In response to Antonina Mamzenko's blog How Do You Feed Your Baby? Does It Matter? I say to her - it matters for so many reasons. I'm not talking about the well documented health benefits of breastfeeding for babies. Or the health benefits for mothers too. These are all important but there are other subtle but significant reasons that infant feeding matters.
It matters because eight out of 10 mothers stop breastfeeding before they want to. Reasons range from lack of support or good advice to feeling uncomfortable feeding in public. This is a missed opportunity for women to experience emotional health benefits and empowerment from breastfeeding. From my own experience, once I got through the first few hellish weeks of breastfeeding which I found exhausting, painful and emotional, the rewards were worth it. It's a hard thing to explain but breastfeeding has given me a confidence about my body and self-efficacy that nothing else compares to.
It matters because breastfeeding can be a healing experience for mothers and their babies. One mother found solace in breastfeeding to lessen the heartbreak of having a baby with kidney disease. She wrote about her experience in the La Leche League publication Breastfeeding Matters. "I can comfort him through painful blood tests, I can keep him calm in bright, strange smelling hospitals, I can let him turn his face to my body and block out the medical intrusions that are sadly a part of his life."
It matters because we have a distorted view of the function of breasts in our society and the only way to fix it is by talking about and normalising breastfeeding; starting with education in schools and healthy representation of breastfeeding in film, television, books and the media.
It matters because mothers are taking to toilet cubicles to breastfeed because they feel so uncomfortable feeding in public; as is brilliantly expressed in Hollie McNish's spoken word poem Embarrassed, watched by over a million people. It matters because we are made to feel that breastfeeding in public is so inappropriate that we have to have special 'breastfeeding friendly' cafés where we can feel OK about feeding our babies as and when they need milk.
It matters because if breastfeeding rates continue to decline, we will lose the collective breastfeeding knowledge and experience of mothers, grandmothers, health professionals and breastfeeding counsellors.
As Mamzenko points out, it's not right that mothers experience such pressure and judgement when it comes to infant feeding choices. But the answer is not to say it doesn't matter how mothers feed their babies. That is to give up on women and babies and serves only to cloud the big issue. The vast majority of mothers do want to breastfeed and we are failing them with lack of support and the many other barriers that UNICEF have identified in their Government call to action.
Mamzenko was right when she said what we're doing at the moment isn't working. I won't pretend to have a solution but I'm pretty sure progress starts with simply saying this: how we feed our babies matters.