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Breastfeed or formula debate gives much food for thought

By Charlotte Faircloth

Published 13/06/2015

There has recently been more than the usual number of stories about infant feeding in the Press
There has recently been more than the usual number of stories about infant feeding in the Press

There has recently been more than the usual number of stories about infant feeding in the Press - an uproar about a model breastfeeding on the cover of Elle, women being asked to stop breastfeeding in shops, cafes and schools, sensationalist articles about women breastfeeding their five and six-year-olds.

There have also been stories about bottle-feeding mothers being made to feel inferior to breast-feeders and a backlash to the latest breastfeeding-selfie craze.

Clearly, the way women choose to feed their babies has gone way beyond a matter of personal choice. It's become a very heated pubic issue, loaded with moral judgment. Whether women do, or do not, breastfeed, they are forced to "account" for their infant feeding patterns. This takes place in a culture that, on the one hand, emphasises the importance of "breast is best" but, on the other, is very ambivalent about the public performance of an intimate activity.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this particularly virulent aspect of the mummy wars is the fact that it just won't die - time and again the same stories get recycled. But there are a couple of points worth reiterating here.

First, the assumption that how a woman feeds her baby in the early months will have life-long physical (and psychological) implications means that many women feel a huge sense of obligation to breastfeed (and therefore creating the two rather unappealing options of being smug or guilty).

In fact, in a developed country like the UK, while there is evidence that breastfeeding has some protective effects, these differences are typically overblown in the advice new parents receive, to be almost insignificant at an individual - as opposed to a population - level.

And second, infant feeding is very obviously not just a question of health and nutrition alone, but one which taps into deeply held ideas about good motherhood.

There's an idea that sacrifice on the part of mothers is to be celebrated and that any mother who does not "put her child first" (ie breastfeed for the recommended time) should be considered lacking.

This sort of reductive view of the mothering relationship is a dangerous one. We need to be careful not to make breastfeeding into another means by which to attack what a mother does with her body, her right alone.

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