Stories are powerful.
Humans are storytelling creatures. Through stories, we teach, share, shape. Stories can transport us, they can connect us or divide us. Stories have meaning and purpose. A well told story can change the world.
That the Fed Is Best Foundation have chosen to use stories to spread their message, tells us a lot about the Fed Is Best Foundation.
Stories about sick, injured, or dead children are very compelling. We have a social instinct to protect infants; hearing about terrible things happening to the vulnerable evokes visceral horror. The accompanying photograph is an emotional suckerpunch: This could be my baby. This could be me.
A meme with a pithy statement or punchy fact will never have that impact. But FIBF don’t want to convince us with evidence – they want to play on our emotions. Which is why they have been openly soliciting stories since the very beginning.
Reading these stories is terribly difficult. They are heartbreaking. As the mother of a four-month-old, the photographs are intensely distressing, I can almost feel the pain of these families in my gut. And over and over again the moral of FIBF’s story is: the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative sacrificed this baby on the altar of lactation. If they had cared more about babies and less about breastfeeding, this wouldn’t have happened. And if you try to avoid formula, this could happen to you too.
This is propaganda 101. Use subjective information to influence your audience. Evoke an emotional rather than rational response (all the better to manipulate you with, my dear). In full knowledge that perception of risk can skew behaviour, follow it up with an onslaught of jargon and cherrypicked information inaccessible to the average joe. And who can question it? Only a cold-hearted monster who cares more about boobs than babies, that’s who.
But a different (and no less compassionate) take on these stories is possible. The failures in intrapartum care are glaringly obvious. Doctors who missed retained placenta. Dismissal of tongue tie. Babies discharged from hospital despite inadequate output or excessive weight loss. Excessive crying or sleepiness being dismissed as normal baby behaviour. It doesn’t matter if these hospitals were BFHI accredited or not, the level of gross negligence being reported here is scandalous. These families were unequivocally failed.
The million dollar question is – why are these stories being told in a way which holds breastfeeding to account for these failures?
Breastfeeding is not magical or perfect. Delayed or failed lactation happens – if it didn’t, breastfeeding support and breastmilk substitutes wouldn’t have been invented – but it should be red flagged well before it becomes dangerous. Is it reasonable to ask if breastfeeding was overemphasised in these instances? Absolutely. It is also reasonable to expect that the decisions of health professionals and the hospitals involved in these situations be investigated. We could demand better training. Consistent application of care protocols. Guarantees that gaping systemic cracks will be identified and closed up in order to stop mothers and babies falling through them.
Instead, we have open warfare on lactation consultants and breastfeeding support workers. A vendetta against a public health program which has improved outcomes for babies in more than 152 countries. Hand-feeding of the insecurities of new mothers with worries that their milk might not be enough and nobody will notice until it’s too late. Anecdote after scaremongering anecdote, carefully selected to support the idea that babies are being hurt by reckless breastfeeding ideology and the real heroes here are the ones willing to administer Just One Bottle.
FIBF are using the stories of these families to tell their own story. What is that story? Why do they want an audience of parents rather than policymakers? What is the purpose of challenging breastfeeding rather than the context in which breastfeeding occurs? In whose interests does it lie to plant seeds of fear, scapegoat the BFHI, and lower the expectations of mothers?
It’s time to take a step back from the stories the FIBF are sharing, and pay attention to the story they are weaving. Because stories can change the world… but parents deserve a better world than one in which the FIBF write the narrative.