Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Mothers all, why can't we be friends?

Here it is again - World Breastfeeding Week. And with it, the usual multiple sessions of synchronised breastfeeding with the aim to break 'records', with the press dutifully reporting on the goodness of breastmilk and breastfeeding mothers etc.

In AP, the spotlight is turned on the politics of breastfeeding. Always very good to discuss this because it creates awareness that breastfeeding is not just about infant nutrition. It is a minefield of political correctness, sensitivity, issues of choice etc. It can, just like debates on abortion and vaccination, turn emotional very quickly as every mother seeks to defend her choices and by extension, her parenting choices and herself as a person.

Inevitably there will be mothers who formula-feed who will step in and say (sometimes politely, sometimes not) that women should be left to their choices and be respected for those and to say that breastfeeding women should not be so strident and impose their views and values on the non-breastfeeding mothers. Look deeper and it is always an issue of guilt that rears its ugly head. Guilt and blame. Formula-feeding mothers defend their choices and 'blame' breastfeeding mothers for stirring up a hornet's nest and failing to be sensitive to "other choices". Or blame the lactivists for "making them feel bad".

I know. I have been there done that remember? Those lines are familiar to me. God knows I've done my share of spouting those. I've been on the other side of the fence too.

But my path has gone down a different route. So here's what I think today:

I agree that women need to be supported in their choices. No one should throw stones at any mother's choice in how she chooses to bring up her children.

Having said that, I believe that guilt is a personal issue and should not be confused with the public agenda where politics, education, big money all swirl around what should have been a very private decision - how a mother chooses to feed her child. The waters are muddy and murky.

I look at it this way:

The playing field in terms of information dissemination and public perception about breastfeeding and formula-feeding is not quite a level one. Many medical professionals are not informed about how to support breastfeeding, many are not trained to spot problems and trouble-shoot appropriately. Many clinics are known to be pillow friends with Big Pharma and the many handouts that Big Pharma lavishes. So getting formula in discharge packs, getting formula samples thrust in one's nose in the clinic etc is par for the course.

So unless a woman is informed enough, determined enough, has enough support, you'd find that more often than not, she is likely to cave.

You can't blame a woman for being confused. There are just so many conflicting messages out there.

One on hand, breastfeeding is believed to be 'natural', so the underlying perception is: what's so difficult about that? But the truth quickly comes out once the baby is born - that the art of breastfeeding has to be taught and learned.

Around her, everyone says: breast is best. But these people do not walk the talk. There is a lack of support from doctors and medical professionals who know pathetically little about breastfeeding and how to trouble-shoot common breastfeeding problems. There is a lack of support from employers who do not believe in giving breastfeeding breaks or provide adequate facilities for a mother to pump milk. There are families who believe that formula is less of a hassle than breastfeeding (never mind the paraphernalia of bottle-feeding, the sterilisation, the expense etc).

The subtle message coming across is more like: okay, breastfeed if you can, but don't ask for help. And the next line comes: Breast is best but if you can't, formula is just as good. Just look at all the formula ads out there that tout DHA, AA and all matter of additives to enhance brain development.

The average woman out there does not know the minefield she is stepping in. She does not know that formula companies come with slick, gi-normous marketing machines that pump out seductive ads that tell half-truths. She does not know that her doctor does not know enough. She does not know that half the time, clinics and their nurses are firm pillow friends with Big Pharma who constantly lavish them with attention and freebies. She goes home with a bag of formula samples given by the hospitals and finds herself with a baby who needs to nurse round the clock, with breasts that alternate between being rock-hard and drippy, she is sleep-deprived and she may or may not be ambushed by 'well-meaning though poorly-informed' confinement nannies and mothers-in law who tell her she has no milk.

What's a woman to do?

If formula companies are appropriately muzzled, medical professionals were trained in lactation issues, and can advise their patients appropriately, if adequate support is given by hospitals (to room-in, LC services readily available etc), if hospitals care enough about breastfeeding to at least seek the BFHI (Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative), if the government is bold enough to legislate compulsory nursing breaks and facilities, if employers and families see the value in breastfeeding and are willing to support a woman in nursing her baby - then, and only then, will the playing field be level.

For now, it is not good enough to keep spouting platitudes like "breast is best" without walking the talk - ie giving support and information when needed. If the government and the doctors and the medical profession say that breast is best - well, they should be prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

Thats why I say no point with the annual WBW brouhaha, no point in spending limited funds on pins and other marketing thingamajigs. No point with multiple sessions of synchronised nursing etc. All this excitement will disappear in one week, when the newsink has dried and the press look to other sources for stories. And for the rest of the year, all remains quiet on the breastfeeding front. Solid information, sound policies and an extensive support network would be more valuable gifts to nursing women and their babies in the long run.

I hope women, instead of finger-pointing and maligning each other's choices, come together to make a difference. Formula-feeding mothers and breast-feeding mothers should realise their common enemy for who it is - the wishy-washy sales talk and the boldly blatant machinations of formula companies' PR machines.

Because only when the truth is out can women make informed choices - to breastfeed or not, and if they choose to formula-feed, to understand the risks involved and to demand clearer and more accurate information from formula companies without all the smoke and mirrors.

Only then, if a woman still decides to make breastfeeding a 'lifestyle' choice, she should not be stopped or denigrated. She has made an informed choice. And when she makes such a choice, any semblance of guilt will finally disappear from the equation and any hint of a divide between 'good' and 'bad' mothering be laid to rest.

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