Breastfeeding doesn't determine a child’s future, so we should stop pretending like it does

How a mother feeds her baby is just one small part of the parenting jigsaw

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The Independent Online

There has recently been more than the usual number of stories about infant feeding in the press – an uproar about a model breastfeeding on the cover of ELLE; women being asked to stop breastfeeding in shops, cafés and schools; sensationalist articles about women breastfeeding their five- and six year olds. There have also been stories about bottle-feeding mothers being made to feel inferior to breastfeeders, and a backlash to the latest breastfeeding-selfie craze on social media.

What does this all tell us?

Clearly the way women choose to feed their babies has gone way beyond a matter of personal choice. Its become a very heated pubic issue, loaded with moral judgement. Whether women do or do not breastfeed, they are forced to "account" for their infant feeding patterns. This takes place in a culture that on the one hand emphasizes the importance of "breast is best", but on the other is very ambivalent about the public performance of an intimate activity.

Unsurprisingly, in this atmosphere many women are defensive about their own "choices" – although we would do well to remember that not all infant feeding patterns are "chosen".

In any case, many mothers feel the need to justify what they are doing to this increasingly nosy public – hence the magazine covers, "brelfies" and public promises to breastfeed children "until they are ten". Likewise, this also accounts for the "backlash" and the need for some mothers to defend formula feeding from the "breastapo".

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this particularly virulent aspect of "the mummy wars" is the fact that it just won’t die – time and again the same stories get recycled. But there are a couple of points worth reiterating here. First, the assumption that how a woman feeds her baby in the early months will have life-long physical (and psychological) implications – a message echoed by the host of "experts" that now colonize early parenting – means that many women feel a huge sense of obligation to breastfeed (and therefore creating the two rather unappealing options of being "smug" or "guilty").

In fact, in a developed country like the UK, while there is evidence that breastfeeding has some protective effects, these differences are typically overblown in the advice new parents receive, to be almost insignificant at an individual – as opposed to a population – level.

And second, infant feeding is very obviously not just a question of health and nutrition alone, but one which taps into deeply held ideas about what constitutes good motherhood. There’s an idea that sacrifice on the part of mothers is to be celebrated, and that any mother who does not  "put her child first" (ie breastfeed for the recommended time) should be considered lacking. This sort of reductive view of the mothering relationship is a dangerous one. We need to be careful not to make breastfeeding into another means by which to attack women’s reproductive rights: what a mother does with her body is her decision alone, something which often seems to get lost in what is typically very child-centered advocacy. 

We should remember that how a mother feeds her baby is just one small part of the parenting jigsaw, and not one that will determine her child’s future outcomes. Women need infant feeding support that starts from them and their family’s needs, not more governmental hectoring, or sensationalist spats in the media, which just continue to fuel this already over-heated, destructive debate.

Dr Charlotte Faircloth is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of Roehampton, London.