Professor Amy Brown, Swansea University
Yesterday, there was one of those media storms. It all started out innocuously enough. The Royal College of Midwives made a slight tweak to their breastfeeding position statement and … bam … suddenly the tabloids were in a shark feeding frenzy, all seeking to outdo each other with how derogatory and misinformed their headlines could be. The headlines claimed that finally the RCM had apparently decided to stop ‘pressurising’ women to breastfeed, to stop making women feel terrible, to stop shaming … the list went on and on. It was the BBC headline that particularly sparked this article, claiming ‘Bottle feeding is a woman’s right, midwives told’.
Now, moving aside from the portrayal of the RCM as a strict school headmistress, wagging its finger at the naughty midwives who supposedly force all women to breastfeed … the RCM hadn’t actually changed its policy position on infant feeding at all really. In its initial release four years ago, it stated
‘If after being given information and support on breastfeeding, at any point in her antenatal, intra-partum and postnatal journey, a woman decides not to breastfeed or to give formula as well as breastfeeding she needs the best possible evidence – based information and positive support to enable her to minimise the risks for formula feeding to and to promote positive parenting through close physical contact between mother and baby. Mothers who have chose to bottle feed should be taught how to clean and sterilise bottles and teats and how to make up and store formula feeds correctly and safely’.
So you can see, back in 2014, the RCM were completely on board with supporting all women and giving them safe bottle feeding advice. Their only crime could be the lack of full stops in the first sentence. In fact, maybe that was what the 2018 update was all about, because in terms of content, it’s exactly the same, albeit with different phrasing
‘With the right support and guidance, most women are able to breastfeed. However, the parents of infants that are formula fed, whether exclusively or partially need accessible evidence based information to enable them to do so safely. This will include instruction on cleaning and sterilising appropriate equipment and the correct method for making up formula feeds, to minimise the risks associated with artificial feeding. All midwives and maternity support workers should promote close physical content between mother and baby when feeding.’
However someone somewhere in the BBC or Daily Mail or whoever got there first jumped on this change, believing (or pretending to believe) it to be a brand new statement. But this got me thinking – what do women excactly have a right to when it comes to feeding their baby?
- They have a right to proper breastfeeding support.
A lot of hurt around breastfeeding discussions stems from the fact that too many women want to breastfeed but are let down by the system. They didn’t get the right information in pregnancy, they didn’t get the right support in hospital, they didn’t get the right information when they got home. Of course, this is all driven by midwives and health visitors being expected to do way too much on way too little time (and pay). The government should fully shoulder the blame here and invest properly in raising staffing levels and providing high quality training and funding for CPD to enable professionals to support mothers as much as they need.
- They have a right to be protected from industry influence
No one who sells formula should be anywhere near breastfeeding. It is impossible for them to be genuinely promoting something that would destroy their revenue. Women have a right to unbiased, good information that will help them succeed, not put them on the road to stopping and into the waiting arms of that kind formula company who helped them out when they were struggling. Again, this comes back to government investment. Who is going to fund information for parents? Who is going to fund good quality research? Who is going to fund study days for professionals – as the formula industry should be a million miles away, and then some.
- They have a right to emotional support if they haven’t been able to breastfeed as long as they wanted to
Whether that goal was three days or three years, women who haven’t been able to meet their own breastfeeding goals can feel a wide range of emotions from guilt, to anger to grief but are often cast aside. Instead, all women should have opportunity to talk through their infant feeding experiences, to debrief, to move on. NOT to be told that all that matters is that their baby is fed – the infant feeding version of ‘all that matters is that you have a healthy baby’. Women can remember their breastfeeding experiences for many decades, often blaming themselves for all those years. Has anyone helped them process it? To realise they were failed by the system rather than being a failure?
- Support to bottle feed safely and responsively
My fourth point appears to come as a shock to some. I’m a breastfeeding advocate aren’t I? How can I be talking about supporting formula feeding? Because I believe in women’s ability to make decisions that are best for them. And women who have decided they need to formula feed deserve high quality information on how to do it safely, responsively and have a support network to which they can reach out to. I believe in making sure women have all the support they need to be able to breastfeed if they want to, and can, but equally that women who cannot need practical and emotional support too. Where is this information? Oh in the 2014 RCM statement …
Now to my final point. Number five. This is my big one.
- The right for the media to not sensationalise women’s experiences to make money
I’m pretty sure that whoever wrote the first article stating the RCM had made some huge change to their breastfeeding stance knew full well they were manipulating the situation (aka down right lying). Even if it had been an about turn, women do not deserve those headlines. Many a woman in my research has talked about how they hate and blame themselves, feeling like failures. Equally, many a woman has struggled on breastfeeding, through pain, confusion, exhaustion… because she couldn’t get the support she needs.
And the media thinks this is news? Heartbreak is not news. It is not there to sell papers. The only thing it is there for is to learn from and to move forward. And no one does that by stirring up layers and layers of deep hurt.
Importantly, midwives do not deserve these headlines either. I have never met a midwife who has judged or criticised a woman for not breastfeeding. I have met plenty a midwife who has worked through breaks and past end of shifts to sit with a woman in pain and distress.
Those headlines are designed to do one thing – to turn women against each other, to cause arguments, to distract. They are designed to push women towards formula companies and away from each other. They are designed to divide and cause people to spend time debating a non-debate. They are designed to turn women against midwives, to turn midwives against their organisation. In other words, to cause havoc that privileges one group only – the formula industry. Every time we fight with each other. Every time we get distracted. Every time we fall into a trap of having to endlessly defend – they win.
Those who go into the professions and support roles of working with mothers and babies do so because they care deeply about them. They care about making things better for them. For getting them the right information, for empowering them. Not criticising. Not judging. Not shaming.
Enough of the stirring. There are no ‘sides’. We’re all fighting for the same things. More investment, more support, more value. Let’s stop the media from trying to pretend otherwise.
Dr Amy Brown is a Professor in the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences at Swansea University in the UK. She first became interested in the many barriers women face when breastfeeding after having her first baby. Three babies later she has spent the last twelve years exploring psychological, cultural and societal barriers to breastfeeding, with an emphasis on understanding how we can make societal changes to better protect, encourage and value women and babies. She is author of ‘Breastfeeding Uncovered: Who really decides how we feed our babies’ published by Pinter & Martin.