It’s World Breastfeeding Week, which means the annual flood of articles and advertorials which paint breastfeeding in a negative light is in peak flow. You’ll never hear as much about mastitis, low supply, cracked nipples, and sleep deprivation as you will during the first week of August!

Last year’s effort by UK bottle and teat manufacturer Tommee Tippee was a doozy. At the beginning of August their marketers promoted results of an in-house survey of 500 mothers with key findings such as “27% of mothers find breastfeeding emotionally draining” and “1 in 6 mothers have received unwanted sexual attention while breastfeeding in public”. Accompanying this research was a month of giveaways of products designed as “the ultimate solution to breastfeeding gripes”. Yikes.

For WBW 2021, the low bar for corporate predation looks to be set by US baby formula startup Bobbie Baby. If you Google this company, you will notice that the top results are all from 2021 – it won’t be for a few pages that you reach the 2019 FDA alert recalling formula which had been found to provide inadequate nutrient levels. As WBW begins, Bobbie’s marketers appear to have pulled out all stops to move on, with a positive media blitz and the launch of the “First National Awareness Campaign to Normalize Every Kind of Feeding Journey During Breastfeeding Awareness Month”. This campaign includes a full colour print ad in the New York Times and an online campaign starring a man who has commissioned a surrogate baby, a double mastectomy previvor, and two ‘everyday’ formula feeding moms, declaring that the ‘conversation around breastfeeding’ needs to ‘evolve’.

And how does ‘the conversation’ need to ‘evolve’? According to Bobbie, by taking the ‘breast’ out of ‘feeding’:

Evolving the conversation starts with evolving the questions and assumptions around infant feeding. That’s why Bobbie is asking parents, doctors, and health care providers to pledge to ask the inclusive question “How is feeding going?” rather than the outdated question “How is breastfeeding going?”

To be fair, ‘how is breastfeeding going’ is pretty rude as a conversation cold open. But given the overwhelming number of mothers who report friends, family members and health professionals actively discouraging breastfeeding while pushing bottles/formula, it’s a safe bet that if and when this question would ever be posed to a mother – any ensuing conversation is more likely to devalue breastfeeding than frame it as a ‘best’ she isn’t achieving.

But what interests me in this campaign is not the battle cry of the Kind Caring Formula Company Here To Stand Up To The Breastfeeding Bullies. We’ve been there and done that! What intrigues me is the solution Bobbie’s marketing team pose to their claim that talking about breastfeeding is hurtful and damaging – they pose themselves as saviours by demanding that the language used to discuss breastfeeding be changed in order to protect parents from harm. Bobbie’s marketers are even going as far the creation of a branded online ‘safe space’ for “parents to share their own stories and give a voice to the silent majority”.

The response to this campaign among various breastfeeding advocates and groups which have been slowly ‘evolving’ the language of breastfeeding support to remove reference to mothers and breastfeeding has been… eye-opening. Or rather, it has been for those of who are allowed to see it – this week alone I have discovered that I have been quietly and without explanation banned from a large group dedicated to the politics of breastfeeding, and been told by a colleague that a post in another group was refused by moderators because I was named in it. Bobbie’s marketers aren’t the only busy bees gatekeeping safe spaces free from breastfeeding talk which isn’t ‘inclusive’ enough.

Publicly, a number of breastfeeding advocates have critiqued this ad while conspicuously avoiding the the word ‘mother’. One US-based IBCLC wrote a long response to the Bobbie ad in which she did not once use the word ‘mother’ but instead referred to folks, families, parents, breastfeeding, chestfeeding, body feeding, and human milk feeding. This IBCLC strenuously objected to Bobbie’s marketing claim that ‘feeding’ should replace ‘breastfeeding’, writing without any apparent irony that “You don’t include people by striking out part of the conversation”.

She’s right, of course. You don’t. So why are we? How have we come to the point where lay and professional breastfeeding supporters –  not just individuals but international organisations, peak bodies, and research journals – will object to formula companies demanding language changes which we ourselves not only practice, but which we pioneered

So back to World Breastfeeding Week. Don’t worry, you’ll see lots of breastfeeding organisations using the word ‘breastfeeding’. But pay close attention to how often you see the word ‘mother’- specifically, how often you see ‘breastfeeding’, ‘parents’ or ‘families’ used as a proxy to avoid the word mother. The argument is made that we focus on supporting ‘breastfeeding families’ because fathers and family members are part of breastfeeding success. But what is the impact of writing mothers out of breastfeeding promotion and support because we have convinced ourselves it’s not inclusive to name them? Are mothers now properly included, when breastfeeding decisions are framed as belonging to parents and families, or when the objects of the WHO Code (a document which specifically protects the human rights of women and children) are repurposed to omit them?

The Bobbie campaign may be gross, but it is also a rare gift. The very industry which benefits most from the erosion of maternal and child rights has handed us a canary which can warn of what lurks in a pit we have dug for ourselves. It remains to be seen if we will have the courage to evacuate.