There’s a story that we tell in our culture, and it goes like this: pregnant women are bombarded with pro-breastfeeding messages, but then when they they their hardest but can’t breastfeed, they are judged harshly for using formula and made to feel like failures.

There’s little doubt that infant feeding struggles leave many mothers distressed, burdened, and deeply sad. In Australia, while 96% of mothers initiate breastfeeding, by 3 months only 39% of babies are exclusively breastfed. The majority of women who stop breastfeeding report feelings of unhappiness and say that they stopped before they were ready and would have liked to continue. Enter the Fed Is Best movement:

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Fed Is Best is explicitly based on the notion that any discussion of the substantive differences between methods of infant feeding constitutes ‘shaming’. FIB slogans insinuate that breastfeeding advocacy fails to support ‘all’ women and is therefore morally questionable.

Compared to the alternative – not feeding babies – fed is most certainly ‘best’. But if mothers en masse are finding themselves feeling hurt in response to breastfeeding promotion, is the answer really to pretend that breastfeeding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?  And in claiming that what a baby is fed doesn’t matter, as long as that baby is fed at all, what is really being said?

Despite public health messaging to the contrary, our society does not value breastfeeding, at least not to the extent of adequately investing in it. Breastfeeding is certainly fetishized, and included in the mythology of perfect motherhood. However in reality, women who wish to breastfeed face significant barriers to achieving their goals, including but not limited to:

  • Lack of breastfeeding education among health professionals
  • Lack of paid parental leave and/or workplace discrimination
  • Cultural birth practices which interfere with the establishment of breastfeeding
  • Racial and socioeconomic disparities in breastfeeding
  • Lack of access to breastfeeding support services and resources
  • Aggressive marketing of infant and toddler formulas
  • Social norms regarding the female body (notably the sexualisation of breasts)
  • Intergenerational misinformation about breastfeeding

In the face of these deeply entrenched institutional and structural barriers, it is greatly disturbing that mothers who don’t or can’t breastfeed are handed the language of guilt and shame to express their experiences. Mothers who have been grossly failed instead hold themselves accountable, and it should come as no surprise to hear so many women speak of breastfeeding advocacy or success stories as salt on the wound. But is substituting ‘it doesn’t matter how you feed your baby’ for the affirmation and help mothers need in order to be able to actually breastfeed really the change that we need? Or is mislabelling breastfeeding and breastfeeding advocates as the problem a spectacularly effective form of population-level gaslighting?

Ultimately, if the way we feed our babies really doesn’t matter, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. But it does matter – not because of the health impacts, or social pressures, but because breastfeeding is a biologically normal event in the lives of women and children.  The vast majority of women (96 per cent!!) want to breastfeed. Are we really meant to believe that so many women are wrong about what matters to them?

Framing the substance or method by which babies are fed as irrelevant is not revolutionary – it is a failure in our duty of care. Furthermore, it excuses the perpetuation of that failure. Overcoming breastfeeding difficulties can be time consuming and resource intensive – if all that counts is feeding the baby, why invest in mothers who are struggling? Why value the work that mothers put in to resolving breastfeeding difficulties, or attempt to prevent those difficulties from arising in the first place? Why honour the grief of women who have lost the breastfeeding relationship they had hoped to have with their baby?

All choices are not equal, and not everyone has equal access to those choices – allowing ourselves to be placated with the mantra of ‘Fed Is Best’ sells women and babies so, so short. ‘Best’ is not dismissing the differences between methods of infant feeding, it’s dismantling the barriers which prevent women from accessing them. It’s refusing to allow information sharing, advocacy and support to be framed as ‘shaming’. Rejecting the unrealistic expectations placed on women. Laughing in the face of the mummy wars narrative. There is space for all voices and experiences in our spectrum of loving motherhood, of which infant feeding is just one part. As long as breastfeeding matter to mothers, breastfeeding matters  – and we can acknowledge and respect the experiences of women who don’t or can’t breastfeed, without throwing breastfeeding under the bus.