Guilt and Breastfeeding: Who’s Really to Blame?
I hardly blinked last week when yet another study heralded the benefits of breastfeeding, titled, “Breastfeeding Would Save Lives, Money.” It found that feeding babies as nature intended, rather than with formula, could also improve the state of our economy. Yet, our country still acts as though the majority of mothers could happily nurse their babies exclusively for 6 months without real financial and in some cases physical hardship. Why?
Perhaps because when breastfeeding doesn’t work out, mothers assign blame to themselves, rather than our social and institutional structures. And maybe, certain institutions have an interest in keeping mothers uninformed and beholden to second-best options.
I suggest this because of what was NOT the article’s title: “Formula Feeding Costs Lives, Money.”
Why is the most natural way to feed a mammal so often framed as a benefit, an added bonus? How can one hope to persuade people to breastfeed their babies if it sounds like some kind of special “gift” only people with enough time or education or job flexibility can offer their children? If you’re stressed about finances, frazzled in your relationships, or struggling with making the “right” parenting choices, do you really prioritize “special” relationships and “added benefits,” or do you just try to get through it all without making big mistakes?
In this light, a mother might just add formula feeding to their list of minor personal failures. But consider if the situation were framed differently.
What if messages like, “consider the benefits of breastfeeding…breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, allergies, or pneumonia,” read “consider the costs of formula feeding…formula fed babies are more likely to die of SIDS, suffer from ear infections, allergies, and acquire pneumonia.” It might not be pleasant to hear it framed that way, but the facts are identical. And perhaps, as a new mother hearing them in this manner, you might have a different opinion about your options, and be more invested in a decision to nurse.
I know there is concern about toning down attacks on formula because we don’t want mothers to feel guilty if they are unable to breastfeed their children. But let’s stop for a moment to think about that: if you try your best to do something, and still it didn’t work, or perhaps you don’t even have a choice about it, do you really feel guilty? Or would you feel more disappointed in how it turned out? After all, guilt implies fault, and can you really blame yourself for something you physically could not deliver despite your best efforts?
Are we protecting mothers from feeling guilty, or do we actually prefer they gently blame themselves for not making the “best” choices? Perhaps what people really don’t want is for mothers to feel angry. Angry that they’ve been deceived into believing that breastfeeding is a benefit only “special” infants get when they could have offered it themselves had they only been given more accurate information, more educated hospital staff, and a more supportive job environment. Because angry mothers might actually force us to change things.
Imagine if mothers who couldn’t achieve a latch with their baby were later told supplementation, which their baby received on day one, can permanently impair breastfeeding. Should they blame themselves, or the hospital staff who are supposed to know what they’re doing? Does it make sense for a working mother to blame herself when her job doesn’t allow enough medical leave to establish successful breastfeeding with her baby? Is it her fault if she cannot produce enough milk from a breast pump to successfully feed a baby for 6 months? Is it her fault if she doesn’t even know that a breast pump cannot extract nearly the amount of milk as a healthfully latched baby can? Since the status quo is formula feeding (only 12 percent of mothers are breastfeeding by 6 months), my guess is that few mothers are receiving the information or the support they need to succeed.
Last year, a study showed that the longer a mother delays returning to work, the more likely it is that she’ll nurse her baby.
Why? It’s a royal pain to manage breastfeeding while away from your baby. But in a society just beginning to relearn the value of this particular bodily art, a lot of people don’t understand this. Pumping breastmilk is an option, but takes a lot longer, is uncomfortable, and most importantly, makes it harder to maintain an adequate milk supply for the growing baby.
I suggest paid maternity leave. Six months of it. 128 countries currently provide paid and job-protected childbirth-related leave. It’s time the U.S. steps up to the plate.
What do you think?