The ‘breast is best’ debate: What is it that makes people judge new mothers so harshly?

Save the Children has called for warnings on formula packaging to remind mothers that Breast is Best - but this would only make stressed mothers feel even more guilty

Share
Related Topics

Oh, breastfeeding.

Has ever a word (or two welded together) divided the parenting community in quite the same way? The on-going formula vs mother’s milk debate – which takes a new twist today as Save the Children calls for warnings covering a third of formula packaging reminding mothers that Breast is Best across the UK and Europe as well as the developing world - has the power to turn otherwise rational, open-minded human beings into taunting, judgemental savages. And you can take it from one who bears the scars.

Last year I wrote a teeny tiny piece for the Independent about my experience of breastfeeding, to accompany a news item about women being ‘pressured’ into breastfeeding. No biggie, I thought. Despite lacking the robust character needed to withstand the tirades of abuse that inevitably ensue whenever a journalist utters anything – no matter how mundane - under the headline ‘Comment’, I thought I’d give it a go. Mine is a pretty average take on the breast vs bottle debate – in a nutshell, breast is generally best, but not always manageable. How much wrath could my vanilla opinion possibly evoke?

Quite a lot, as it happened.

Among a slew of unrepeatable words in reply to what I thought was a calm and reasoned summary of why after eight months of breastfeeding my dearly-beloved (while supplementing with formula to enable my husband to do occasional night-time feeds) I felt I had “done my time”, I was branded “awful” for daring to suggest that breastfeeding was not the right choice for every woman. I explained that for me breastfeeding was worth persevering for - worth the mastitis, the breastfeeding counselling (yes, really), the sleepless nights… But for the hate-mail I received, I might as well have written that after eight months of breastfeeding I ate my baby.

It was not the first time I’d felt a stranger’s wrath through an online comment board but this time it felt distinctly personal. There is something about having a baby that makes people – especially other women – feel they suddenly have a right to judge you based on not very much information at all, which makes no sense at all.  Given that motherhood is one of the most challenging and stressful (as well as rewarding, brilliant, yadda yadda) experiences in a woman’s life, you’d think other women might be keen to lend a bit of support. Adjusting to life as a new parent is one time when you definitely don’t need other people to judge you, as you’re sure to be doing plenty of self-annihilation already.

What I hadn’t explained in my piece was the initial shame and self-loathing that accompanied my decision to introduce the odd bottle. It took a caring and thoughtful GP to notice that my self-diagnosed post-natal depression was actually nothing of the sort but simply the result of loop-the-looping hormones combined with extreme tiredness, perpetuated by the fact that I was feeding every two hours. When she suggested introducing a bottle so my husband could do alternate nights giving me the space to sleep, I was stunned.

While there can be no doubt that where possible breast is best, she explained, most important to a baby is confident and thriving parents. If, as in my case, a mother is so exhausted and overwrought as a result of purely breastfeeding that she can no longer function properly, that is no use to any child. If a mother for whatever reason cannot breastfeed – and there are plenty of reasons, not least being unable to produce enough milk or having to go back to work – surely the most important thing is that they we give them our support, because new mothers have enough to stress about already. One thing’s for sure, you can’t make her feel more guilty than she already feels.

It should be made clear that Save the Children’s Superfood for Babies report highlights the importance of colostrum to trigger a baby’s immune system and is aimed at addressing a serious problem of infant death in developing countries. The logic of applying the labelling to all countries including the UK, according to Brendan Cox, director of policy at Save the Children, is in case products are exported to countries where promoting breastfeeding in the initial days and weeks could help save 830,000 lives a year worldwide. But the fact is, such a stark warning on packaging will have an impact on mothers whose children are not at serious risk – and the impact could be significant.

Mother’s guilt is the heaviest of burdens, and with the constant juggling modern motherhood demands there is plenty to feel bad about without being confronted with a blazing reminder of your imperfections every time you reach for the powdered milk.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The author with David Leppan, the co-founder of Wealth-X, in his BBC series  

What I learnt about inequality after spending time with some of the richest people in the world

Jacques Peretti
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would halt the charitable status enjoyed by private schools

Rosie Millard
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links