does not have an impact but is just the way things are, because human milk is what human babies drink. The research, then, shows that formula feeding has a negative impact on the metabolism of the baby. Yet somehow, this is not the way the media puts it and it leaves me wondering why.

Is it because the media is daft and unwittingly promotes the normality of formula feeding? Or is it out of fear of guilt tripping any formula feeding mums? (NB: the whole guilt tripping thing about formula feeding is another post in the offing, so I leave that unelaborated for now - let me just say that I think nobody should ever feel or be made to feel guilty) Or could it be that they fear the wrath of the baby food industry in the form of being sued?

Am I missing something or is it just me who finds it odd that breastfeeding is labelled as having benefits all the time, but formula feeding is never labelled to have a potential negative impact? As if, by breastfeeding, you're giving your child something extra. When in fact, by giving formula, the child gets something less.

Then there's the invariable comment on the fact that one breast fed child had allergies while a formula fed child didn't. As if anecdotal evidence ever won against scientific facts. My baby had pneumococcal meningitis, which is linked to formula feeding, yet she hasn't had a drop of formula so far. You know what? There are no guarantees. If you breastfeed you have no guarantee your child will never have allergies or will not fall ill with a tummy bug or be forever healthy. And of course there will be lots of formula fed children who won't get allergies, who won't have tummy bugs. Yet it's still true that formula feeding increases the risk and that every parent should know that formula feeding carries these risks - and then make an informed choice between the two. And not end up topping up like I did without knowing that this innocent little bottle of formula destroyed a virgin gut at 12 weeks, and again at 20 weeks when told to do so by a German pediatrician. (I don't feel guilty about this because at the time I didn't know. Now I do and wouldn't do it again).

For the record, I was formula fed, I do have allergies and a tendency towards weight gain. There may be a link, but who can tell? It might be just in my genes. I don't blame my mother at all - she was told she couldn't breastfeed (though I doubt that this was really the case) and at the time this was not questioned and formula was considered to be as good. She did as best as she knew. Today we know better and there should be sufficient and quality support to help everyone to successfully breastfeed who wants to breastfeed, and information for every parent to be that doesn't just talk about the "benefits" of breastfeeding but also the risks of formula feeding, so that they know the facts and don't find out, like me, after well over 2 years of breastfeeding. And all of this without the guilt tripping of course.


Oh Mammy said...

An excellent post! With the recent withdrawal of funding for National Breastfeeding Awareness Week, it just shows you that formula feeding is still more widely acceptable than breast. I fed my two, with and without their share of problems. xx

Muddling Along said...

Great post - I'm completely with you that we have to portray breastfeeding as normal rather than having benefits and yes it will say that formula does have fewer benefits than breastmilk BUT that at least means that parents will be making an informed to choice

The media normalisation of formula feeding is one of my many current irritants

Linda said...

So well said, I admire your boldness too.

In my current scope of friends and acquaintances bottle feeding is all the go and only one is breastfeeding which makes me button my lip as I don't want to offend.
My 2 babes were breastfed until 15 & 20 months and never had formula, it seemed normal 10 - 14 years ago though. There seems to have been a swing towards the bottle recently and I agree that is has a lot to do with the media wanting to be politically correct and not offend...

Great post.

Mairi Stones said...

Great post. I too wonder at all the "normal, natural" things that are portrayed as in some way the odd way to go, the way-out, hippie, subversive or whatever , not normal, when they are the most normal things in the world. I loved breastfeeding and did it tandem with my twins at times too.

cartside said...

I found this article today, as a postscript. Same argument but with additional research.

@Muddling Along - I think it's really important that the discourse is changed to formula feeding carrying risks - because otherwise breastfeeding is something "ideal", "additional" rather than the norm. I'm totally pro choice and know there are many reasons why a mother would choose to formula feed but I feel more and more strongly that the discourse needs changed from "benefits of breastfeeding" (which implies the norm is formula feeding) to "risks of formula feeding" (which implies the norm is breastfeeding).

@Linda, it's a shame I have to be bold to say this, isn't it?

@Oh Mammy, that's a big concern of mine, because if there's one thing needed, it's MORE support, because for many mums; the start is not easy. It wasn't for me, I know how hard it can be. I had support but not the right one as I now know, which is why I struggled first time around. And again - I understand why people give up breastfeeding if the support they need isn't there. It's not their fault, it's the lack of information and support once again.

Dr Sarah said...

Oh, it's not just you. I hear this 'But breastfeeding is the norm and we should be talking about the risks of formula feeding!' claim all the time. But surely this approach is ignoring a fundamental fact about motivation and behavioural change that is very well established by psychological research? Namely, that people are more motivated by trying to achieve benefits than by trying to avoid harms.

In all the talk about how we should be talking about the risks of formula, I have never heard anyone address this point. The people who say this are advocating that we shift to using a method of persuading that has been shown to work less well than the method they want us to abandon in its favour. And yet, none of them ever give a reason why breastfeeding advocacy would somehow be a mysterious exception to the usual best methods of motivating people. (Yes, that includes the infamous 'Watch Your Language' essay that you linked to above.)

As a doctor, someone who regularly has to try to motivate people to change their behaviour, I can tell you from my own experience that I've found that starting from where you want someone to be just doesn't work well when it comes to persuading them. It feels more like calling across a gulf. To have your best influence on people, you have to come over to where they are - metaphorically speaking - and form a connection with them by acknowledging that that's where they are. That way, they're more likely to at least listen to you. And the fact is that a 'Formula is the norm and breast is an optional extra' position is where most women are, whether or not we like it. Even if it isn't the biological norm, it's the social norm for most of the very women we're trying to persuade, and that influences their decisions more than biology does. We can ignore that fact because we don't like it and we hope it'll go away; or, we can acknowledge that that is where most women are starting from, and work with that. And, if we do the latter, we're likely to be a hell of a lot more effective.

Dr Sarah said...

By the way - that 'innocent little bottle of formula destroys a virgin gut' theory isn't actually supported by the evidence. See (sorry about the link length - Blogger doesn't seem to put links into html automatically) for a more detailed discussion.



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