Savage instinct: the breastfeeding debate
By Johana Hartwig
It has been over 15 years since I read Aldous Huxley’s futurist novel Brave New World, but I still remember the reaction of the honeymooning characters to seeing a woman on a ‘savage reservation’ breastfeeding.
Lenina was embarrassed, whilst Bernard was touched; these were the responses of two people stepping outside their sterile world.
Why am I using this example from a book written in 1931? Because it could be now; breastfeeding women today seem to shock people more than ever.
Breastfeeding reports have been coming in thick and fast, jostling for authority and contradicting one another.
Mothers, we are now told, should introduce solids at four months rather than six. The recent evidence published in the British Medical Journal has given way to articles such as the Guardian’s summarised by WVoN here.
These articles are placing breastfeeding in a negative light, insinuating that breastfeeding itself should be discouraged past four months, although babies still need milk up to the age of one.
Before I started breastfeeding I had not scoured articles for the latest advice, I just knew that I wanted to breastfeed. After the birth, through a haze of sleep deprivation and emotional and physical ache, I continued to follow my intuition.
My son is now almost 2 and I still breastfeed him. Some people think that breastfeeding is acceptable up to six months, but after that support usually wanes. So why do I still do it?
Well, partly because it is part of our bedtime routine, it calms him and sends him gently off into a deep sleep. Partly because I don’t want to give him animal milk, be it cow, sheep or goat, when I can still give him my own. But mainly because my instincts tell me that it’s the right thing to do.
The issue of breastfeeding is very emotive, not least because it can be such a difficult thing to do, harder even than childbirth.
In the early days my baby wouldn’t latch on, wouldn’t wake up to feed and my breasts became engorged. But with the help of a wonderful midwife things got easier. Eventually ‘easier’ turned to ‘easy’ and my son began to thrive on my milk. I was joyful.
A few months in and my fuzzy happiness was knocked when I tried to discreetly breastfeed my son in a London restaurant and attracted the disapproving whispers of a nearby group of young women.
At this point I realised that western women who choose to breastfeed are often considered weird, savage even.
In our consumer culture everything is so clean and sterile, things are packaged and double packaged and breasts have to toe the line too.
Breasts aren’t food, they aren’t small, large or lopsided, they are decorative, generic, permanently buoyant, dissident breasts should be enhanced with silicone, birthday presents from men to their wives and when they are on public display, they are top shelf.
My experience wasn’t unique; there was the shocking story a few months ago, of a young mother in the North of England, who went against the bottle-feeding culture of her peers and breastfed her baby.
But when she tried to feed on a bus, the driver told her to either “put them away” or get off.
Perhaps in our modern world breastfeeding reminds us too much that we are flesh, animals, that we eat food grown in dirt.
Don’t get me wrong I love many aspects of our modern, processed world, including the technology that gives us the ability to express milk, communicate with friends in far flung places and play mobile Tetris (although perhaps not the teasmaid or Botox).
What we so badly need are good role models, but too few step up. Denise Van Outen has been seriously picked on in the press already, so sorry Denise but you aren’t one of them.
The controversy surrounding Van Outen’s decision not to breastfeed her baby rested, like Huxley’s character Lenina, on embarrassment. In the Independent she said:
“I’ve had paparazzi sat outside every day since I had her and I can’t be sitting in Starbucks and breastfeeding, because they’re taking pictures.”
But how? How is it that Denise Van Outen can be too embarrassed to bare her breasts to feed her baby, yet happily pose semi-naked to promote herself in magazines? Having a celebrity set this sort of precedent sends such a negative message to expectant mothers.
Perhaps I can provide a few myth-busting facts in support of those women who may not have the confidence to strip down to their underwear for a photo shoot, yet brave feeding their babies in public:
1) Women generally do not expose their breasts in public for no reason, they do so because their baby is hungry and they would like to get out once in a while and mingle with society. Mothers, especially new mothers, are often initially very uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public.
2) Being exposed in this way sometimes makes mothers feel vulnerable and so they do not need to be made to feel more vulnerable with dirty looks and snide comments.
3) The majority of women are not exhibitionists and can be shy about their bodies, especially their post-pregnancy bodies.
4) Because of this, women are usually very discreet about breastfeeding, not least because it can be cold pulling up your jumper in the middle of winter!
So how do we support mothers who want to breastfeed, in public, past four months, past six months? How do we dispel the myth of the breastfeeding “savage”?
An answer is perhaps to look to those with experience, midwives and mothers, for guidance and to develop an educational system that teaches women to trust their instincts and develop their confidence.
Returning to the latest piece of ‘expert’ advice – ‘breastfeeding exclusively for first six months may lead to iron deficiency’, I draw your attention to WVonN reader Rebecca’s comment:
“Women need to listen to their baby because they let you know when breast milk alone is not enough any more.
“This does NOT mean stopping breastfeeding because breastfeeding continues alongside the weaning process. Any mother knows that the amount of food that a baby eats initially is minuscule and definitely won’t satisfy them nutritionally so breastfeeding has to continue along with the introduction of foods.”
Breastfeeding mothers take note. Trust your instincts and trust them savagely, because as Bernard said breastfeeding is touching and not embarrassing.