This week the World Alliance for Breastfeeding (WABA) celebrates World Breastfeeding Awareness Week. And all over the blogosphere, moms are writing about breastfeeding or not. It is a sensitive subject for some, and the posts and comments range from supportive and educational, to ignorant, judgmental and even mean.
So what’s the big deal? Why are moms so sensitive about how they choose to feed their babies?
Seems to me, the big deal may be due to the fact that breastfeeding moms are very proud of what they are doing for their babies. And they should be, since breastfeeding exclusively for any period of time is a big commitment and, for some women, a very difficult challenge during the learning curve.
But when one group of people are proud of their actions, those who take different actions may feel (or be led to feel) less worthy, simply for being different. So in this case, moms who don’t breastfeed or who supplement with formula, for whatever reason, feel judged for their actions, simply by the pride breastfeeding moms feel for their own choice.
(I’m not going to address those moms who purposely make comments to make others feel inferior- that’s a different issue entirely. I’m going to limit my comments to what I believe is the basis of the conflict between moms who are NOT intending to be hurtful or judgmental in their comments or actions.)
Here’s my story: During my pregnancy, I made the decision to breastfeed. I had my husband’s support but limited information and the misconception that because breastfeeding is “natural” it would come “naturally” to me and to the baby. I didn’t take any classes and I didn’t have many friends with kids. Lucky for me, I did have a doula at my baby’s birth and she was my main source of breatfeeding education, latch correction and support. I made it through the 12 months I committed to (to myself) and by then it seemed natural to let my daughter keep nursing. It just wasn’t a big deal to stop or keep going and it occurred to me that SHE didn’t know that I had thought babies should stop breastfeeding at 12 months. So we kept going well into my second pregnancy until my nipples were too sore to continue.
I chose to breastfeed because everything I read about it made sense. Things like meeting the exact nutritional needs of my baby all the time, boosted immunity (meaning fewer and less severe illness), fewer allergies, reduced risk of SIDS, & higher IQ were my starting points because I’m pretty intellectual sometimes. Then I got into eco-friendly, cheaper, simpler when out and about. But when I asked a couple acquaintances about breastfeeding or formula, it was the respnses from those moms that made a big impact. (And this is where some of that pride comes in.)
The formula feeding moms said it was no big deal, formula is just as good, even if it is expensive. They liked having a bit of freedom to take turns sleeping at night, and go out without the baby sometimes. And that made sense when we were talking.
But then I asked breastfeeding moms. And I caught a whiff of the passion and pride and I felt the difference. When they talked about feeding their babies, they oozed- they melted while they were speaking. They talked about the closeness and cuddles; about doing something special, and yes, about not sleeping, not getting any time to themselves, being touched out at times. But they were still doing it- they were committed and proud of their choice.
There’s that word again- proud. The feeling I get when I talk to a woman who made the choice to breastfeed is different (concerning feeding) than the feeling I get when I talk to woman who chose formula feeding. This does not mean that women who choose breastfeeding are better- but they are generally more passionate about their choice.
And I can see how this passion could be misconstrued as judgment.
So what can be done to promote breastfeeding awareness and education without being in conflict with those who make different choices?
1. Opinions about formula companies. For those who have opinions about formula and formula manufacturers, be clear that the opinions are not about women who make the choice to use formula. Most opinions are really about unethical marketing. Talk about why free formula is not really free- it is simply giving away a product in order to create dependency on that product.
2. Be kind, no matter what you think. There are probably women who do think that if their choice to breastfeed is the “right” choice, any other must be wrong. But we really don’t live in a black and white world. Even if this position were supported, most women who choose formula (and don’t attempt breastfeeding) do so because they believe formula is “just like breastmilk.” False advertising and marketing is the real issue there. And if formula feeding moms feel shunned by judgmental comments, the opportunity to educate women and have any future impact is lost.
3. Remember compassion. Until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes you don’t know if they wanted to beastfeed or not, no matter how they are feeding their baby today. Considering the bottle-feeding culture that surrounds us in the U.S., it’s amazing anyone has enough support to breastfeed successfully. Then add modesty, shyness, and the separation from extended families and the low breastfeeding stats begin to make even more sense. Education must begin with understanding where women are not supported to breastfeed, so we can support them.
4. Education needs to be directed to the congregation, not the choir. The language we choose matters. When anyone uses phrases like “artificial milk” it doesn’t matter if they are correct. Formula is a PC word for artificial milk. But if you are trying to connect to a woman who chose formula in the past, alienating her by using language that automatically degrades her past choice is NOT going to bring you together.
5. Small steps make a big difference. Every kind, compassionate conversation will not immediately produce a new breastfeeding mother. But each one will remind women that breastfeeding is about love and nurture. Because when we show love and nurture to other women, they may begin feel what the pride is really about. It’s about bringing us together to fully experience every aspect of our babies and be proud of every little thing we can do for our babies.
What other ways can we support and educate women about breastfeeding?