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Breast, bottles and prejudice masquerading as research
Rather than dubious claims that ‘breastfeeding makes for brainy babies’, we need to separate moralising from practical parenting, says Professor Ellie Lee.
‘Women who have chosen to bottle-feed their babies face a barrage of propaganda… Advocates of breastfeeding continually discover new reasons to support their cause… when a sensible, practical matter like breastfeeding is transformed into crusade, advice turns into a form of moral blackmail.’
The comment above, from Paranoid Parenting by Frank Furedi, published over two decades ago, seems all too apt in the light of the latest, heated claims that breastfeeding makes kids smarter.
The burden of Furedi’s argument is that we live at a time where consensus around the values that might inform childrearing is fractured, and much about the past arrangements shaping family life has changed. In particular, women live as workers and mothers simultaneously due to the ubiquitous reality of female employment. This context creates very important questions we need to come to terms with. Unfortunately, instead of doing so, society and culture continually recycle the same, often limited evidence about a particular question. Mothers (and fathers) are given instructions and directives about very everyday things. These rules resolve very little for individuals, but have the negative effect of transforming those matters into ‘issues’.
Furedi describes the task of feeding babies as an example of this problem, whereby consequently, a ‘practical matter’ gets turned into a ‘huge public issue’ - because some see the need to turn this into an assertion of what is ‘best’ and what should be done. There is a kind of pseudo-morality operating. Research - inevitably partial, unstable and limited, and which address matters that have little to do with the morality of family life - come to stand in as a response to that question. The outcome is inevitably confusing, divisive and at the end creates more problems than insights for parents.
The reaction to a recent research report, suggesting that breastfeeding infants can improve school exam scores years later, stands as a very good example of this problem. There are many factors that might affect educational achievement, but why might the duration of breastfeeding – of all things – be deemed a worthy aspect for research? The very fact that researchers have decided to examine the question at all seems worthy of discussion.
Instead, however, some journalists decided to run with and amplify what the researchers themselves only ever claimed was ‘an association’ between ‘modest improvements’ in some GCSE scores and the duration of breastfeeding. Headlines and commentary, as Ella Whelan has noted, became instructions and edict. The Independent’s headline was ‘Breastfeed children to give them better GCSE results, landmark study says’. The Times went so far as to publish an editorial called ‘Breast Boost’ arguing ‘it’s increasingly clear that breastfeeding makes for brainy babies’ and that the ‘nanny state’ should do more to get women to feed babies this way.
In the midst of it all, plenty of accounts appeared from mothers themselves about their experiences. In so doing, one thing was clear: there is actually simply no ‘best’ - there are difficulties and unexpected problems to which parents have to respond, and to which they need to find solutions that work for them. As those of us involved with the study of parenting cultures have noted over and over, this is a reality - encapsulated in the slogan ‘Fed Is Best’ – that needs to be grasped more widely. There is a gulf between this and the moralisation and politicisation of the practicalities of looking after babies.
Addressing this is important for all parents, but seems especially so in the light of a very important problem recent debates have brought to light, especially through the work of organisations including the Infant Feeding Alliance. This is the increasingly number of babies re-hospitalised due to dehydration and starvation, as their mothers attempt to comply with the edict to exclusively breastfeed. This is a genuinely terrible outcome and seems far more important than any speculative benefits that may come from breastmilk.
Opening up these issues of morality (what it is and needs to be, and what it is not) and genuine questions of science and healthcare, is really important.
There are other aspects, too. Back at the start of this century, Furedi noted: ‘In recent times, cultural concern about environment, food safety and anything that appears unnatural has boosted the appeal of breastfeeding.’ If that was true then, it is far more the case now. Some have gone so far as to put formula milk (drunk by the vast majority of babies) into the designation ‘ultra-processed food’ and so designate formula as part of a wider threat to human health.
Inevitably, this debate has also become part of that around sex and gender. There are rational and important objections to the redesignation of breastfeeding as ‘chestfeeding’ and to efforts to validate ‘breastfeeding’ by biological men. Some have also argued, however, that breastfeeding by women should be thought of as ‘extraordinary’ and part of what constitutes an essential form of female collective identity. Others, also just as clear about biological differences between women and men, would not see anything essential or liberating to be found one way or another (breast or bottle) in what they would perceive as an ultimately pragmatic question, in which men feeding babies with bottles happily forms a part.
Like anything to do with reproduction and parenthood, the furore over breastfeeding raises really important questions about what is a moral question and what is not, and what we need to understand and do to have the families and family life we need today. Roll on Battle of Ideas 2023!