Addressing the 'breastfeeding debate'
Breastfeeding is in the news again. Jamie Oliver announced recently that he will turn his efforts to encouraging women to breastfeed. He is concerned that, in the UK, we have the worst breastfeeding record in the world.
In a report published earlier this year, the benefits of breastfeeding were noted. These include protection against childhood infections, increases in intelligence, and probable reductions in obesity and diabetes. For nursing women, it stated that breastfeeding gives protection against breast cancer and improves birth spacing, and it might also protect against ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes.
The messages about breastfeeding come through loud and clear, and have done for many years. As Katherine Jenkins stated in her interview in the Daily Mirror: "We all know the benefits of breastfeeding. But some people can’t, and they should not be made to feel bad about it." The backlash on Twitter against Jamie Oliver’s comments indicated he had touched a raw nerve. He was accused of ‘mansplaining’, lecturing, and was even asked to explain to a breast cancer survivor how breastfeeding is ‘easy’ and ‘natural’.
As someone who has worked extensively with expectant and new parents, I can state that breastfeeding is one of the issues that splits opinion right down the middle. Not only does it divide people's opinions, it also tends to polarise them. Feelings about breastfeeding tend to be passionately held. Many women are fierce proponents of breastfeeding; others claim it is disgusting to the extent of feeling phobic about it. It’s unclear whether these intense feelings relate more to the feeding or to the breasts, but in my experience the linking of the two is immensely powerful.
Partly, this may relate to our feelings of responsibility to feed our babies and the tragic consequences that could ensue if we do not. Our worth as mothers is partly judged on our ability to feed our infants. Shame and guilt can result from not doing so, to our own - and sometimes others’ - satisfaction. Parents feel immense pressure to do the right thing. The confusion which can ensue - not just about feeding, but all health advice during pregnancy - is wonderfully captured by the poet Hollie McNish, who often performs at UNICEF conferences to share her experiences.
Knowing the emotional intensity of the breastfeeding debate, it is with some trepidation that I forward my personal view.
Being a psychologist, I think there is something just as important as breastfeeding, and that is the relationship between a mother and her baby. A warm, loving relationship helps to build a strong, emotional foundation for the baby, and it needs to be balanced with the baby’s physical needs.
Babies thrive with calm, happy parents. All things being equal, breastfeeding is best if it can be achieved without the mother feeling pain, fear or upset. However, should these negative feelings arise, they can interfere with the nurturing a mum is able to give. I have seen women and their babies both in tears, having struggled too long with breastfeeding, and feeling completely deflated and depressed as a result. I wonder, then, if the struggle is always worth the prize; or whether, in getting too focused on the feeding method, we have lost sight of our foremost goal: to have a happy, healthy baby.
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