The Dutch airline KLM made the headlines recently after a flight attendant asked a mother who was breastfeeding her baby to cover up for other passengers’ comfort. We were heartened to see that British airlines, including British Airways and Easy Jet, have much more progressive policies, clearly stating that breastfeeding is welcome on board their flights.
We wrote to KLM requesting that it review and change its policy to ensure that parents feel comfortable breastfeeding or expressing milk on board its flights. Parents should be free to feed their babies without comment, judgement or harassment from others.
KLM’s policy rightly provoked immediate and robust objections. Yet every day in NHS postnatal wards and other family services, new parents who formula feed their babies are made to feel ashamed, uncomfortable and unwelcome. We do not see the same degree of objection on this issue, or such concern for the impact of this shaming on the wellbeing of these parents and their babies.
Examples of this undermining treatment include some services refusing to say the f-word, insisting instead on referring to ‘artificial milk’ or ‘artificial feeding’ in their information materials about infant feeding options. Parents consistently say that they find this language derogatory and shaming.
Parents of newborns who request formula in hospital frequently find their request denied unless the hospital staff have decided it is ‘clinically indicated’. This leaves stressed our new parents to find someone to go to the shop (often having to travel off the hospital site) to locate and buy formula to feed their new baby.
Walls of maternity units and children’s centres are lined with idealised pictures of breastfeeding and a glaring absence of any comparable imagery of bottle feeding. The message this conveys is clear: formula feeding is not fit for public view and families who nourish their babies with formula are not to be celebrated.
None of this is an accident. Most NHS maternity services have adopted the Baby Friendly Initiative, a programme designed to promote and increase breastfeeding rates. Under the NHS Long Term Plan, all hospitals must work towards Baby Friendly accreditation.
Baby Friendly UK’s guidelines state, for example, that, ‘There should be no images which idealise bottle feeding; images of bottles and teats should only be used to reinforce technical instructions.’
It should be no surprise, then, that research shows that mothers who formula feed experience high levels of shame related to their feeding method. Indeed, members of Infant Feeding Alliance have hidden formula cans in the recycling for fear the neighbours might see. We have disguised formula in bottles intended for pumped breastmilk. We have avoided formula feeding in public and we have felt judgement from some of the healthcare professionals responsible for supporting us in our babies’ earliest days. For some of us, these feelings of shame led to social isolation, undermined our self-confidence as parents and contributed to postnatal mental illness. As we have started to speak out, we are endlessly surprised by how common these experiences are.
We stand against infant feeding shaming in all its forms. That’s why, as an alliance of parents who fed our babies in a range of ways, we stand with others calling for KLM to change its policy on breastfeeding. It is also why, regardless of how we fed our own babies, we speak out and ask our health providers to talk openly and positively about all safe infant feeding methods. We ask them to have positive representations of bottle feeding, breastfeeding, chest-feeding, expressing breastmilk, formula milk and tube feeding on public display.
We invite anyone who cares about the emotional wellbeing of new parents to stand with us as we petition Baby Friendly UK to change its guidance and adopt a more compassionate, inclusive and respectful approach.