Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA
Are we making a free choice when deciding how we feed our babies?
A recent cover story in Time magazine challenged “The Goddess Myth.” The author claimed that mothers were being held to unrealistic standards regarding birth, breastfeeding, and parenting choices, and that we needed to be kind and respectful to mothers and the choices they make. Exclusive breastfeeding was seen as an unrealistic standard to which mothers should not be held.
I agree that we need to be kind to mothers who make different choices. My concern with this article, and the ensuing debate, is that many of the differences that arise surrounding birth, feeding, and parenting are not choices at all. There are larger systemic factors that strongly influence all of the above. That is the central premise of Amy Brown’s book, Breastfeeding Uncovered: Who really decides how we feed our babies?
On the one hand, new mothers are told, half paternalistically, half patronizingly, that breastfeeding is extremely important and they really must do it. This raised mothers’ expectations, desire, and to some extent, anxiety about breastfeeding. But on the other hand, society simultaneously places numerous barriers in mothers’ way. Although society tells women that they must breastfeed, insinuating that it is a simple and straightforward choice, it sets them up to fail at the same time. Although breastfeeding is superficially welcome, it really isn’t and women can face many psychological, social, and political challenges when it comes to feeding their babies (p.19).
I first met Amy Brown when she introduced herself at the UNICEF UK conference in 2016. As a psychologist interested in breastfeeding, she was anxious to meet a fellow traveler. I was struck by her passion and the way she cheerfully engaged breastfeeding opponents on social media. She represents the next generation of breastfeeding supporters. I attended her book launch later that week in London.
Amy provides a wealth of information about all the factors that can undermine breastfeeding. Some will be familiar, others less so. She details many of the psychological constructs that underlie feeding decisions, and describes her own research and that of her students. Her writing style is engaging and funny. I particularly like the bit where she takes on several popular parenting books, including many self-proclaimed experts of infant sleep. Although the experiences she describes are primarily in the U.K., they are applicable to the U.S. too.
Subtle ways in which family members may try to support breastfeeding, while actually they undermine it.
- Your mother tells you that she fed you every four hours and you are fine.
- Your mother-in-law insists on holding the baby a little longer and not giving him back.
- Your partner wants to bond with the baby and sees feeding as the only way.
- You buy a book that tells you when babies should be fed (and it’s not now).
- You feel so exhausted your health visitor suggests that your partner does a feed.
- A mum at the baby clinic asks if your milk is enough because he’s feeding so much.
- Your friends without children want you to go out for a “break from the baby.”
In contrast, Amy proposes a model where friends and family actually support breastfeeding.
What if we lived in a society in which a mother’s job was to feed her baby when it needs feeding, and the rest of the world supported her doing that? What if:
- Rather than wanting to feed the baby himself, dad cooks a lovely meal for everyone (which kind of feeds the baby anyway)?
- Your mother passes the baby back to you and makes you a cup of tea (with biscuits)?
- Society just gets on with their coffee, cake and gossip, and doesn’t even notice a mother breastfeeding her baby as it’s so normal?
- Friends come round to the house, tidy up a bit and hold the sleeping baby for you, while you have a moment hands-free?
- Someone writes a parenting manual that simply says “feed and cuddle your baby whenever you both want. The end” (short book maybe, but priceless). (pp. 71–73).
This goes back to the larger question. How much choice does a mother really have when it comes to feeding her baby? Why do mothers get blamed for their feeding choices when their choices are shaped by these societal factors? According to Amy,
Mothering is the most powerful of all biological capacities and among the most disempowering of social experiences (p. 148).
I highly recommend this engaging book. You will learn a lot about what forces shape feeding choices, and can then help mothers avoid some of the cultural and societal minefields.