Mumsnet webchat with Gabrielle Palmer

Gabrielle Palmer, author of the much-discussed-on-MN book The Politics of Breastfeeding, was our guest on 20 November 2009. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Working mothers | Promoting breastfeeding | Nestlé boycott | Education | Terminology | Health professionals | Psychology | Growth charts | Extended breastfeeding | Politics | Co-sleeping | TV


Working mothers

Letter QShanster: As the mother of a 10-month-old baby who has never had formula, I was confused by your stance on working mothers; one the one hand, you think it should be ok for us to be in the boardroom feeding our babies, on the other you seem to suggest that our babies suffer if we are not at home with them as primary caregivers.

I think you are missing the point; I cannot do my job if I am looking after my baby at the same time. My baby needs constant attention, as does my work (I'm a project manager leading a large team). To think I could lead a team meeting while feeding my baby is ridiculous. I returned to work at 12 weeks (I do live in the US) and have expressed milk for my baby ever since. As it is not realistic for women to stay at home for years with infants (most of us don't have that economic luxury), what is your stance on working mothers and breastfeeding?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Good to hear from a US mum. I have lived in the US and thought it was a difficult place to be a mother, especially if you're poor. There are no right answers. All mothers have to care for their babies in the best way they can in a wide variety of circumstances. Of course I am not against expressing or working if that is what is essential to survive.

All mothers have worked since the dawn of time. It is a mark of our times that we only call money-earning activities 'working'. If you knew how little money I earn you would call me unemployed, but I never stop doing what I do.

All I know is that many mothers in the world find economic survival, social expectations and happy mothering, conflicting. The baby needs to be cared for by one or two sensitive people who love him/her and with whom he/she can form a long-term relationship. All psychologists agree on that. The big question is not the style of babycare but the quality. Will the mother substitute be in touch with that baby forever? Does he or she love the baby as much as you do? These questions drive mothers crazy with pain and they are really important.

In Scandinavia (and some other countries) there has been a consensus that for general well-being (economic, social, emotional, health) that usually the mother is the best and most willing person to care for her baby so this is supported with generous maternity leave and benefits. Despite the fact that fathers have always had the right to use this, most families feel the baby needs her mother more in the early months. All women have worked since the dawn of time, usually more than men. It is modern society that made breastfeeding and work incompatible. But it all depends on the individual baby's needs. The majority of women in the world work in the informal sector and dare not claim their rights, their babies die if they are not breastfed. We have to tackle this.

With early factories where there were no facilities to eat, pee or wash,, eventually rules came in about hygiene and food breaks because the sickness and eath was counter-productive. But it took protest and organisation to achieve this. So too with breastfeeding, it is a public health issue. We have to decide as a society whether support for mothers is less important for long-term health and well-being than to make more money... for whom?

I believe society would get economically wealthier if mothers were supported to breastfeed. By the way, I have learned a lot from life in societies where women breastfeed and work without it being a hugely complex conflict. Women work far harder (I mean gruelling days in the fields, hours of grain pounding, trading and carrying huge loads on their heads) than those of us in richer countries and they breastfeed. I am not romanticising their lives, but we could learn a lot from the way women have worked things out over the millennia. The big question is who is looking after the baby and are her needs being met? First year of life is most crucial for all development. But hey, there is no one right way in our messy world, parenting is a series of compromises. We all do our best.


Promoting breastfeeding

Letter QHunkermunker: Gabrielle, whilst the breastfeeding charities do a lot of wonderful work, do you think that it being left largely to 'charity' makes breastfeeding something that's less valuable in our capitalist society (that, and the fact that breastmilk is free!)?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Yes, yes, yes, you have hit the nail on the head (or located the nipple on the breast). That is exactly what I have been struggling to say in the new edition of The Politics of Breastfeeding, especially in the last two chapters. The cliché is that the best things in life are free. The reality is we destroy the best things, which is why the world is in such a pickle.

Letter QHannaflower: Should we be concentrating more on supporting mothers who want to breastfeed to do so after six weeks / six months etc, rather than trying to promote initiation for all babies? As a sub-point, so many of my (middle-class, middle-income, early 30s) friends breastfed until exactly six months and then switched to formula. My thinking is that if these people could be encouraged to carry on, and to feed in public, that would go a long way towards normalising breastfeeding, and that would lead to more people initiating and seeking support when they needed it.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: If you don't initiate breastfeeding, you don't have much choice about how long you breastfeed for. And do you know why they stop at exactly six months? Because the advertising tells them to. How would the companies make their profits if they did not promote the ridiculous and unnecessary follow-on formulas? Which, of course, indirectly promote all formula feeding, which is why they were invented. The government can look good at World Health Assemblies if UK initiation figures are higher and they can please the companies at the same time if artifiical milk sales rise as well. We are all so generous, we support the milk manufacaturers through tax subsidies so they can afford to promote and sell the milk….and then we give them more money by stopping breastfeeding as soon a possible.

In that way, our babies become the wet-nappied philanthropists and the companies share values can continue to rise. I just heard the other day (from UNICEF person) that infant formulas and FOFs have an 80% profit margin. Aren't we mums kind witholding our breastmilk so that Nestle and Danone can get richer. It's our oxytocin that makes us so generous and trusting.

Letter Q

TheCrackFox: Gabrielle, have you seen the Scottish adverts promoting breastfeeding? They are excellent.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Dear TheCrackFox, yes the Scottish ads are brilliant. Love them.


Letter Q

RorysRacingMa: I was wondering if you had any family members who have/had small children, whether they found it difficult to breastfeed and what practical support you were able to offer them, particularly over the first few weeks of the baby's life. Does a theoretical understanding of the benefits of breastfeeding translate to being able to identify good practice in person?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Yes of course, I'm related to human beings. First few weeks difficult when mum and baby do not live in a breastfeeding culture. Most important is someone to give lots of love and encouragement with a lot of "you can do it". Families, partners, health professionals can make or break confidence. If you have that you can work a lot of "how to do it". Theoretical understanding is useless without this and probably in our society a bit of help from someone who knows how.

Basic practicalities are simply knowing that a baby is well-attached, no time restriction (throw away that watch, don't count feeds... I know some health professionals will be having nervous breakdowns just reading that) and DON'T PUT UP WITH PAIN. If it hurts get help. It is supposed to be fun. Look at the way cats purr when their kittens suckle.

I am no longer a breastfeeding counsellor so really I have no right to say these things. There are lots of wonderful counsellors and support groups around so ask for help. Every mum and baby is different and you can work out what is right for you. But the main thing is confidence. It's a bit like sex, the first few times might not be so glorious for some but they soon improve techniques if they feel comfortable with one another, for others it's fantastic from the start. But if it hurts and neither of you are happy get help quick.

In the UK, people expects problems and by god don't they get them? How do you think all those hunter gatherers did it before books and pamphlets and cushions? No surprise because still lots of medical and social practices make it go wrong. And they still don't train the poor old health professionals properly too much theory and not enough observation and experience in the medical, nursing and midwifery schools. It's getting better but still a long way to go.

I heard that most health visitors get no breastfeeding training. Most important thing is not to do harm. And as for the mother and baby mags, aaah! There is nothing like seeing 20 pictures of bottles and milks and dummies to make you give up. Take way all the constraints and breastfeeding would be the norm for all in a generation.

Serious problems (not caused by misinformation and bad hospital practices) are rare and even then they can still be helped if mums can access help quickly. The best way to destroy happy breastfeeding is to destroy women's self-confidence. People and marketing do that all the time.

Letter Q

ArizonaBarker: This is a bit of a simplistic question, but how can we ensure support is in place across the board for all women who want to breastfeed? I wasn't able to breastfeed, but feel very lucky to have had masses of support from family and local health professionals. This made a huge difference emotionally as I didn't feel I had 'failed'.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: I love it that you're telling us your tale. Thank you. I know several women who did not breastfeed and are activists and don't writhe forever about the fact they didn't breastfeed. I'm so cheered to hear you got such good support. You can do so much good for this whole issue just by being you.

Yes, it is a bit simplistic, why aren't we all nice to each other? You cannot just rely on 'a system'. Maybe the human impulse to compete and undermine is stronger than the good feelings. Also women are still second-class citizens in this respect. Cannot answer as a whole, but I do think health professionals don't get enough 'debriefing' about their own miseries and not enough emotional support in their daily work. Many don't have the emotional energy or skills to give what you experienced. If it all went wrong for them, they often have a lot of suppressed 'stuff'.

By the way, my sister didn't breastfeed her first child (it all went wrong for all the usual reasons) and swore she would never to feed ever again. She was angry. Then with the next one she got the right help at the right time (not from me) and it all went well... and she went on to have another and she really knew what to do. She really knows how to help other women now.

Letter Q

StarlightMcKenzie: Do you think the UK HNS poster campaign with posters that show a man holding a baby and saying 'Ann expresses so she can have a break and I can bond with Charlie', is the right kind of message? Are we really at a stage where we need to make breastfeeding accessible in such a way that fulfils an ideology but is almost doomed to fail, just to get initiation rates up? Do you even think that is what that poster is about? And, what do you think about the Dairy Council's weaning guide posters (found in my local SureStart centres?)

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Very suspect about this message. Expressing is not the same as breastfeeding, even the milk may be different and what about the smells and the skin contact? Useful for emergencies or if mum has no alternative, but why make it routine? Whole point of breastfeeding is the closeness. Babies need mum close and naked, and lots of mums need their babies close, too.

Dad can bond without milk and bottles. I hate to reveal personal stuff but my DH never bottlefed our two and he was the cuddliest dad in the world and is a doting grandpa. Never gave them a drop of anything and is bonded like glue. Come on dads, those babies hang about the house for 20 years or more. Let mum only do the breastfeeding and you do everything else - you'll bond away and she'll have loads of breaks. Also expressed milk is different and you might be giving them the wake-up milk when you want them to doze off. Goodness, it was designed so well and we fiddle about and make it all complicated.

You know the contraceptive effect of breastfeeding doesn't work with expression, which shows the hormones are working differently when it is not actual suckling. Very intriguing. So thumbs down from me for this poster (have not seen it). Am baffled again. Somebody tell me what its purpose is. Please see my cartoon on page 87 of my book. Has the Dairy Council made weaning guide posters? Oh swear words of your choice are pouring forth from my mouth. I was just feeling less depressed because of all your lovely messages. I mean how close a vested interest could you pick? Talk about the fox designing the hen coop...Groan groan.

Dear wonderful Mumsnet messageposters, I am feeling overwhelmed with joy at all your great messages and questions and ideas. Thrilled about your cumulative years of breastfeeding (and believe me you will be rewarded with superkids who will make your hearts sing). Also felled with misery at all the news about new ads and stupid posters. I have been in this business for almost 40 years and the fact that this nonsense continues gets me down.

Letter Q

Popsycal: What is your opinion of the new Cow & Gate (I think) TV campaign ie 'Do I look like my tummy is suffering' (disclaimer - this is not an exact transcript from advert), essentially referring in reversal to benefits quoted for breastfeeding?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: I avoid TV and supermarlet baby food shelves and magazines because I get too depressed. They are all against the Code of Marketing that our government (whatever political colour) has always pretended to applaud at the World Health Assemblies. Honestly, we pay these people to go and tell lies. They all agree (every two years) that we must enact the Code and halt all the marketing and then just let the companies ride roughshod over the rules (sorry bit of a mixed metaphor there).

Letter Q

Bigmouthstrikesagain: Have you really found a way to get your message across to the people that need to hear - as isn't the pro-breastfeeding 'lobby' (for want of a better word) always in danger of preaching to the converted, but without the massive marketing budgets of formula companies?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Yes, it is preaching to the converted but the converted are the best message spreaders. My book is there for you to use as you think fit.

Letter Q

HoochieMommaMizzle: In the preface to the revised edition of The Politics of Breastfeeding, you note that it's a shame that there is any need for a revised edition. What points of positive progress in terms of breastfeeding rates, protective legislation or availability of good information on breastfeeding do you feel are currently worthy of note?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Lots of good things - all of you, increased awareness of importance of breastfeeding, lots more mums wanting to, baby-friendly practices spreading... I like what has happened since I had my kids nearly 40 years ago. But, bit by bit, marketing is getting worse and worse, and more clever. And few governments really care about all the women in the informal working sector. If you're a casual worker and poor (as most women in the world are) then you're invisible; over a million Filipina mums are separated from their kids because they have to work overseas.


Nestlé boycott

Letter Q

Ilovemydogandmrobama: In your opinion, is boycotting Nestlé an effective method to register one's disgust at their advertising tactics in the developing world? What can individuals/groups do? Also, what is the single thing that could be done to 'normalise' breastfeeding? Am thinking every breastfeeding woman to post a photo of themselves breastfeeding on Facebook at the same time (as they have a policy).

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Without the original 1970s Nestlé boycott, none of us would be doing what we're doing now. I read The Baby Killer in 1974 and never looked back. I didn't even know that breast was healthier then, though I had breastfed two children. The boycott was what made the world sit up and see the illness and death that advertising caused. It provoked the US Government to hold an inquiry (led by the late Edward Kennedy) which resulted in the idea of the WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing. This led to the regulations (even if they are still too weak) that we have today. Without the boycott, thousands more babies would have died. Indeed, the boycott played a significant role in the return of breastfeeding in the rich countries. All the research and interest might never have happened.

Nestlé is still the biggest baby food company in the world (Danone is next). It is also the biggest dairy company. What is more we subsidise it through our taxes - EU subsidies have gone to Nestlé even though the parent company is Swiss and not in the EU.

Boycotting is a very polite and civilised way of communicating your disgust and as the late Senator Edward Kennedy said: "A recognized tool in a free economic, democratic society."

I don't think I should tell individual groups what to do. It is your creativity and fresh ideas which will change the world. Just avoid petty quarrels (people who care a lot tend to bicker) and remember personal energy and creativity is more important than funds. One more thing: no martyrs, don't stay up all night writing and snap at your loved ones the next day. There speaks the remorseful voice of experience.

As to normalising breastfeeding, you are already achieving this. JUST DO IT. You have already done so much. When I had my children in the early 1970s, no one breastfed in public and some friends were horrified when I breastfed in my own living room. Women were arrested and asked to leave restaurants, meeting rooms and even paediatric wards (truly!). Things are getting better.

If you don't feel shy or subject to harassment do breastfeed in public, it educates the young as to how it is done. When I was a child in the 1950s eating in the street was taboo, no one objects now if someone strolls down the road or sits on the bus eating. We are used to it. Same with breasts and babies, they'll get used to it. It's happening now. Too slow but right direction.

Facebook idea intrigues me because maybe posting a photo of breastfeeding makes it look special and not ordinary. Do people post photos of themselves eating a sandwich? Probably. You can tell what an old fogey I am that I don't know! I would want the photos to be very much set in everyday life, ie mum breastfeeding while she's on the phone, shopping, walking along, not the usual ones of sitting in her nightie with a cushion on her lap in a hospital bed. There are loads of lovely pics of breastfeeding as an everyday event on the net and in various great calendars. I am not advertising one because I think all the groups promoting breastfeeding are great.

By the way, the European Blueprint for Action (it's on the net), which is supposed to be our government's policy, says that 'all media' should present six months' exclusive breastfeeding and continued breastfeeding with other foods to two years and beyond, as the norm. Huh!

Letter Q

HoochieMomma: Don't want to hijack here but thisisyesterday, this systematic review by Akobeng (2007) of a large population in England and Wales estimated that approx 33,100 cases of asthma, 2,655 cases of coeliac disease and 13,639 cases of obesity could be prevented in one year if the risk factor "no breastfeeding" was eliminated. Can you tell I went away after that thread and read up at tiny bit?!

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Ah HoochieMomma thank you, this is why I can retire because of bright young brains like yours. Be careful or you'll end up like me and it will take over your life! I now have a short time to do all the other things I meant to do when I was 20! One other point though, I have noticed that most people never let the facts get in the way of believing what they want to believe, or do.

Governments will utter pious statements about breastfeeding forever, but it will take a bigger revolution to stop putting milk company profits first. They love rich men more than milky women. And who does most harm to the environment?



Letter Q

Popsycal: I wanted to come back to the early education at school about breastfeeding being important to boys as well as girls. I feel in some way it's more important to normalise with boys. I am so glad that ds1 and ds2 are old enough to retain memories of me feeding ds3.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Brilliant, you are thinking my thoughts. Lots of places in the world where men make all the important decisions. Agencies go blue in the face telling women what to do with their kids but back home dad's (or uncle's or grandad's)  word is law. Also why shouldn't boys learn about this fascinating phenomonon. But just a minute, don't tell me that when they do teach it schools (biology lessons?) they exclude the lads? Surely that is against sex discrimination law?

I hope your lovely little ones are spreading the word. They are lucky to have you as their mum. My dad (died in 1990) could recall breastfeeding and he was very 'pro'.

I was recently travelling with my daughter and grandsons, Tom aged just four years and Harry, six months. We stopped at a petrol station and my daughter breastfed Harry. Tom somehow persuaded me to buy him a lurid orange drink (shame) and my daughter wanted a diet coke (horror of horrors). I bought a newspaper and had a sip of water. My grandson said gleefully: "I had an unhealthy drink and mummy had an unhealthy drink, Granny had the Guardian and Harry had the healthiest drink." One little boy knows it all already. [Names changed to protect the innocent.]

Letter Q

dawntigga: How do you think we can educate the future mothers of this world to understand the value of breastfeeding and therefore increase the uptake?


Letter AGabriellePalmer: you're doing it already, rejoice. But it is no good if we let those industry xxxxxxx (expletive of your choice) carry on with their billion-dollar, oh-so-clever marketing campaigns. If we don't stop them doing this, all our good work is undone. Just stop the misinformation.

Letter Q

BoobBuffet: What do you think are the chances of breastfeeding being part of health and social education in schools. Do policy-makers have a real understanding of the importance of breastfeeding for the health of the nation?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Dear Boob Buffet (love the name), bit worried about set book in schools suggestion. Don't they mostly hate the set books and never pick them up again. I like voluntary not compulsary reading. Oh goodness my publishers (the truly wonderful Pinter & Martin) will be cross with me because set books sell in huge amounts. So maybe.

Some policy makers understand really well and others don't. The trouble is in our society that policy makers are influenced, constrained, controlled, blackmailed, badgered by pressures from big powerful companies. What I am clear about is that it is YOU and your DPs and DHs who will influence policy makers. They need educating, so educate them; they need your vote, so tell them what they have to do to get it.

As to children in schools, I am ignorant about education (kids too old, grandkids too young) and am amazed that they don't learn this. Don't they learn about digestion and handwashing and not mugging old ladies? Why not breastfeeding? I know the woman who wrote to authorities and got the national curriculum changed to include breastfeeding, so why aren't they teaching it?

I am a bit baffled about what they do learn at school. I have always had a feeling that we learn despite going to school, but I don't want to insult you hardworking teachers. I know you have a terrible job because of all sorts of ridiculous rituals and rites laid down by civil servants.



Letter Q

RibenaBerry: I'd like to ask a question about language. I understand your argument that use of the word 'formula' gives a scientific weight to commercial infant milks that seems inappropriate. However, use of the phrase 'artificial milk' is likely to be seen as inflammatory in everyday life, since our culture would associate artifical as bad and (understandably) no-one who formula feeds likes to be told that they are feeding their baby 'bad milk'.

How do you reconcile this use of language when in an every (rather than professional) setting, and how do you personally refer to formula feeding when in a social setting?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Hi RibenaBerry (and Pistachio I think this responds to your question too). Interesting question because language affects how we feel (as the advertisers know). 'Artificial Feeding' was the term used in all the medical and baby books throughout much of the 20th century. I think it's good to use the accurate, correct term if it is true. Artificial feeding is good if there is nothing else.

After all, if I had my leg cut off I would want an artificial leg. I wouldn't mind if a deaf aid were called an artificial ear. People have artificial hips and knees and rejoice in them. I suppose we could call it 'prosthetic feeding' or 'synthetic feeding'. To me it is just calling a spade a spade (or an artificial digging tool). If the term upsets, then why not call it breastfeeding. How does that make you feel? Bad, I expect, because it is not true. The plain truth is easier. What would you like to call it? By the way I have artificially fed babies (orphans in an orphanage with no wet nurses).

I met a young single mother in Canada who told me "I so wish they had called it artificial feeding when I had my baby. If they had called it that I would certainly have breastfed." She lived in Newfoundland with a 'bottle feeding culture' and her baby had lots of chest infections. No one had told her that breastfeeding could prevent these.

I think tone is important. You know the lovely way non-judgmental health workers are with drug users. Actually, most of the women I know who have not breastfed or those who decide not to do not feel guilty. I think it is the health professionals and companies that whip up the concept. When we talk about overweight or drinking less or smoking, we cope with all the guilt and bad feelings. If somebody tells me I'm drinking more than my safe unit maximum I don't say, "Oh, don't tell me that you're making me feel guilty," I think, "They are right, I can make my own decision about this".

I think we don't give good information about the actual contents of the milks and foods, nor how to make feeds less risky. People need facts. A mother is entitled to artificially feed if she wants to and she is also entitled to the truth about what is in the products and their risks. Tell your pregnant friends the truth in a nice, calm tone. I do know it is very hard not to get passionate about breastfeeding. I think my larynx problems come from controlling my feelings! But a laid-back, calm approach works wonders. Try not to preach (huh, says me), just let people make up their own minds when you have given them the facts. They'll do whatever they want to in the end anyway.


The role of health professionals

Letter Q

Nigglewiggle: As a determined breastfeeder who was diagnosed with a DVT just after delivery of my second child and was then advised to stop breastfeeding, I know that medical professionals 'err on the side of caution' with regard to advice regarding medication and breastfeeding. Two GPs on here were brave enough to admit that they have no training in breastfeeding and the general view is, if in doubt, tell them to stop.

My question is, why do medical professionals take such a glib view of breastfeeding when all the medical evidence clearly demonstrates how important it is for mother and baby and, secondly, what can be done to change this?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: This is the million-dollar question. I wish I knew the answer. Am so baffled. If we had private medicine, I could understand because doctors could get richer from treating all the extra illnesses. Are doctors jealous of breasts because they do their work for them? Let's just say that rationality is not what guides many human decisions.

But, honestly, the poor doctors learn less than many of us and many textbooks are just astonishingly ignorant about breastfeeding, even now. So sorry you had the DVT and the shockingly bad advice, I've never heard of such a thing. But please let your negative experience inspire you to prevent this happening to others. Well, who am I to say that? That's exactly what you are doing.

Letter Q

OmicronPersei8: David Cameron, in answer to Tambajam's question, stated that:
"Breastfeeding can make a real difference to childrens' long-term health but too many mums do not get the support they need in the early days. We will introduce universal support from Sure Start health visitors to help give mums the encouragement and practical support they need, which is particularly critical when new parents don't have other members of their family close by for help."

My question: what do you think about the idea that health visitors should be responsible for encouraging and promoting breastfeeding? Is it viable?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: I wonder where they will find all the money to retrain all the health visitors. The health visitors equipped to help have either worked with Baby Friendly or have their own special interest. There will have to be a big reform of pre-service training and that will take lots of time and money. Good idea, but I would not like to be responsible for the reform process. Wonder how a new government will convince the Treasury to prioritise money for this.


Feelings of failure

Letter Q

WilfSell: There is a problem, often found here on Mumsnet, of people feeling aggrieved and hurt when others discuss breastfeeding and/or criticise formula promotion etc. It seems to come from the general cultural rejection of breastfeeding in the UK, but also some deep personal hurt and difficult feelings, perhaps people's own inability to breastfeeding projected.

Given that these psychological and emotional issues get in the way of open discussions of what helps and hinders breastfeeding, how do we begin to deal with this?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Great question. I think we have to deal with each other's pain. Every mum wants to do her best and lots of loving caring mothers have not breastfed. I know a brilliant woman (on the board of Baby Milk Action) who formula fed all her children (was told her nipples were too flat) and she lets everyone know and is an ardent supporter. She is utterly cool and cheerful about this. She loves it that her grandkids are breastfeeding. Cliche, but let's work through grief and pain. You know I did some terrible things as a mum and it was just good luck (and the right midwife at the right time) that I breastfed. I know far more dedicated mums than I was who didn't. I feel remorse but no guilt; I did my best at the time and I was young and ignorant when I had kids. Let's stop beating ourselves up.

You know I never used safety belts (I am that old!) and my kids bounced about in the back. Shocking. I also once crashed the car. I'm so thankful we're all alive and I rejoice in the safety belt laws. If we suffer about all our mistakes we can never get on with life.

Letter Q

StarlightMcKenzie: How do you ensure that they haven't now got too little confidence in their ability to breastfeed a second child, without being the deliverer of the terrible news that they had been let down, or (as our culture likes to encourage) blame themselves for not being more assertive and getting the help they should have had?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Delivering painful news is a big skill which I certainly am still trying to learn. Just think what doctors and policemen have to do. The worst thing is to patronise women by thinking they are too fragile to face up to truth. All this 'we don't want to make her feel bad' is treating women like children, the companies do it all the time by their 'poor little you, it is so hard to breastfeed we will help you' messages. But it is much better to listen than explain, women can work through their own experience if you just listen and accept. Who hasn't made mistakes?


Growth charts

Letter Q

ilovemydogandmrobama: To what extent, in your opinion, are growth charts helpful or a hindrance? I mention this as my daughter was small, and had a lot of problems with health visitors suggesting formula as she was at the bottom of the chart. Obviously, there are other factors, but it seems to me that a lot of women give up breastfeeding based on a hypothetical standard.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Just thought you might like to know that my daughter is a GP and she has never weighed her baby since he was born six months ago, not a principle just never had the time. He's gigantic but totally breastfed. The new charts are good; an excellent brainy woman called Magda Sachs knows much more than me about these.


Extended breastfeeding

Letter Q

LeninGrotto: Can you point me at any info on natural term (extended) breastfeeding that shows typical weaning ages across different cultures (at a glance if possible) please. Also, I read about a case in the US of a woman being prosecuted for committing a lewd act for breastfeeding her child who was over one, I think. Is this an urban myth or a frightening reality? If the latter, what can we do to promote the benefits and normalcy of permitting children to self-wean in the developed world?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Dear LeninGrotto seven years; read Kathy Dettwyler. Also Ann Sinnott is publishing a book early next year called Breastfeeding Older Children. It will contain loads of info. The 'lewd act' stories are scary but they are rare and usually US based. They have a real problem with nipples over there.

In 2005, Jan Pienkowski, the marvellous illustrator of Fairy Tales, had the nipples sliced off his black and white drawing of the Sleeping Beauty in the US edition. And she had just given birth! Apparently little US kids might be damaged if they see a nipple. European kids are more resilient against the shock. My New York friend has just told me that they have a special bra to stop nipples showing through T-shirts. Are these the same people who object to yashmaks? Noses must be naked but nipples must be hidden. Also they never seem to object to male nipples or even manboobs. To be serious, the people who wrest breastfeeding toddlers from their mums are just plain ignorant and oppressed by a US cultural pathology. They will sort it out, there are a lot of sane people over there, too.

There are many women breastfeeding for years without fuss or comment all over the world. In the 1990s, I was giving a lecture in Thailand to some scarily elite doctors in posh suits and various high-level people. The session was chaired by the then government head of mother and child health. They asked me what was the 'natural' duration of breastfeeding and I mentioned the evidence for seven years. At the end the chair and he was delighted to know that seven years was the norm because that was how long he had been breastfed for. He recalled coming home from school in his school uniform and having a little breastfeed before going out to play. His mother conveniently wore a sarong. There are many people around the world like him, but they don't tell their stories because they are shy and as their societies get westernised and reduce breastfeeding time they don't mention it. I think they should boast and feel superior. Maybe some do.

Letter Q

Tallyhopinkerton: My question concerns 'extended breastfeeding'. When I started breastfeeding, I wanted to do it for six months, no more, no less. Now baby is five months old and I've decided that I will feed him as long as he likes. However, my husband is adamant that it should stop "before he can ask for it". Even my mother is uncomfortable about the idea of a baby feeding past one year. Why is it that people are so squeamish about feeding when the child is walking and talking?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Well they are just not used to it, that's all. When I was a teenager old men went apoplectic when we wore a mini skirt (I was actually sacked from Harrods because my skirts were too short). People love being shocked about things, just look at the Daily Mail. Nothing like a feeling of outrage over your breakfast. Just keep on doing it and they'll stop noticing. When women in the 1920s shortened their skirts men got accustomed to ankles and stopped fainting with delight. So it goes for all human behaviour.



Letter Q

Policywonk: Gabrielle, is there one, discrete action you'd like to see the UK government undertake to improve breastfeeding rates here? What do you think of the Department of Health's current efforts to improve breastfeeding initiation and retention rates?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Implement WHO/UNICEF Code of Marketing and all World Health Assembly Resolutions in full. Sounds bureaucratic but if you removed all this misinformation (especially to health professionals they get most marketing) and subliminal promotion women could make up their own minds more easily.

Yes, Department of Health is doing its best, good workers trying to achieve miracles under the yoke of politics. Don't knock them they are far better than they were a decade ago. At least breastfeeding is seen as a good thing.

Letter Q

Pooter: How do I stop myself getting too angry and upset when reading your book so I can finally finish it?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Very good comment for me. Anger wanes as you get older. I just get sad nowadays. But really anger can be a good energiser. Channel it cleverly into action, use your brain. Remind yourself that those advertising copywriters know not what they do, they are just termites in the colony. Being angry at individuals does not change the world for the better, using it as a fuel to organise and find creative strategies does. Look at Nelson Mandela, he was angry with apartheid but he used his non-aggressive style to persuade and shift. He wasn't filled with rage and used his brains, emotional intelligence and humanity to change things in a different way.

Letter Q

Foxytocin: I wonder how you think your book and some of its themes relate to the topics of land tenure rights, land management (in the developing world) and food security? How also do the ideas relate to the developed world in the topics of food security and food policy. I kept thinking of the book Fast Food Nation when I was reading The Politics of Breastfeeding. That book should be a must read for all A-level students, tied with yours, of course.

I was very pleased to meet and talk to you at the ABM conference this year. You may remember me as they one with the eight-month-old in a wrap sling. I asked you a question about breastfeeding and Cuba.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Dear Foxytocin, yes I remember you. I loved Fast Food Nation, too. I am so cheered up when I know there are people like you who are keeping ahead of the knowledge and have a vision. I am gradually slowing down so now I can rely on you to speed things up.

Letter Q

Fruitshootsandheaves: The title of your book makes me think that I am maybe influencing my child's political future depending on whether I feed more from the left or right breast .

Letter AGabriellePalmer:  It all depends whether you stand on your head to breastfeed.


Letter Q

MarsLady: I was interested to know if the situation in Brazil has reverted back to allowing advertising? I note that in your afterword you say that after President 'Lula' introduced his Zero Hunger campaign, Nestle were very quick to invest money in the 'breastmilk centre' and provide the 1.5m units of 'special milks'. Don't even get me started on the chapter about Guatemala.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Have not heard this about Brazil. As far as I know, the law has not changed, it is probably just lax monitoring that has caused a backslide. Contact IBFAN and report what you know. Same with Guatemala. Everyone out there report what you find. Tell IBFAN what you see or better still set up your own group if there is not one in your region (I am talking internationally). Also, no one needs to read my whole book. Just dip in an out if you are not a book reader.



Letter Q

StarlightMcKenzie: Whilst mothers who co-sleep are subconsciously aware of their babies in their sleep and instinctively manage not to squish them or let the covers drape over their faces etc, does/can this extend to co-sleeping fathers? Is there much in the way of research on this?

Letter AGabriellePalmer: Depends on father. Have to be cautious about drinks and drugs and ciggies. Don't let him in if he uses any of these. Incidentally, mums and dads, co-sleeping is not always ideal either. And you know what, you can have sex in other places! I think Helen Ball at Durham University has shown that mothers behave differently from fathers. Look on her website she is amazing on all this stuff.



Letter Q

Verylittlecarrot: Gabrielle, won't you consider making a TV documentary along the theme of the book? I feel that your readership must be primarily passionate breastfeeders, so a self-selecting bunch who almost certainly have a good understanding of the differences between formula and breastfeeding already.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that parents who have formula fed or who are equivocal about infant feeding probably avoid books with titles such as yours! Since in the UK the large majority of parents formula feed, including policy makers, healthcare professionals, media luvvies, journalists and representatives in all walks of life, the facts about formula and the dubious way it is manufactured, marketed and viewed are unlikely to ever hit their radar. And so the ignorance continues.

There seem to be several programmes around at the moment along the lines of "how our food is made and processed". Surely it's time for an exposé of the formula industry - positioned in that way, rather than a "politics of breastfeeding" angle, which the majority public will avoid or dismiss as niche.

Letter AGabriellePalmer: You are right, but I am a writer not a programme maker. Maybe you want to make a TV prog. Please use my book as a resource. Good luck.


GabriellePalmer: Hi all you fantastic mums. I will now confess that this is my first webchat ever! How's that for fogeyness. I have loved it and you have all helped me through. Just a bit of support and I am now skilled - just like breastfeeding. I think Mumsnet's existence is doing a world of good. Challenge your politicians more and educate them. You all know so much and you're changing the world more quickly than they can. Very delighted to have taken part.

Last updated: 9 months ago