Before baby P. was born, I was positive that I was going to exclusively breast-feed him. I had heard rumours that it might be difficult, so I read everything on the subject that I could get my hands on. I silently judged mothers who gave up on breastfeeding, thinking them to be lazy or uncommitted. In my prenatal class, we devoted an entire evening to the subject of breast-feeding. The doula who taught the class told us that the culture of breast-feeding had been lost over the past couple of generations, but that almost every woman could breast-feed if she wanted. I left that class more determined and proud of myself than ever. I was going to be one of a new generation of women bringing natural feeding back into our culture.
I was so fanatic about it that we didn’t even have any bottles in the house when P. was born. I had given my information to Nestlé because they were giving away a free diaper bag and changing mat (along, of course, with a couple of cans of powdered formula). I almost threw the formula away, but decided to keep it in the extremely unlikely event that we would need it.
In my inaugural post on this blog, I detailed my struggle with breast-feeding and eventual transition to exclusively formula-feeding. The guilt and shame that came along with that process is something that is difficult for me to articulate, and painful to remember. I used to avoid feeding my baby in public at all costs. I would feed him immediately before we left the house, then frantically try to get all of my running around done within an hour so that I could get back home in time to feed him again. If I did have to feed him while we were out, I did so in my car. When I got together with other moms and they discussed their breast-feeding woes, I would nod along in agreement-partially because I understood, but also because I wanted them to think that I was breast-feeding too. I felt so ashamed, and so alone.
Thank goodness we have Suzanne Barston and her book Bottled Up. She, too, is a mom who struggled with breast-feeding and the guilt that came with feeding her baby formula, and she decided to do something about it. Her book is a thorough examination of the current culture in North America that teaches moms that “breast is best” and anything else is at best sub par, and at worst dangerous. She argues that how we feed our babies has become more than just a matter of nutrition, but rather a moral compass and measure of our worth as mothers.
The book starts with a history of infant feeding including the evolution of formula, the sometimes shameful tactics of formula companies, and examples of over-zealous marketing of the pro-breast-feeding agenda. She moves into a discussion on the inability of some women to be able to breast-feed (for a variety of reasons), refuting the argument that “every woman can breast-feed”. There is a significant section of the book devoted to the heart-breaking dilemma faced by mothers with post-partum depression and other mood disorders who must choose between taking medication for their mental health and doing (what they’re told is) the best for their baby.
There is an entire chapter written on the challenge faced by working American mothers who must pump at work in order to meet the recommendation set out by the WHO to exclusively breast-feed for six months. This is obviously less of an issue here in Canada, where we receive one full year of maternity leave, but not all Canadian women are able or want to be out of the work force for a year.
Finally, she takes an in-depth look at the statistics that are commonly touted as proof that breast-feeding is nutritionally superior to formula-feeding. It would seem that in many cases the statistics are shaky or exaggerated, which can lead us to conclude that perhaps breast milk isn’t really the “liquid gold” cure-all that we’ve been lead to believe, or at the very least that more research is needed.
Her book is neither pro-formula nor anti-breast. It is simply an analysis of the messages that new mothers are receiving, at a time when they are at their most vulnerable, that overemphasize the notion that the manner in which we feed our babies is the foremost measure of how good we are as mothers. We’re left asking the same question that I asked myself as a new mom: is breast-feeding really so much better for our babies that it’s worth the stress and guilt and pain that some women put themselves through?
I would strongly recommend that mothers-to-be read this book, along with (obviously) women who hoped to breast-feed but were not able to. I also would like to see this as recommended reading for health-care providers like OB’s, midwives, and doulas.
If you are a woman who is struggling with any of the issues raised in this post, you might want to check out Barston’s website, Fearless Formula Feeder. If there was ever any doubt that a book or website like this is needed, it is put to rest once you see the overwhelming community of women coming together to support each other in their feeding choices.