If you spend any time on the internet, you probably know that last week was World Breastfeeding Week. People all over the world celebrated breastfeeding, nonprofits and government agencies spent thousands (if not millions) of dollars in advertisements and awareness campaigns to promote breastfeeding, and hundreds of articles about the benefits of breastfeeding were published and shared on social media. Sounds awesome, right? Eh, not really, Honestly, there are more than a few reasons why I am so glad World Breastfeeding Week is over.
Now, hear me out. It's not that I don't love breastfeeding, because I absolutely do. I loved breastfeeding my kids, and as an infant feeding advocate I spend a ton of time helping people who want to breastfeed/chestfeed do so safely. But as a feminist, a public health professional, and a mom, I just can't get behind World Breastfeeding Week. I think it focuses a ton of time, energy, and money in the wrong places, it's not inclusive, it's anti-feminist, and it's ableist (just to name a few reasons).
According to their website, World Breastfeeding Week is "a showcase of the efforts made to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding." But if you read more, they claim that breastfeeding has the potential to cure everything from hunger and poverty to global climate change and discrimination against women. At the same time, the site goes on to blame formula as a contributor to those aforementioned problems. Which leaves me thinking, seriously? Formula saves lives, too, and while I think breast milk is great and an awesome, healthy food for babies, these claims aren't exactly factual. Or fair.
After 25 years of World Breastfeeding Week, in many parts of the world, breastfeeding is now a matter of choice, privilege, and ability, not awareness. It's time we change the way we talk about infant feeding to be inclusive and to prioritize health, feminism, choice, and support for all types of families and how they feed their babies. Fed is best, and this is why:
Because Breastfeeding Hurts
This year's World Breastfeeding Week was the first time in eight years I didn't avoid Facebook for the entire week so I didn't have to see the endless posts about "breast is best." Unfortunately, some breastfeeding advocates can't seem to celebrate breastfeeding without bullying formula-feeding moms in the process. It can be incredibly triggering for moms who struggled with breastfeeding, or parents who choose to or need to use formula for whatever reason. In the past week I have been asked to explain why I'm not breastfeeding and have been told, repeatedly, that my undersupply isn't real and that I just need more support or education, which isn't even remotely true and so invalidating.
Because It's Not Inclusive
For those of us in the United States (and many other countries), we're lucky that there is more than one way to safely feed babies. Whether you breastfeed, formula feed, exclusively pump, tube feed, or a combination of equally valid feeding methods, you deserve support and recognition for how you feed your babies. Besides no matter how you feed your baby, in a few years they'll probably be fighting over a gummy bear they found on the floor.
Because It Can Promote Pseudoscience
During World Breastfeeding Week, every article or post I read starts with the premise that breastfeeding is awesome. That's fine, and if they stopped there I would be alright with it. After all, I agree. But then the pseudoscience usually starts, and while not all articles are created equal, far too many share made up statistics and poorly conducted studies about the dangers of formula. As a mom with undersupply, and a career in public health, it seriously makes me cringe to hear professionals cite made-up statistics, like "only 5 percent of women can't breastfeed." It's bullsh*t, and it hurts moms and babies.
Because Breastfeeding Doesn't Need Awareness
I can't go a day without hearing or seeing "breast is best." I mean it's on the freaking formula can. When you have a baby, it's in every doctor's office waiting room. Then, when you deliver, the hospital staff tells you about breastfeeding every time they see you. In my experience, this happens even if you tell them you are formula-feeding or have a medical need to use formula. The reasons why people can't or choose not to breastfeed are many and complex. It's not a matter of awareness.
Because It's Patronizing
Almost every report about World Breastfeeding Week starts with statistics about the abysmal number of people who don't breastfeed their babies at birth, for six months or for two years. It's super patronizing when you think about breastfeeding as a choice. World Breastfeeding Week shouldn't be about shaming people who can't or choose not to breastfeed, or even about improving breastfeeding rates. It should be about the ability to fund research and promote policies to fix the structural, physical, medical, and societal barriers people face when they want to breastfeed.
Because It's All Talk & No Action
World Breastfeeding Week has been around for 25 years, and we still haven't made any substantial research gains in solving lactation or milk transfer issues, or political gains around paid parental leave. The slogan "breast is best" is as ubiquitous as the pink ribbons people wear in October for breast cancer awareness, except in the past 20 years, breast cancer research has made real gains in reducing mortality and morbidity and increasing screening rates, while breastfeeding advocates are still claiming that everyone can and should breastfeed. It's more than a little ridiculous.
Because It's Anti-Feminist
World Breastfeeding Week claims to support women's rights. Personally, though, I don't believe that's entirely accurate. According to their website, "Breastfeeding is the great equalizer, giving every child a fair and best start in life. Breastfeeding is uniquely a right of women, and they should be supported by society to breastfeed optimally. The breastfeeding experience can be satisfying and empowering for the mother as she is in control of how she feeds her baby."
Yes, anyone who wants to breastfeed deserves support. Absolutely and without a doubt. But people who choose not to breastfeed/chestfeed (or can't, for a variety of reasons) deserve support, too. No one should be forced or pressured to use their body to feed their baby. Breastfeeding isn't always a choice, but if and when it is, it's someone else's body we are talking about. Besides, other healthy options are available, too, so let's stop shaming people who don't breastfeed. It's totally not feminist.
Also, my feminism is intersectional. It's 2017. It's time to recognize that people who don't identify as women breastfeed/chestfeed, too.
Because It's Ableist
The ability to breastfeed is, in my opinion, a weird thing to be proud of. I mean, it's pretty ableist to celebrate having a physical ability. Like, we don't have a week to celebrate being able to get pregnant without assistance or carrying babies to term. That would be totally inappropriate, right? I'm not saying that breastfeeding isn't hard, because it is, but feeding babies is hard period and no matter how you do it. Being able to breastfeed is part choice, part ability, part health, part physiology, part luck, part circumstances, part desire, part financial ability, part education, part access to health care, part having a supportive workplace or being able to stay home, part having a healthy baby, part being mentally healthy, part social support, part having time, part family make-up, part personal feelings, and so many other working parts that all must come and work together.
Instead, how about we celebrate infant feeding in general, and leave ability out of it?
Because There's So Much More To Being A Parent
How you feed your baby is so small in the grand scheme of parenthood. Frankly, I want a "sleep deprivation awareness" week and a "you survived potty training" week and a "summer vacation is finally over" week. Oh, and don't forget a "you have one kid in diapers and another in puberty" week (the struggle is real, you guys). How about just an international "parenting is freaking hard" week?
Because There's More Important Work To Be Done
The issues that World Breastfeeding Week claims to stand for are huge. Of course, we need to support real efforts to reduce infant mortality, reduce climate change, end poverty, and achieve equality for all. I just don't think promoting breastfeeding will do those things by itself. Instead of demonizing formula as unsafe, how about spending money to distribute water filters and make water quality better for people in places where it's unsafe? Or to improve infant formula to make it even more awesome than it already is. Instead of just passing laws that support pumping at work (when it often is still freaking hard, if not impossible, even if you have a place and unpaid breaks to pump), how about we also fight for paid parental leave?
Instead of claiming that everyone can breastfeed, how about investing money in lactation research to address the problems of undersupply, and breastfeeding pain, which are two key reasons why people stop breastfeeding before they want to. Maybe the real way to achieve these goals is to have a World Safe Infant Feeding Week instead, understanding that breast is best is a tired refrain and needs to be replaced with something more inclusive.