Supporting Breastfeeding Families: Systemic failure and the myth of “choice”

Here’s the deal: we can talk all we want about the benefits of breastfeeding (which is actually just “normal”) and the risks of formula feeding. Parents get it. Parents want what is best for their kids. But until culture/society/the state/institutions/systems/the media catch up and create policies and support systems to facilitate breastfeeding, we will continue to have abysmally low breastfeeding initiation and duration rates. The “mommy wars” are a straw-woman, a bullshit ruse that distracts and takes energy away from what we could ACTUALLY be doing to support families.

I’m just so sick of how the low-hanging fruit of the “debate” around breastfeeding gets played out. A good example of this is in the media frenzy surrounding the NYC decision to not hand out free formula in hospitals. And I’m sick of the appropriation of feminist language around “choice” by those who can’t see beyond individual decisions regarding infant feeding. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is a systemic issue, but it seems that it’s just easier and sexier to play women against each other.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I don’t give a flying f— how individual families choose to feed their babies. It’s none of my business and frankly parents are judged enough. But as a lactation consultant, it’s my job to support families who want to breastfeed and to fight for the change needed to make that happen for more and more families, which includes things like good parental leave, upholding the WHO code, promoting the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, ensuring accessible, appropriate and competent support. That’s where the real work is, not in giving the side-eye to a woman bottle feeding her kid on the subway. I see how the system fails families EVERYDAY. Anyone who does this works sees it too (I hope).

I want to add (and I’m on a bit of a tear hear…) that without systemic change, the idea of “choice” is meaningless. If there is no paid maternity leave (as in the US), what is the “choice”? If a woman, after being in agony for weeks with┬ásore, cracked and bleeding nipples, is being told that she has a “perfect latch”, what is the “choice” (this is my own personal pet peeve). What is the “choice” when a baby is failing to thrive and the only solution offered by the health care system is to supplement by bottle, without offering competent breastfeeding help? What is the “choice” when families are given stupid, outdated breastfeeding information with a cupboard full of free formula (in violation of the WHO code) and have a screaming baby at 3am?