We need to stop telling women what to do with their bodies. Period. This includes how they choose to feed their babies. They are experts in their own lives. We do not know more about what’s best for them and their babies than they do. We simply don’t. And it’s not feminist to assume we do.
Lactivists do this all of the time. They are the health care providers, relatives, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers who ask you how you plan to feed your baby from the moment they find out you are pregnant, provide extensive information about the benefits of breastfeeding, and then shame the hell out of you if they find out you plan to formula feed without at least trying to breastfeed first (unless you have a “legitimate” reason and even then, they question whether or not it’s real or you are just making it up or uninformed). Even if you have breastfed in the past and it was a horrible, traumatic experience, didn’t work out, or the last thing you ever want to do again. They are also the people who “support” new moms who are experiencing breastfeeding problems and want to stop, by saying:
Stay the course.
Don’t give up.
I’ve been there and know how horrible it is.
Above all else – don’t quit.
Think of your baby.
Don’t you want what’s best for your baby?
Breast is best.
First, can you please stop saying that? I can think of at least 100 scenarios where breast is definitely not best for either the person being shamed about not breastfeeding or their babies. Like if mom can’t produce enough breast milk, baby can’t latch, mom is a sexual violence survivor, baby has jaundice, mom has a medical condition, baby has an intolerance to breast milk or something mom eats, mom is on a medication that is not compatible with breastfeeding, baby is adopted, mom had breast surgery, baby is in the NICU and needs special food, mom has to go back to work, baby has lost weight, mom has postpartum depression, baby is not thriving on breast milk, or mom does not fucking want to breastfeed. Which, is not last on my list to imply that it is least important.
Second, when we say the phrase, “breast is best,” we imply a hierarchy where breast milk from the tap is on top, followed by pumped/expressed breast milk, followed by donor breastmilk, and in last place – commercial formula, which lactivists like to call “artificial milk,” to make it seem as foreign and unsavory as possible. I like to call it “amazing science milk,” but I digress. On natural parenting sites, this hierarchy is often attributed to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, no one can seem to find the citation (imagine that), and as I have said before, WHO recommendations don’t really apply in the developed world. It’s simply not accurate for all people and all families. But, it is so ingrained in our culture that we see and hear it everywhere – from doctors’ offices to bus stop advertisements, from well-meaning friends to even the most progressive, science-based groups on social media sites. Many times, formula is included in the statement: breast milk is best, but if it’s not available, formula is okay, too. But, breast is not best. Formula is not sub par. Please stop implying that it is.
Last week the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a “controversial” committee opinion about infant feeding, where they recommend supporting “each woman’s informed decision about whether to initiate or continue breastfeeding, recognizing that she is uniquely qualified to decide whether exclusive breastfeeding, mixed feeding, or formula feeding is optimal for her and her infant.” Why is this controversial? Supporting a woman’s choice to make decisions about her family? Especially when those decisions involve what she chooses to do with her body?
I don’t think it is controversial at all. I think it is great. And inclusive. And that it values women, which is exactly what I want my OB/GYN to do. Value me as a person, trust my judgement, provide me with information, and allow me to make my own informed decisions without shame. Fuck yeah.
We also need to acknowledge that breastfeeding challenges are linked with postpartum depression. We have created a culture where women are literally dying because they can’t breastfeed. And babies are starving because moms are afraid that one bottle of formula will hurt their babies’ or their ability to breastfeed. Which is terrible because research shows that early supplementation with formula may actually help breastfeeding. Our support for women cannot be limited to one narrowly defined version of ideal infant feeding. And if it is, we need to stop. Again, if breast is not best for all families, promoting breastfeeding at all costs is not the right thing to do.
The Skeptical OB recently wrote a great piece about judging women who choose to feed their babies formula. A quote resonated with me:
Women’s right to bodily autonomy does not get expelled with the placenta.
She’s right. Just as I am pro-choice as it pertains to a person’s right to choose to become pregnant, terminate, or carry a pregnancy to term, I support people who choose not to breastfeed. Even if they choose not to even try. That’s right. Because those sorts of conditions (e.g. “as long as she tries first,” “only if she has a legitimate medical reason,” etc.) start to sound like the conditions people put on women choosing whether or not to continue a pregnancy (“only during the first trimester,” “only if there’s a legitimate medical reason”…). Where is her right to bodily autonomy considered when you add those conditions?
In the developed world, the differences between breast and formula fed children are negligible. It really does not matter in the long run. I don’t give a fuck if women breastfeed. It’s not my body or my baby. It’s not my choice. And this is coming from a person who spent thousands of dollars and countless hours to breastfeed her babies part-time. When it comes to what other people do with their bodies. It’s not about me.
Why do I think lactivists hang on to the idea that breast is best and formula is sub par? Honestly? Narcissism and/or low self-esteem. If one of the only things you are able to do well is produce and dispense breast milk, you might feel defensive, too, when it turns out that breast milk isn’t magical and that breastfed babies don’t have a real advantage. You sacrificed a lot and worked hard, because you believed it was the right thing for you and your babies. You are proud of yourself. And that’s okay. Because that is what you chose to do. But, when it comes to other women, can you please stop your breast milk evangelism?
Ultimately, we need to get over ourselves. Our own choices don’t matter. They may be right for us, but not for others. If you choose to breastfeed, I support you. If you choose to formula feed, I support you. If you choose to exclusively pump, I support you. If you choose to combo feed or supplement with formula, I support you. If you feed your babies, I support you. Why? It’s the feminist thing to do.
Featured image credit: dailycloudt
Image credit: Steph, all rights reserved.