Friday, September 7, 2012

Stop Fanning the "Mommy Wars": Enough with the "Breastfeeding Bullies" Articles, Jezebel!

I could hardly believe it when I saw the headlines:

The pressure to breastfeed is getting out of hand”! and “Sorry – You can’t guilt trip me about bottle feeding my kids”!

It’s not that I’m surprised by anti-breastfeeding attitudes in the U.S. After all, this is a country where, women are still prohibited from breastfeeding in public in many places, where the broader culture fetishizes women’s breasts, and a lack of family leave and on-site daycare make breastfeeding, even when initiated, very difficult to continue.

What shocked me was that the anti-breastfeeding articles appeared on, a site which I had previously considered feminist or at least woman friendly. I, like this blogger, had to ask myself: Why does a supposedly feminist site keep posting anti-breastfeeding articles, articles which only, like that recent infamous Time Magazine cover about prolonged breastfeeding, fan the flames of the so-called “mommy wars”?

These Jezebel articles are similar to many op-eds, FB posts and personal essays I’ve read recently that equate breastfeeding friendly initiatives like Mayor Bloomberg’s new “Latch On NYC” program with “breast feeding bullying.” Many of these articles are by mothers, who actually tried to breastfeed but found – for a variety of reasons – that they couldn’t.  And, understandably, they don’t want to be made to feel guilty for their parenting choices.

Parenting in general, and breastfeeding particularly, are touchy subjects, I get that. No one wants to think that they did less than “best” for their child – and that’s exactly what “breast is best” type campaigns seem to communicate to some women. Yet, to me, this trend in personal essays/articles is part of a larger phenomenon, a perspective that tends to focus blindly on the issue of free will and “choice” (ie. this essay which urges “Breastfeeding is a choice, let’s treat it as such”) – approaching issues like breastfeeding from an individualistic perspective rather than a systemic one.

These incessant articles about “breastfeeding bullying” are creating a dangerous problem (that might not actually be there), and feeding into the destructive notion of “mommy wars.”  “Bullying” implies power. Yet, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations to breastfeed until 12 months, per the CDC, less than 50% of babies in the U.S. are breastfeed through 6 months and more like 25% are breastfed through 12 months. The long and the short of it is, unlike almost every other Western country, many more babies in the U.S. are formula fed in the first 12 months of life than not. So where does the “bullying” coming in?

So let’s talk Baby Friendly Hospitals, which seem to be the target of a lot of this recent anger. Bloomberg’s policy suggests that all of New York City’s many hospitals (where I had my two children as well!) voluntarily become Baby Friendly institutions. What does that mean? Well, among other points (see my previous post here on Adios for a full list), Baby Friendly Hospitals help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth, give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk unless medically indicated, practice “rooming in” – allowing mothers and infants to remain together for 24 hours, and encourage breastfeeding on demand.

And this isn’t something that Bloomberg made up, people. It’s a global public health issue. Despite being recommended by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Campaign,” the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, as of May 2012, the United States has only 143 baby friendly hospitals, or less than 3%. Compare this to approximately 100% of hospitals in countries such as Sweden, Mongolia, Eritrea, and Namibia (and increasing numbers in many other countries) and it’s pretty embarrassing.

But the critical issue here is that Baby Friendly Hospitals are a systemic way that breastfeeding initiation can be enhanced. People complaining about “breastfeeding bullies” keep talking about the issue of choice. Yet, the ways that most maternity wards operate in the U.S. actually reduce all women’s choices across the board – whether you ultimately choose to breastfeed for any amount of time or not.

The truth of the matter is, issues such as insufficient milk production, a failure to latch on properly, and resultant problems such as infant weight loss are often tied to immediate post-birth practices — practices that are determined by the policies of the particular maternity ward. These are systemic failures, NOT the so-called “failure” of individual women.

For instance, critical to latching on in babies and milk let down in mothers is immediate post-delivery skin to skin contact, rather than the minutes and up to hours of post-birth weighing, measuring, examining and washing that occurs in most U.S. maternity wards. Similarly beneficial is babies sleeping in the same room as mothers.  (See this hysterical “skin to skin” breastfeeding rap song for a rundown of these issues.) Yet, this is not the policy of most U.S. maternity wards. Why?

To read the rest of this blog entry, please visit Adios, Barbie!