The Politics of Breastfeeding

As someone who has breastfed three children (and is still feeding one of them) I’ve always meant to read a book called The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer.

The politics of breastfeeding: when breasts are bad for business [Book]

The basic premise of the book is that although breastfeeding is scientifically proven to be the healthiest option, preventing infections and allergies in infants and also reducing the risk of breast cancer in the mother, it doesn’t make anyone any money and is therefore going to be threatened by big business. Basically if you breastfeed you won’t spend money on baby formula, bottles, sterilising units, sterilising tablets, bottle warmers  etc etc. As the subtitle of Palmer’s book says, breasts are bad for business.

I have noticed a big chance in attitudes in the media towards breastfeeding in the last couple of years. Although hospitals – to their credit – are incredibly pro breastfeeding,  even in difficult situations, such as when a baby is premature, a different narrative has developed in newspapers and on TV.

I’m sure most of you have forgotten Denise (used to be famous in the 90s) van Outen’s rants about “breastfeeding bullies” from 2010, while I myself briefly worked on a Channel 4 programme back in 2008 fronted by that intellectual giant Kate Garraway. It was called Other People’s Breastmilk and dwelt on the freak show edge of breastfeeding (feeding six year olds, feeding someone else’s baby etc etc). It was ostensibly pro-breastfeeding (all the people who worked on the programme certainly were) but the publicity photos showed Kate pretending to nurse a cow. This was supposed to give the message that why do we think it’s “normal” to give a human baby cow’s milk, but the result was just a tiny little bit pervy.

Bottle feeding baby = breast-feeding bovine?

See what I mean? I think it would be fair to say the programme gave out mixed messages – we were told about the health benefits of breastfeeding but basically shown people who were – ahem – a little bit eccentric in their habits. Classic telly behaviour – a worthy voice-over but a contradictory message being expressed visually and by selection of contributors.

That was back in 2008, when the government was spending oodles of dosh promoting breastfeeding and doctors were telling new mothers that they must exclusively breastfeed babies for six months (no formula, no food, just breastmilk).  The six months rule comes from the World Health Organization, who should know what they’re talking about and is based on sound medical fact. It was adopted as Government policy in 2003, although when I had my first child in 2005, the message I received was somewhat softer.  I certainly gave child no.1 food at four months and he had to have formula because I was working when he was five months old – not ideal, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do.

So basically, it is hard to follow the WHO advice to the letter – what if you have a meeting, fancy a night out or need to go back to work? What if a baby grabs food off your plate – child no.1 and child no.3 were both up to this trick well before the magic age of six months. Are you supposed to stop them and put them on some miniature naughty step for such deviant behaviour?

All I’m trying to do is establish that although breastfeeding is “natural” it is can feel restrictive and to put it bluntly, a right pain in the arse. But there is no question that its health benefits are worthwhile and it is worth sticking with it. I’m very lucky because I live in an area where lots of mums do it and there is a lot of support – but I know this isn’t always the case.

To return to my initial point. In the past year or so, there seem to be a plethora of articles in the papers, criticizing so called “breastfeeding Nazis” and focusing on the problems associated with breastfeeding. Apparently, breastfed babies are more difficult than formula fed babies (really?), while today I read this:

Do we believe this new study?

This article says that it is now dangerous to breastfeed babies exclusively until 6 months – a direct contradiction of the WHO advice. If you read down to near the end of the article you’ll see that three out of four of the report’s authors have established links with the baby food industry.  Does this make them the right people to be looking at the benefits of breastfeeding? Surely it’s like research into the benefits of sustainable energy conducted by scientists with links to Shell or the auto industry. Or “experts” in the pay of Michael Gove’s edu-business chums telling us how crap state schools are. It’s basically about having a massive axe to grind – for cash.

What concerns me most, is at the moment we have an NHS that is independent of this sort of tripe – talk to a doctor or nurse and they will tell you what’s good for your health. But will that be true when their jobs are about balancing budgets rather than just deciding what’s best for patients?

Just saying. I’m going to stop rambling now as I have a sleeping baby on one arm and getting a bit tired of typing with one finger. I’m also going to order “The Politics of Breastfeeding” and will let you know more about it once I’ve read it.

This entry was published on January 19, 2012 at 11:50 am and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “The Politics of Breastfeeding

  1. Hi Lucy, interesting post. I get quite ranty about breastfeeding, although am too tired to offer any useful comments right now. Just wanted to say, “Hear, hear!” on the independence of the NHS vs corporates. I loved breastfeeding, but wasn’t going to do it as the media has it portrayed, as you say, for nut-jobs. I can’t write anymore as I will start sharing breastfeeding stories (especially the old ladies in Asda who were rude) and the lazy kids who can’t be bothered. Anyway, that’s enough sharing given we don’t really know each other. Look forward to the next blog.

  2. Pingback: The Politics of Breastfeeding « reesesrants | Diaper Earth

  3. Look forward to reading your thoughts about the book. I read it when the new edition came out, fortunately timed after I’d got through the problems just after Conor’s birth (May/June as he was coming up to 4 months) and there’s a lot that’s of interest there.

    Someone was told off for breastfeeding in our children’s library when I was there with the kids and my mum (was glad I’d just fed Conor in the much friendlier children’s centre nearby).

    I was at university with Kate Garraway’s husband – I do have serious doubts about her taste in men.

  4. is that picture really true?

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