The Breastfeeding Wars

08 February 2012
Is there any aspect of parenthood which is as emotion-charged, divisive and angst ridden as breastfeeding? Just mention breastfeeding on any parenting forum and the responses pour in - often highly emotive. If someone publishes an article on the benefits of private schooling, no one replies "we can't afford to send our kids to private school, so you shouldn't print stuff like this; it is cruel and hurtful". But mention the benefits of breastfeeding, and the will be a barrage of such responses on how people desperately tried to breastfeed and were unable to, so it is unfair to write of the benefits of breastfeeding. Perhaps, perhaps. Given that 90% of Australian women at least make an attempt to breastfeed, maybe more information on the benefits of breastfeeding is not what we need to increase breastfeeding rates. What is the answer then? Do we need as a society to be more understanding of the idea that breastfeeding is not for everyone?

It seems like heresy to go against the pro-breastfeeding mantra of modern parenting. But - shock, horror - given my time over, I'm not sure I would breastfeed. The pressure I felt to breastfeed was intense. I started out with a great deal of optimism, but we had a bad latch, and things got more and more painful until eventually one nipple tore in half, the other was chapped and bleeding, and every feed felt like having a vice clamped over an open wound. Of course every feed means every hour or so whilst trying to establish breastfeeding with a newborn, and it got so that every time BabyG cried, I would cry and cringe too, knowing the pain was about to start again. It was so bad that I feel twinges of pain now every time I hear of someone trying to breastfeed their first, and I can barely remember most of the first weeks of my son's life - the pain has blacked out those memories. Even to write this now brings me to tears. But at no stage did someone say to me "you know, if this is all too hard, you don't have to do this". I wish someone had told me that I could give him formula, and he wouldn't be in any way deprived, and it would not make me a bad mother. But no one said it. All I got was pressure - from books, from medical staff, perceived from family, friends and society - to just push on. So I did, and eventually it got better.

We've been at it now for nearly six months, and I had every intention of reaching that magical twelve month mark. We'd worked so hard at it, I wasn't going to give in now. Until this week, when with an internal groan I thought of the pumping I would have to do to provide BabyG with milk for a baby-free day out DH and I have planned. Feeling resentful of the many hours I would spend attached to the breast pump in order to produce a couple of paltry feeds, this time a little voice inside piped up. "You know, if this is all too hard, you don't have to do it". The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Heck, sense - it was like being handed a getting out of jail free card. I've been kidding myself that I've been enjoying breastfeeding all these months. Due to my sensory issues, having BabyG attached to me all that time is pretty unpleasant for me - especially as he no longer feeds calmly, but twists, kicks, grabs handfuls of flesh in his tiny fists (and teeth are on their way). I can never take a night off whilst DH handles feeding duties. I would love to not have to stop at just one glass of wine. I would like to be able to go out for more than a few hours. And the tantalising idea of returning to work dangles like a nice juicy plum. I'm sure for some women all these issues can be handled with pumping and storing milk but I am not a very efficient pumper, and also, I hate it.

Do I have a "right" to stop feeding, though? I'm very well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding - it's why I persevered with it in the first place long after I realistically should have stopped. Can I quit now just because I don't much like it? Will BabyG get that much more benefit out of it, especially now we are moving on to solids? Is breastfeeding where it is physically possible a case of "my body, my choice", or is it just one of those things, like getting up in the middle of the night, which we all find pretty disagreeable but just have to do?

I'm not sure where to access practical help to do this. The pro-breastfeeding message is so strong I know I'd have to give lengthy justifications for wishing to wean before I can be judged worthy of doing so. How can I say I know all the benefits of breastfeeding but want to stop doing so anyway? The Australian Breastfeeding Association has for years been trying to increase breastfeeding rates by providing information on the health benefits of breastfeeding. Rates are not increasing, so they do more of what isn't working. It's serving to create a culture of guilt and resentment that may, in fact, create a backlash against the pro-breastfeeding camp. There are obviously other issues than the health of the child at stake. Of course BabyG's health is important to me. But we have made an enormous investment of time by choosing to breastfeed him, precluding me from returning to work for at least another several months if I continue. Who is to say he would not benefit more in the long term from the increased household income of my returning to work? As someone wiser than me pointed out, breastfeeding is only free if a woman's time is deemed worthless. Yes, it takes time to prepare formula, and yes babies do benefit from the one-on-one time. In an isolationist society, are we doing anyone any favours by telling new mothers that for the sake of their children, they must be physically bound to them for the first several months of life? Does that one on one time need to be with Mum?

I'm nothing unique, of course; there are many stories like mine, and I'm not sure where we should all go with them. If we keep going on like this we run the risk of a two-tier feeding hierarchy; the blessed breastfeeders and the shunned, rebellious refusers. It doesn't have to be this way. We need a new dialogue, one that understands there are many reasons a woman doesn't breastfeed, and it's not just because doesn't understand the benefits or hasn't tried hard enough. I understand, and I have tried. I have the greatest respect for long-term breastfeeders. But I am coming to realise I am not going to be one of them.


  1. You can combination feed too. I've done that with all 3 of mine, at about 6mths, gave them bottles when I wasn't with them, breastfeed morning and night.
    But shit yeh, do whatever you want - I am appalled that you didn't feel there was a choice. Of course there is, people JUST NEED TO LAY OFF and let mum do what is right for her and her bub, whatever that is. Kinda like this:

    Do what ya want
    Luv Ms Laura Panic

  2. know one woman who breastfed her son till he was 3, but loads of women who have the same story as yourself.

    the 'it's ok' message def needs to be out there and to be heard.

  3. It's your decision to breastfeed or not.
    It does sound pretty selfish saying "i can't go out without pumping and can't drink too much" when you and everybody knows that mothers breast milk is the perfect food for babies.

    The ABA is just pushing the facts, if people choose to listen to marketing e.g. "our formula is the next best thing to breast feeding" instead of realising that the next best thing isn't even close to breast milk (at a quality macro or micro nutrient level) they can't do much about that.

    It seems like you want people to tell you how wonderful you are for breast feeding and give you permission to stop. Well you aren't doing anything special and are complaining about your first-world "what will people think of me" problems, when you should just make a decision that you know is right for your baby. That may well be formula feeding him so your husband can do it all and you don't have to resent your baby for making you miss out on all those important things you want to do.

  4. I am breastfeeding again. But when i want to stop i'm going to. Am not goimg to sit down all day, in the middle of rhe baby's growth spurt and spend hours doing nothing. There's been enough research in formular to make me happy. Your baby won't die being on the bottle. The one thing i appreciate about the bottle, is someone else can do it

  5. Laura - thanks for that, comp feeding is an option I've been looking at. It's hard to see there's a choice in the jumbled up headspace of the first brand new baby!

  6. karLcx - I have such admiration for the women who do that. I kind of hoped to be one myself. But women also need to be told it isn't going to damage their kids to not do it.

  7. Veronica that's true, formula isn't poison. It may not have the quasi-mystical qualities of breastmilk but no one ever walked into a year one classroom and tell at a glance who are the breastfed and who are the formula fed kids!

  8. Anonymous - I don't know who you are or what connection you have to the ABA, as you have bravely chosen to not identify yourself. But to address your points firstly, if I was seeking permission to not breastfeed anymore, this blog is not the place I would do it. I don't use this for emotional support. Second, a central tenet of my premise is that the ABA doesn't seem to care why women can't or won't breastfeed, just hits them over the dead with the health benefits - which is exactly what you are doing here.They can keep doing that if they want, but it is not working to increase breastfeeding rates.

    Since you deem it selfish for me to contemplate weaning a six month old, I'm guessing you are an advocate of extended breastfeeding and believe those who disagree should mind their own business. Well, who are you to decide what is best for other women and their babies without knowing - or in this case, misreading - the circumstances (I wish to wean because of post natal depression and sensory processing disorder - look it up - not so I can drink more and go out, although it would enable me to go back to work, easing the burden on ye olde long suffering taxpayer)? How much more benefit of breastfeeding post six months will my son get versus the benefits that can come to him and our family from weaning?

    And finally, considering the problems that have been caused in third world nations by the marketing of formula and supply of clean water, it is arrogant and ignorant in the extreme to label difficulties breastfeeding as a first world problem. It is a concern for all women how to get those rates up and dealing with issues.

  9. I'm going to try and make this as simple as possible since you didn't seem to comprehend my previous post.

    1. I have no ties whatsoever to the ABA.

    2. Breast milk is MUCH better than formula (whether it be based on cows milk, goats milk or soy milk).

    3. The health benefits of breastfeeding are all the ABA need to promote, they are a breastfeeding organisation not a formula company.

    4. You say you are well aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding which is why you have persevered for so long. So you must be aware that switching to solids doesn't mean your baby is now getting the nutrients he needs from said solids. In fact he needs more nutrient dense food as most early solids (see rice cereal) completely lack any nutritional value.

    5. I never said it was selfish to wean a 6 month old, I said your reasoning behind it sounds selfish.

    6. The only thing I labelled a first world problem was your "what will people think of me" attitude. Women in the third world do not worry about what people will think of them if they stop breastfeeding and instead worry that their child will starve.

  10. If the health benefits of breastfeeding are the only thing that matters in a baby's life, then yes breastfeeding is the answer for everyone. It isn't so it's not. Whoever wants to increase breastfeeding rates, if they don't acknowledge this then the rates will never increase.
    And frankly, you're a coward showing up anonymously and pronouncing yourself the arbiter of whether my reasons for wanting to wean are justified. Identify yourself or go away.

  11. Not every mother can afford to take a year off (and we're not just talking financial - the whole job is safe is utter bullshite) and even though employers are supposed to provide breast pumping areas it is sometimes just not possible. Imagine working where you can't even guarantee a lunch break or a decent loo break - then continuing breast feeding is a pipe dream. I know, I tried with all three. In the end I accepted that I did the best I could with the circumstances I found myself in - 10 hour days and no chance of any time to pump.
    My kids are all above average intelligence despite sucking on a bottle from 6 weeks, 7 weeks and three months.

    So anonymous - bugger off - some of us live in the real world. And for some that means breast milk until weaning, for some it means breast feeding until returning to work, some it means a combination of both. And for some it means straight to bottle feeding.

    How about spending your energy making it easier for the majority of women who end up bottle feeding - the working mums - to have access to sanitary pumping areas and the time to do it.
    (sorry to comment so late, those neglected bottle fed children of mine kept me so busy i'm behind in my blog reads)


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