My over-riding sensation was how very broken our culture must be for me to be seeing these headlines. What kind of culture do we live in where the RCM felt a need to tell midwives not to shame mothers? What kind of culture do we live in where the media are allowed to take one sentence from a large general document and turn it into a massive assault on both midwives and breastfeeding advocates, without any concern for them or the mothers who now feel pressured and didn't before?
The scale of the problem
As you might be able to tell, I can see a lot of things that are symptoms of a much bigger problem here. Let me describe to you how this all works and why it is so serious. Don't worry - I am not going to leave it there. I want you to know there is a solution, if we stand up and make it happen.
The problem is that we live in a culture where breastfeeding is described as best and championed as something women "should" achieve BUT is not supported by the public, professionals or the government. This problem leads to a culture where women feel shamed for their choice to bottle feed, shamed for their choice to breastfeed, shamed if we try to breastfeed and "fail", and shamed for the act of breastfeeding both in public and in their own homes. This situation is broken.
There should be no call whatsoever for anyone to ever need to tell a clinical professional not to shame their patient. I mean, is that really necessary? Let's all stop and agree that shaming anyone's choices is completely unprofessional and shows a lack of humanity. No arguments.
And I think the way midwives (and breastfeeding advocates) have been portrayed today is unfair. I think they have been shown as bullies by the media and they are not. Yes, I think sometimes women feel a lot fo pressure to breastfeed in our society and, during the times when midwives are giving information about breastfeeding, this pressure can feel overwhelming. But is this the fault of the midwife? Although I am sure there has been the occasion when midwives (and others) have taken their passion too far (and I hope that this document may go some way in reminding those few practitioners that women's choices must always be respected), for the vast majority they only want to inform women so they can make their choice powerfully.
Back to the media. What happened today was that the RCM published a position statement, one sentence of which stated "If, after being given appropriate information, advice and support on breastfeeding, a woman chooses not to do so, or to give formula as well as breastfeeding, her choice must be respected". Now to me, this isn't really a change in position, and it certainly did not require the media headlines we have had today:
"Bottle feeding mothers must now be respected"
"Bottle feeding babies is a woman's right - midwives told"
"Midwives ordered not to judge new mothers"
"Midwives should no longer pressure new mums into breastfeeding"
These headlines have, and were designed to, create a storm across social media. We are supposed to now argue about women's rights, as if we don't all agree. We are supposed to argue about whether bottle or breast is best, as if there is one right answer for everyone. And we are supposed to be angry and upset or feel validated or vindicated. Why? Because it makes the media a lot of money.
I also sincerely hope that I am wrong in thinking that the RCM are also a little culpable here. Last year they voted to retain a situation in which they receive funding from formula companies, which leads me to assume that a statement like this being spread across the media in a biased way, would sincerely benefit not only the media but also both formula companies and therefore the RCM financially.
Can you see why it is so broken? They all profit from our distress - all of our distress as women and families. All except the poor midwives who are being called out as bullies when all they ever wanted was to advocate for women and babies in the way they can manage, with the resources they are given by our government.
We need to actually change our culture
Problem 1: We lead busy, disconnected lives (on the whole)
In our culture, we are expected to all work, to work hard and to work really soon after we have a baby. Maternity pay stops at nine months and many mothers go back to work much sooner than this. My maternity leave over 4 children ranged from 2 weeks to 9 months. If our babies are attached to us almost constantly in the first 4 months and only gradually move away from this over the first two years, how exactly are we supposed to "have it all"? Instead our culture tells us that we must detach our babies as fast as possible so we can live the life that is expected of us and that we believe that we want (because culture is built into us).
We are also pretty disconnected from each other, so learning about infant feeding or parenting in general is a lot trickier than it used to be, and managing it without a tribe or village around is near impossible,
Problem 2. The government wants your money
Guess what. The government flipping love this culture. They made it. Get out to work and pay your taxes, whilst spending ALL your hard earned money on childcare and therefore adding to the taxes of child carers and holding up our economy. Sounds great to us.
Problem 3. The government thinks only in the short term
Now government policy only really cares about re-election. This means that seeing past results in 4 or 5 year stints is unlikely. Therefore, when we tell the government that REAL action to improve breastfeeding success rates, not just the kind that shames women, will save the NHS millions over the next 30 years, they genuinely don't care. It is utterly logical and a financially sound investment to spend the money to implement the solutions (below) that are proven to work, by the way. It doesn't happen because it is too long term, planning past their life-span as a government.
Problem 4. The media wants your money
I have covered this above and won't repeat myself. They live and breathe by our arguments, our distress and their coverage, no matter how biased or untruthful, and we buy it.
Problem 5. Formula companies want your money
I know people don't love when I rant about formula companies but I don't care. I love formula - it saves babies. But I hate formula companies because they exploit parents and purposefully use practices that endanger babies' lives. They are unethical and they only care about profit margins. They will do or say anything to get you to buy their product.
But how can this change?
1. Respect and value parents and babies equally
How about we live in a culture where women's rights go without saying? A society in which we don't need to be reminded that women have rights over their bodies.
How about we live in a culture that values the role of partners and fathers in ensuring a healthy family and that the rights of that family and its members are respected and protected. Where society supports partners to be present in the home for a longer period of time, taking pressure off new mothers and advocating for their family. Simple: provide much longer paid paternity leave.
How about we live in a culture that sees babies and children as human beings, who also have rights. Equal rights. A society that inherently considers what is best for the baby in the short and long term in equal proportion to considering the rights of parents.
*Unfortunately it isn't that simple to solve the problem in our society that prevents women and children having all the rights they deserve, but change is happening and we keep working.
2. Unbiased health professionals
How about we live in a culture in which it is not acceptable for health professionals to be inherently biased against what is healthy due to the nature of their funding. Seriously. I cannot stress this enough. Simple: let's make it illegal.
3. Educated health professionals
How about we live in a culture in which health professionals are fully educated in supporting the mode of infant feeding that has the most health benefits overall in each given situation. A society in which any minor problem with breastfeeding is not automatically determined a failure of the woman or of breastfeeding as an activity. Where formula feeding is understood as a necessary alternative for some parents. Simple: Make lactation training and education mandatory for all Paediatricians, GPs, midwives and health visitors, and provide a team of infant feeding experts into every community to support parents with their choices.
4. Educated parents
How about we live in a society where, when we are becoming parents, we already have lots of knowledge about birth, parenting, infant feeding, and how to understand research and evidence. A society in which we, as parents, are less likely to have our power taken away from us when we are vulnerable, and are more capable of making our own choices without other's influence as a factor. Simple: Teach teenagers about all aspects of becoming a parent, properly, in schools.
5. No advertising or promotion
How about we live in a culture where the choices we make aren't influenced by corporations. A society that deems it unacceptable for vulnerable parents who need to use formula as an alternative to pay a higher price for their advertising. A culture where it's unacceptable for companies to subtly undermine a woman's belief in her body. Simple: Ban all advertising of infant formula - a strategy that has improved outcomes for mothers and babies in other countries.
"Why does it matter how people feed their babies?" I hear you cry
It matters because it save lives. I will say it again:
Breastfeeding saves hundreds of thousands of lives, for mothers, and babies now and in the future.
Formula saves hundreds of lives when it is needed. SO IT REALLY MATTERS!
To ensure our babies (and mothers) get the best possible lives (which is clearly what we all want) we need a culture that puts the needs of the mother and baby on equal footing to each other, and ahead of the needs of the government, the workplace or profits. If the mother cannot, or does not want to breastfeed, for medical reasons or emotional reasons, then that is balanced against the need of the baby to be fed, and to be fed the most suitable "food". Sometimes breast isn't the right choice for some people, and it must absolutely go without saying that a woman has the right to choose what she does with her body. BUT if we openly and knowingly choose to sustain a culture in which women choose not to breastfeed because it isn't the done thing, where women feel ashamed no matter how they feed their baby, we need to think about the fact that we have a broken culture.
By Emily Fackrell - Managing Director of CalmFamily