Who is the Monster Here?

Have you ever wondered why those who wish to promote breastfeeding spend so much energy on the formula industry?

Breastfeeding advocates tell us that all women really want to breastfeed. They tell us that breastfeeding is so beneficial it will address health inequalities, it will foster beautiful mother-baby bonding, it can tackle racism and environmental concerns and it will even create a more peaceful society. It’s so good! Why, oh why, don’t more women do it?

However, breastfeeding advocates have to keep women on side, so they are at pains to stress that they are not judging women who couldn’t breastfeed or who decided they would rather use formula. That would turn their targets against them. Then terrible things happen, you know; terrible things like…well, us.

No. It’s far better to have a nameless, faceless villain, whose track record on ethical practice is at least a little dubious. It’s much easier to look like the good guys, fighting the good fight against the onslaught of a powerful profit-driven industry. And so all evil, badness, failure and problems in the world of infant feeding are projected onto the faceless and already tarnished image of the formula industry.

Except that reliance on breastfeeding has never been sufficient to meet the needs of all babies. The quest to find a suitable substitute was originally a humanitarian one. Cooperation between the food industry and physicians led to improvements in nutritional composition and the introduction of pasteurisation, which has resulted in formula milk being a safe and reliable way to feed babies today.

While breastfeeding advocates insist that the reason many women don’t breastfeed is because of underhand marketing tactics by the formula industry and a ‘lack of support’ for breastfeeding, women say they stop breastfeeding because of problems with pain, milk supply and latching. Would more investment in breastfeeding support lead to improvements in any of these problems? We doubt it. We cannot find any good evidence for what would help to prevent or resolve the problems many women encounter when breastfeeding. What is called ‘breastfeeding support’ seems mostly to be behaviour-focused interventions that use peer support/pressure and ‘encouragement’ to breastfeed, as well as railing against the faceless bad boys of the formula industry. And as you can see, the response of the formula industry has been a bit…wimpy.

But a psychologist has informed us that where there is projection, there is denial. So, with all the focus on the evils of the formula industry, what are we denying? What are we avoiding looking at?

We think it is the failure of breastfeeding advocates to offer meaningful solutions to common breastfeeding problems. It is also the staggering increase in babies readmitted to hospital with conditions associated with insufficient milk intake, since policies were introduced to restrict formula provision in hospitals to ‘protect breastfeeding’. And we suggest it is the twisted science and evidence that healthcare professionals use to coerce and manipulate women’s desires and decisions about how to feed their babies.

Have you noticed that the entire Lancet 2023 breastfeeding series isn’t about breastfeeding at all? It is about the formula industry and how bad it is. How convenient. That way nobody looks at what 40 years of breastfeeding advocacy has achieved (or not achieved): It hasn’t helped women to breastfeed more comfortably or sustainably; it hasn’t led to improvements in health (quite the opposite – it would appear to have resulted in more babies becoming unwell due to insufficient milk intake in the earliest days of life); and it hasn’t led to better mother-baby bonding or improved relationships, in fact it has created an acrimonious atmosphere of breast versus formula, with women caught in the middle of a manufactured war with the formula industry.

Meanwhile, families are simply trying to feed our babies. That’s it. Ordinary, simple, not revolutionary or world changing…just feed our babies. When it comes to infant feeding, feeding babies safely, comfortably and sustainably is enough.

So, please get out of our family lives and off our breasts. Infant feeding is not the arena in which to play heroes or saviours. It is not the arena in which to address health inequalities, racism or climate change.

Look in the mirror. You have become the monsters you so despise.

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’

– Friedrich Nietzsche

This blog was adapted from a Twitter thread.

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