Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Breastfeeding is best so why deny the truth?

There's nothing like a debate about motherhood to get the knives out and the claws sharpened. Especially if we're talking about breastfeeding, the rights and wrongs of which are almost guaranteed to have mothers rolling around on the floor, pulling each other's hair. In a figurative sense, of course.

Now, preachy Lib Dem equalities minister Jo Swinson (below) – a new mother herself: her son was born just before Christmas, which makes her an instant expert – has dared to wade into the fight.

"There is, I think, far too much guilt generally in society around parenthood, about whether or not you breastfeed, or whether or not you bottle-feed," she says.

"We know the evidence is very strong in favour of breastfeeding and the benefits of that, but it shouldn't mean we make people feel bad if they can't do that for some reason."

Being made to feel bad is one of the worst things that can happen to you, according to the unspoken laws of modern society, on a par with being told you need to have your left leg amputated, or that you're being sent on a one-way flight to North Korea. It's because our self-esteem is so fragile.

If that gets damaged, we simply can't cope. We just shrivel up and expire, leaving nothing behind but a small puddle of tears. Mothers, in particular, will simply not tolerate anybody making them feel bad.

They'll come at you with a pitchfork – well, the country ones will, the city ones will probably just chuck an iPhone at your head, or scald you with their takeaway skinny latte – if you dare to say anything that challenges their own fiercely-held beliefs, choices and decisions. They're allergic to even the merest hint of guilt in the air, even if it's self-imposed.

I discovered this when I ventured to suggest, in this newspaper, that it isn't great for young children to be dumped in full-time daycare before they're knee-high to a grasshopper and that mothers – and fathers, I emphasise – who have the luxury of choice in these matters might do well to rethink their career plans.

The response was ferocious. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I wasn't prepared to support mothers in every possible choice they make I was to (a) clear off; (b) get a proper job; and (c) stop masquerading as a feminist. If you can't say anything nice, I was schoolmarmishly informed, then you had better say nothing at all.

You see? It's practically the 11th modern commandment: nobody will be allowed to say anything that makes someone else feel bad. At this rate, giving your opinion, or even stating a fact that somebody doesn't want to hear, will soon be described as a hate crime, prosecutable by law.

In the case of breastfeeding, the truth, as Jo Swinson herself acknowledges, is that breast is undoubtedly best.

Unicef research shows that it reduces cases of breast cancer in mothers and protects babies from all kinds of nasty bugs and infections.

It may well make youngsters smarter. (And, as a breastfeeding veteran and enthusiast, I can vouch for the delicious satisfaction of feeding your own child.)

Let's nail another comfortable myth while we're at it: the actual number of women physically incapable of breastfeeding is minuscule. We can almost all do it.

Yet the UK as a whole has some of the lowest breast-feeding rates in Europe, with only 24% of mothers in England exclusively breastfeeding at six weeks and a paltry and pathetic 13% – why am I not surprised? – doing so in Northern Ireland.

But many women who have chosen not to breastfeed – and it is, of course, entirely their choice – don't like to be told any of this. Why? Yes, you guessed it: because it makes them feel bad.

So what we're being asked to do is hush-up the reality of the situation, in order to protect the delicate sensibilities of the vast numbers of bottle-feeding mothers.

This has consequences that go far beyond the breast-v-bottle debate.

If pandering to people's feelings becomes more important than stating facts, if emotion is consistently prioritised over reason, then we really are in trouble. We need to learn to handle the truth without dissolving into tears, or throwing a silly tantrum, and then make our choices accordingly.

We're not babies, so we shouldn't behave like them – or expect to be treated like them.

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