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Guest blog: 'Breast is Best' - has breastfeeding been oversold?

(327 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 14-Feb-13 14:15:47

Prof Joan B Wolf is the author of 'Breast Is Best?', which argues that mothers are being pressured to breastfeed for reasons that aren't, in fact, based on good evidence.

In our guest blog debate, she explains why she thinks that the science behind the 'breast is best' health claims might be fundamentally flawed. On the same page Anna Burbidge, Chair of the La Leche League, responds to some of her arguments.

Do read both, and let us know what you think. Is breastfeeding being promoted as part of "an ideology of total motherhood that stipulates that a mother can and should eliminate any risk to her children, regardless of how small or likely the risk or what the cost is to her own wellbeing in the process"? Or do you feel that, far from breastfeeding being an orthodoxy, society still feels awkward and uncomfortable about it? If you blog, don't forget to post your URLs here.

We know the breastfeeding/formula feeding thing is a hugely emotive subject on MN, as in real life, so please do remember that Mumsnet supports parents' personal choices on this issue - we're all about making lives easier. Please be kind and respectful towards those whose views or experiences differ from your own.

Startail Thu 14-Feb-13 14:20:27

Breast is, after the initial pain, just so much easier.

Sod the science, it's free and you don't have to boil, cool, measure, sterilise or any other nonsense.

Babies cause enough unavoidable work, why add more?

MmeLindor Thu 14-Feb-13 14:27:27

Have you battened down the hatches, MNHQ?

<adjusts tin hat>

Will go and read the blog posts first.

Zavi Thu 14-Feb-13 14:51:50

Bottle is best!

It means you're not tied to the baby 24/7 - you can still retain an identity as an individual - and dad, and others, get to feed baby too!

When I asked at my ante-natal class what the difference between the different types of formula milk was, I was told both "don't know" and "no difference". In the end I ended up going for the type of tin that I liked the look of best!

I think a lot of mums feel that they ought to breast feed for fear others might think they are "a bad mother" (God forbid!) or that they are not doing "the best" for their baby.

I was unencumbered by such nonsense though grin

It was bottle-feeding all the way for me and it worked out just great. Really happy, smiley baby all the way - which left me hmm about the "sleepless nights" and "maternal deprivation" that I'd had been lead to expect from my pre-birth reading!

Plus, there is no way on earth I would ever get my baps out in public blush. I know other people say "but breast-feeding is natural" but then again, so is defecating. I wouldn't want to do that in public either.

Plus the saying "breast is best" just isn't true. Diseases and drugs can be passed from breast milk to baby. Mothers can pick up horrid infections too. I think breast-feeding stresses a lot of mothers out and makes others feel guilty if they can't or don't want to do it.

I don't think bottle or breast makes any difference to be honest.

My DC is proof though that babies can thrive on bottle feeding grin

MyGlassIsJustHalfWet Thu 14-Feb-13 15:05:44

I'm not bothered what others do. For myself, I chose to breastfeed. I still have my identity, we don't spend all night feeding and my dd is the happiest baby I know.
I really don't think it's right to make others feel bad about their choice of feeding. Just get on with it. As long as baby thrives and mum is happy what does it matter?
I don't 'get my baps out in public' either. There's no comparison between breastfeeding and defacating so please don't say there is. I do not shit in my child's mouth.

MmeLindor Thu 14-Feb-13 15:05:46

Ok, have read the posts. I actually think that it is a shame that we are back to this combative pitting of BFing against FFing.

I read the Guardian article about Prof Wolf's book earlier this week, and I do think that she has a point. Women who struggle to BF but persevere are likely to stimulate their child, read to them, encourage them in other ways.

Ms Burbridge from LLL was very measured in her post, and I agree that there should be no 'value' put on BF.

I wrote about this a while back, and would like to see more impartial and guilt free breastfeeding advice.

Having the advisers think carefully about how they present 'evidence' is very important. Why say to women that children who were BF have higher IQs when the difference is very small? A 'slight but measurable difference' as the blogger I linked to in my piece put it.

My daughter's chances of going to university didn't decrease when I made up that first bottle of formula, so why use that as a reason to promote BFing?

Give women the information, and even more important, give them the support they need to continue to BF if they want to. If they decide they don't want to, then don't make them feel bad about it.

badguider Thu 14-Feb-13 15:27:14

What I find odd is that the current narrative is that there is an 'Overwhelming pressure to breast feed' in modern Britain.
BUT the evidence shows that breast feeding rates are still pretty low so the pressure can't be all that overwhelming afterall.

Why is any attempt at encouraging bf seen as guilt-tripping mothers? I'd like to bf because I am quite intimidated by the idea of sterlising bottles and making up formula in the right way and keeping a crying baby waiting... not because I think it's some kind of magic potion.

I think in so many ways we fetishise the first year of a child's life with the bf/ff issue and weaning and maternity leave.... then after the first year parents are left to do their best with very family-unfriendly workplaces and services and huge childcare issues which become even more pronounced when the child is over the age of 10, as if children no longer need every 'slight' advantage that babies do.

Tee2072 Thu 14-Feb-13 15:28:31

::ducks for cover::

I FF. I wanted to BF. I'm a woman with no milk.

No one made me feel bad about it except here on MN. True fact. This includes my aunt who was a founding member of her chapter of LLL. I was actually afraid to tell her I was FFing. She laughed and said 'Is your baby being fed? You're a good mother.'

The only other person who ever asked was my cousin when I handed my son a bottle at 6 months. And all he did was enquire if it was pumped breastmilk. I said it wasn't and he shrugged and we moved on with our lives.

So I really wonder how much this is a true issue in the real world and not the world of the internet.

KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 14-Feb-13 15:41:42

Popping back in to let you know that MN Blogger Lonely Scribe wrote an interesting post on this subject yesterday.

From everything I have read, I'm in no doubt that BF is better for babies but I don't think it's always better for mothers, especially if they simply don't want to do it.

I think the trouble is that while there's lots of pressure to breastfeed, there's very little real support for those who want to and not much acceptance of BF in society.

I'd like to see all the money currently spent on BF 'promotion' used instead to offer proper support to BF mothers and those who choose to FF. I think we'd see a rise in BF rates because I believe there are a lot of women who want to BF but who are failed by lack of support. I think it would also do a lot to end the combativeness between the two 'camps'.

While I'm here, I just want to say flowers to LLL for the excellent 'Womanly Art ...' book, without which I would not have succeeded at BF, as I was given completely wrong advice repeatedly by both HV and GP.

Meglet Thu 14-Feb-13 15:47:12

There was a piece in the National Statistics magazine (Significance) a few years ago that attempted to get to the bottom of the bf / ff debate.

I can't access it online or I'd link it but IIRC some of the health benefits were on shaky ground. It went something along the lines of the midwives said what the NHS told then who said what the WHO told them, or something like that and I have a feeling that the end result was that only the risk of upset stomachs came out as a huge benefit. Many of the other benefits were down to the self-selecting nature of bf mothers.

When bf works easily it's a bloody dream, when it doesn't it's hell on earth and IME a waste of tears and energy.

(I had both experiences).

NannyPlumIsMyMum Thu 14-Feb-13 15:52:24

What zavi said - yy .

Breast is not best for all mothers and all babies . Depends on circumstances .

I know mothers who have bf then go on to wean their babies on to unhealthy food damaging their health ...

tilder Thu 14-Feb-13 16:06:13

I can't copy and paste on my phone, but as meglet said re dream or nightmare.

Nothing like an anecdote I know but I have been surprised how many women I know have struggled to bf. I was lucky, being a one woman dairy herd, but it hurt for the first few weeks and mastitis was hell. I know women who had so little milk their child had to be manually evacuated (nice), others who expressed when not bfing to try to increase supply, others who cried as they fed.

I think a bit of honest debate about the effect on the woman (not just cancer) is a good thing. Yes breast feeding is brilliant when it works well and yes there are benefits. But when it doesn't work well, the stress, angst, guilt etc is not pretty.

At my antenatal classes I was told everyone can breastfeed, its easy and painless. This wasn't universally true in my experience an perhaps a bit more honesty before and a bit more support and understanding afterwards would help.

ExBrightonBell Thu 14-Feb-13 16:06:27

What makes me cross is how people involved in this debate just trot out anecdote after anecdote (such as NannyPlum has just done...). Citing personal anecdote or often just hearsay does not help this discussion at all! Everyone can say "I know a bf who ended up with unhealthy children" or "I ff my children and they are really healthy". It doesn't help the overall discussion at all as none of these anecdotes can be countered.

Why does there have to be such antagonism between the two perceived sides of this debate. Are we incapable of having a sensible discussion about what is best for babies?

It would be nice if bf was just normal, and ff was accepted and not judged for those that need it.

MmeLindor Thu 14-Feb-13 16:14:39

When you ask a question like this on a parenting website - everyone has an anecdote.

It is only a problem when every poster bases their opinion on said anecdotes.

Alibabaandthe40nappies Thu 14-Feb-13 16:37:14

Zavi I cannot believe that you have likened breastfeeding to doing a poo hmm

That is a ridiculous and immature attitude.

BFing is easy, free, and is the optimum nutrition for a newborn human. I don't see how anyone can argue that generally it is what we should consider to be the normal thing to do. Obviously there will be certain instances where FF is required.

tilder Thu 14-Feb-13 16:40:21

Ok, I mentioned the word anecdote. Apologies if that causes offense, but how you feed your baby is personal and affected by you own experience and those of others around you.

I don't particularly agree with either blog tbo, but I do think a better undrrstanding of the pros and cons of both would help, and probably reduce the number of anecdotes. I have been told about the benefits but not really how significant the benefits are.

HappyGoLuckyGirl Thu 14-Feb-13 17:01:23

Personally, I don't see why people care. If you think BF is best then great, BF your children. Same for FF. Don't get your knickers in a twist over what other people are doing, it's a waste of energy and IMO pointless.

NulliusInBlurba Thu 14-Feb-13 17:03:49

It is interesting to try to work out WHY the UK is so negative towards BF, compared with many other European countries. I've just looked at a study on PubMed about rates in Germany here which talks about the need to increase rates, but shows an exclusive BF rate at 6 months of 22.4% - isn't that already five times as many as in the UK? And in Berlin, where I live, 50% are still BF to some extent at 6 months.

Why does the UK have so many women with the same attitude as Zavi who literally associate BF with shit, seeing it as something unclean, shameful and disgusting? I've never heard that kind of response here. Surely the best way to increase rates would be to improve how women see themselves.

MrsShortfuse Thu 14-Feb-13 17:04:19

I agree Tilder. Most of us use the evidence of our own eyes, ears, friends and family rather than that of large scale published studies. The benefits of bf are not obvious enough to most of us to persevere with it when problems occur, not when there's an easy and safe alternative and you know plenty of people who've ff with no ill-effects.

My dc are teenagers now. In my circle of friends and family I can probably think of 50 or so babies we've had, a mix of bf and ff and there is no tangible difference in how they've turned out, how intelligent they are, or what illnesses they've had.

ExBrightonBell and others you might write this off as 'anecdotal' but people will not wholeheartedly believe that bf is best for babies if they can't see it for themselves.

NulliusInBlurba Thu 14-Feb-13 17:06:05

"Don't get your knickers in a twist over what other people are doing, it's a waste of energy and IMO pointless."

Well, that's just written off the whole of sociology, psychology and public health, then!

NannyPlumIsMyMum Thu 14-Feb-13 17:11:40

Badguider- I have personal experience of being heavily pressured to bf following a mastectomy ( developed the cancer whilst pg - mastectomy whilst heavily pg ).

To be told "but you still have another breast " really is not the point when actually you are recovering from the trauma of being told that 50% odds you / your baby may not survive .

ExBrightonBell Thu 14-Feb-13 17:16:23

It's not the message that "breastfeeding is best" that should be promoted. It should simply be that breastfeeding is usual (I've avoided using "normal" as this can be misinterpreted). Formula feeding should be seen as perfectly acceptable if breastfeeding does not work for you (at whatever point you decide). If this were the case then all the antagonism and attack could be taken out of the equation, and there would be no need for anecdotes on either "side" of the discussion!

NannyPlumIsMyMum Thu 14-Feb-13 17:18:14

And there are so many variables affecting health outcomes , demographically, family history,social habits , diet , smoking, alcohol use, employment, finances, exercise etc - bf/ff is just one of those variables.

NannyPlumIsMyMum Thu 14-Feb-13 17:19:03

Yy Brighton.

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