Breastfeeding, formula-feeding, demonising, and choice

In recent months I've been following the Fearless Formula Feeder blog, a blog that… actually, I was trying to think how to summarise what it's all about in a quick phrase or two, but in fact since the main point of this post is to (hopefully) clarify the blog's philosophy I'll skip the summary.  If you're interested, do check it out, and with an open mind.  Anyway, in the past few weeks a lactivist by the name of Alan has started some debates in the comment threads which have run into a number of posts, and things have been getting pretty heated, though with an overall civility which is impressive to anyone as used to internet debate as I am.  Inevitably a lot of different and overlapping points are getting debated, and, if I get the chance, there are a few I plan to jump in on myself.  But what I want to write about in this post is this particular comment of Alan's.

In response to this comment from Brooke, a reader defending the site, Alan wrote: 

@Brooke: Thank you for your post,
because it shows clearly that despite the disavowals of some here, at
st one of you (and I'm thinking quite a few more than one) *is*
pushing an agenda of prom
oting formula feeding for people struggling
with breastfeeding (the same potential "converts" the
formula companies are after). So if there are people on the fence,
not sure what to do, and you are whispering sweet nothings in their
ears about how formula's been unfairly demonised, it's not so bad,
they ought to just try it, it may be the solution to all their
problems…well, I want to be there giving another perspective.

Firstly, a few words about the issue of whether formula has been 'unfairly demonised' and is 'not so bad'.  You've indicated elsewhere in your comments that you feel this attitude has been proved wrong by the medical evidence showing breastfeeding to be better than formula feeding.  You know what?  Both those beliefs are correct.  There is indeed solid evidence that breastfeeding reduces the risk of a variety of short- and long-term illnesses and problems – but I've also seen plenty of lactivist scare stories and hype that claim benefits that aren't actually backed up by evidence and/or go way beyond what the impartial evidence supports in the way they present formula.  There is no contradiction in believing that Y is genuinely worse than X but that propaganda has exaggerated the differences between the two.

And now the main point I wanted to address: the accusation that some of the people on the site are 'pushing an agenda of promoting formula feeding'.  This was in direct response to a comment that clearly stated 'No one here is trying to make anyone formula feed, just question the
dogma that pervades certain parts of our society.'  Why was Brooke nevertheless accused of pushing an agenda of promoting formula feeding?  Because, it seems, she wants women to feel able to try formula if they feel that something is going wrong with breastfeeding.  This, as far as I can see, is what you classify as 'promoting formula feeding'.

Here (at the risk of sending this off on a massive detour into a completely unrelated and even more heated debate) is what that attitude reminds me of: the arguments about the pro-choice position on abortion rights that always crop up in the abortion debate. 

I am a pro-choicer: this means that I believe that all women should have the right and the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to continue their own pregnancies.  Back when I used to discuss such matters on debate boards, I would regularly see pro-lifers accuse pro-choicers of being 'pro-abortion' or imply/state that we were trying to push women into abortions.  And, over and over again, we would try to explain that, no, that is not what the pro-choice position is meant to be about.  It is meant to be about the belief that women should be allowed to make informed, unpressurised choices about whether or not to continue their own pregnancies.  I believe that abortion should be available for women who choose it, and that women shouldn't have barriers thrown in their way if they seek abortion.  Those potential barriers include exaggerated or incorrect information about potential risks of abortion, and a stigma of shame and guilt attached to it.  I want to get rid of those barriers, and I want a society where a woman who is unhappy with being pregnant can explore her options and can choose abortion if she genuinely feels this to be the right option for her.

And that is not at all the same thing as being 'pro-abortion' or promoting abortion.  What I'm promoting is informed choice.  My beliefs do not mean that I would ever tell a woman that she should consider abortion or try to push her towards that solution.  In fact, I would be flat-out against doing any such thing, because that would be just as anti-choice as trying to push a woman into continuing an unwanted pregnancy against her wishes.  Not only that, but I'm very much in favour of implementing the measures (better access to effective contraception, better social circumstances) that could reduce the overall need for abortion.  I would be delighted to see a drop in the number of women ending up in a position of wanting to have an abortion; I would not be delighted to see a drop in the number of women wanting an abortion and being able to get accurate information and unbiased support in helping them make the best decision for their own circumstances.  In being pro-choice, I am not promoting abortion.  I am promoting abortion rights.  Get the difference?

Hopefully you also get the analogy, but I'll spell it out to make it as clear as possible: Believing that women should get accurate and non-demonised information on formula, believing that women should have the option of being able to ask questions and consider formula as an option, believing that women with qualms about breastfeeding shouldn't be pressured into continuing if they genuinely feel that that is the wrong option for them… those beliefs are not the same as 'an agenda of promoting formula feeding'.  I believe that most or all of the people who follow this blog, including myself and, I am guessing, Brooke as well, do not believe in 'promoting formula feeding' and are in fact all in favour of women breastfeeding, just as I as a pro-choice advocate am all in favour of women continuing their pregnancies.  Now, anyone from the site who feels I'm incorrect in thus speaking for them is more than welcome to speak up now and set me straight.  But, the way I see it, we don't try to put pressure on women to try formula; we try to stop everybody else putting pressure on women to use any particular feeding method (whether that be formula or breast).  We don't try to talk women out of breastfeeding.  We just want to be sure that they feel freely able to stop it themselves if they want to do so.


Filed under Deep Thought, Grr, argh, Milky milky, Sacred hamburger

4 responses to “Breastfeeding, formula-feeding, demonising, and choice

  1. Dr Sarah, I don’t think I could love anyone more than I love you right now.
    Yes, yes, and 1000 times YES. I have used the analogy of the pro-choice debate myself, and often I feel it’s like banging my head against a brick wall. For some reason, certain people don’t want to see the similarities. But I think the way you broke it down is excellent, and will hopefully help me explain myself better in the future.
    You are correct in your assumption that no one (at least to my knowledge) who has commented on my site is “pushing formula feeding”. I’d say the majority of women who visit, myself included, wanted desperately to breastfeed and went to great lengths to do so. When it didn’t work out (for a myriad of reasons, from emotional problems like PPD and past trauma, to low supply and latching issues, to other unrelated medical issues that caused secondary lactation problems, to babies who couldn’t tolerate human milk, no matter what the mother cut out of her diet), these women searched for support and advice online, and mostly found sites telling them how important breastfeeding was, and that any problem could be overcome if she “just tried hard enough”.
    Now, I actually am GLAD that those sites are out there, b/c I often worry that people might come across my site and get the impression that breastfeeding is next to impossible, which for most women, is simply not true. So I think its a good thing that there is so much support online for nursing, especially as there are many parts of the western world where bottle feeding is the “norm”. I’d love to see a world where all women have the support and resources to help them nurse successfully.
    But I also want to make sure that if/when it doesn’t work out, or if a woman is sitting there in tears, miserable, b/c she hates breastfeeding and it is making her crazy for whatever reason, then she has at least ONE place online to come and voice her feelings in a safe place.
    As for the studies – I realize it may seem I am trying to “pick apart” certain results at times, or that I refuse to admit formula isn’t as good as breastmilk. That’s not the case. I definitely think breastmilk is superior, no doubt about it. But I think it’s important to fully understand the studies, especially ones that imply that formula feeding can “cause” PPD or child abuse, b/c often the soundbytes that come off these studies don’t clarify correlation vs causation. And while there are plenty of good studies showing proven benefits of breastfeeding, there are many that are rife with uncontrolled confounding factors or overstated results, and I think women have a right to know exactly how the researchers arrived at their conclusions, so they can make up their own minds.
    Anyway. Enough from me. Just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate this post and to clarify my stance, which I think you explained perfectly.

  2. “Hopefully you also get the analogy, but I’ll spell it out to make it as clear as possible: Believing that women should get accurate and non-demonised information on formula, believing that women should have the option of being able to ask questions and consider formula as an option, believing that women with qualms about breastfeeding shouldn’t be pressured into continuing if they genuinely feel that that is the wrong option for them… those beliefs are not the same as ‘an agenda of promoting formula feeding’.”
    This. Exactly This.

  3. Blue

    This is interesting for me after being at my mothers group today. I’m the only one of six mums who is still exclusively breast feeding (so no formula at all) now our babies are 6 months.I have to admit – for me breastfeeding has been VERY easy. Touch wood no cracked nipples, concern about supply, no mastitis or feeling uncomfortable about feeding my baby in public. But the sense of relief that came off all the other 5 mums (who have all had a variety of issues) as they all gave each other permission to FEEL OK that their babies were BF. Well, I kept my mouth shut but I did feel that it must be hard to deal with internalizing the social pressure to BF to do the best for your baby.

  4. Blue

    Whoops, I meant formula fed not BF.

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