Breastfeeding, cancel culture and mom-shaming: Why censorship lets parents down
Updated: Jul 17
PHOTO CREDIT: @Teschka
“Can we please leave COVID-19 out it, there’s enough pressure to breastfeed,” cried one mother as a chorus of others agreed – calling out “mom-shaming” after someone dared to share new scientific research via a WhatsApp group about the potential protections mother’s milk offers to the novel coronavirus.
“I feel bad that I stopped, I didn’t know,” another mum said, and in the clamour to reassure her that she was doing a good job and "fed is best", a key point was lost: By insisting we don’t talk about the benefits of breastfeeding -- or the risks of not nursing – for fear of upsetting those who cannot or do not, we are effectively ensuring more and more parents ‘don’t know’ crucial information (such as the immunological support nursing provides) and then feel bad when they find it out too late.
Censoring that vital information, which could help us decide how we nurture our children, creates a vicious cycle where protecting potential hurt feelings leads to disempowerment and poor decision-making, which leads to anger and frustration, and hurt feelings. This does more harm than good.
There is no question that it is heart-breaking if you want to nurse and cannot, and the pain of this is enormous. No one is understating that. Censorship will not take that pain away, it will simply ensure more people feel it.
PHOTO CREDIT: @Teschka
Put simply: Sharing facts and research about breastmilk is not shaming mothers who cannot or choose not to.
It is making sure that people make informed choices so they can make the best decisions for their family.
We have seen from the US #formulashortage that it makes sense to invest in informed decision making early on.
What is the point in telling desperate mothers who are struggling to feed their babies due to an industry crisis to "just breastfeed" - something many politicians did. We know it's more complicated than that. We know that people need information, they need to be nurtured, and a culture of support for breastfeeding to become the norm.
The ultimate decision may be that breastfeeding does not or cannot work for you... but knowing you made an educated decision, knowing all the facts around why it doesn’t work for you, can help soothe the mental anguish of not being able to nurse when you hoped to do so.
It may feel as though everyone knows the benefits of breastfeeding, but I can tell you from my experience running normalize breastfeeding campaign #ittasteslikelove that it isn't the case. New parents often tell me often tell me they didn't realise the immunological benefits until COVID19 really put it under the spotlight.
Few people realise that breastfeeding carries health benefits for mama - it reduces the risks of breast and ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. If breast milk were a drug, if it were a commercially viable product, we'd be shouting about it from the rooftops.
Parents are also failed by a lack of information about how it all works: breastfeeding has become so uncommon that two generations have grown up barely seeing it and so don’t know what normal infant nursing behaviour is and what is a cause for concern.
New mothers are often told to stick to a 3-hour nursing schedule, but this was created for formula-fed babies and following it can have a severe impact on supply.
Milk production works on a supply and demand basis and failing to respond to that can drastically impact milk supply.
Cluster-feeding is often baby’s way of boosting your milk output, rather than an indicator that you don’t have enough milk.
So many women feel that their bodies have failed when in fact, they are failed by relatives, friends and health professionals, who are not up to date on the latest research.
Low milk supply for physiological reasons can happen, and trauma around childbirth can have a dramatic impact in the early days.
No one is saying using formula or supplementing is wrong. What is being said is that if your goal is to exclusively breastfeed then it's necessary to have frank conversations about how milk supply works and how breast capacity (which is not linked to breast size) might impact how often you need to feed.
The most reliable indicator of whether your baby needs more milk is your baby – not Gina Ford, not your mother-in-law, not Julie from No 41.
Breastmilk is easily digestible, and newborn tummies are tiny, so it can feel that nursing is constant and baby is never full, but it’s vital we respond to individual needs rather than a generic schedule set by someone who doesn’t know your baby (and in the cases of Gina Ford, and Supernanny – have no children of their own).
There will be clues in clenched or relaxed fists, there will be clues in arched backs or sore nipples but piecing this all together takes open discussion, and proper support. Breastfeeding and the human race evolved in a tribal, group setting – we were never meant to be doing it alone.
It’s okay to say breastfeeding is not for you, it’s okay if your experience doesn’t match the general advice. There is no shame in any of these things and deciding a different way is better for you and your family.
What isn't okay is to silence the conversation because it doesn't reflect your situation. As educated adults we should be able to digest facts, even if they run counter to our choices.
This graphic went viral because people were furious that a comparison was made between breast milk and formula.
But the comparison in the graphic is relevant for mothers making choices.
It has become the norm to talk about breast milk solely as food and as a direct equivalent to formula. But it isn’t.
Breastmilk evolves and adapts to your child’s needs – from time of day, to age, to their overall health. We know now that there are tremendous immunological benefits that are only just being discovered.
It's not just parents of newborns that need this information, it is parents who want to schedule, and supplement, it is parents of 6 month olds or 1 year olds considering weaning.
There are so many points on the BF journey that formula is suggested and unless you have all the information on the ways BF and formula are different, you can't make an informed decision.
Providing this information, isn’t an attack on those who formula feed.
We need to make comparisons all the time in motherhood – that’s how we decide what our kids will eat, will do, will see.
When people talk about using organic or branded formula (despite evidence that there is little difference between formula types unless medically specified) are they shaming those who cannot afford it?
When people talk about the best baby classes or private schools – should we silence the discussion for fear of upsetting those who cannot pay the fees or live in the right areas to reach them.
Similarly celebrating breastfeeding milestones or positive stories is not shaming mothers who cannot or choose not to.
As adults we will often be confronted with facts that trigger us. It's really not viable to shut it all down and really it’s narcissistic to expect everyone to do so.
I have had three premature babies, two born in near death labours that were deeply traumatic, involved emergency surgery, heavy blood loss and special care.
For babies two and three, I did everything possible to keep them in to term: Procedures, medication, alternative medicine, bedrest, but still they came too early - my body seemingly unable to sustain a full pregnancy.
The early pictures, where I have them, are mainly of them in special care.
Would it be acceptable for me to ask others not to share pictures of gorgeous newborns in lovely going home outfits or held in arms or in styled shoots, because it's triggering for me?
Of course not, I've accepted my birth stories are different, and while I live with the trauma, that's not something anyone else needs to shoulder.
Should I insist that we don't talk about the benefits of a baby being carried to term? Because my preemies are thriving now at aged 7, 4 and 18 months, should I claim that it doesn't matter when they are born, despite the fact all the peer-reviewed science shows lifetime outcomes are better for full term babies?
Should I insist that “alive is best” – because it is almost certain my babies coming early prevented their stillbirth.
Of course not. Alive is best would be an inane, reductive thing to say and serves only to shut down a discussion. Much like saying fed is best (or breast is best) does.
The fact remains that at a public health level it is better for babies to be born full term. I am capable of understanding that just because this doesn’t reflect my individual story.
I understand people sharing images of their newborns are not attacking my body or my pregnancies - they are celebrating their lives - and so they should.
And yet when it comes to breastfeeding a culture of censorship has arisen. Sharing images of the 12 or 20 week scan, or a newborn shoot has become normal and celebrated. We don't condemn pregnant women for not considering those who cannot conceive, or whose babies didn’t survive.
PHOTO CREDIT: Greg Gulbransen
But often when women share breastfeeding images – they are accused of showing off or not considering those who cannot. I recently shared this picture, shot by Greg Gulbransen of Reka Nyari looking absolutely beautiful whilst feeding her then 3 year-old.
The backlash from middle-aged women was quick, loud, and angry. “That’s not how breastfeeding looks” they yelled, “what about the leaky boobs and milk stains”, they screamed, “This will give mum's depression,” the shrieking continued.
As someone who had to deal with post-partum trauma - it is absolutely not acceptable to use mental health to attack or stifle discussion. But it is becoming more common for people to use PPD as a gag.
This was one picture of hundreds I've shown from our multi-dimensional campaign. A campaign that’s committed to diversity and showing the full range of experiences. And yet the rage was palpable.
“What about maternity shoots? “ I asked. “Those images in lakes, or beaches, or gardens. The artfully shot black and whites, are you this hysterical when women share them? They aren’t a reflection of the reality of pregnancy either. I spent zero time submerged in a pond in a gown during any of my pregnancies, and I didn’t lie around artfully either. No one could answer why styled pictures of breastfeeding were upsetting, but styled maternity shots were okay.
PHOTO CREDIT: LIFE IS ROSIE PHOTOGRAPHY
But we know why. It’s misogyny. We know that while the pregnant form has been accepted as beautiful (though this wasn't the case 30 years ago), there is still a dress code for breastfeeding.
If you want to be supported, you need to be demure, or you need to look utterly harassed.
Beyond that and its all “attention seeking”. If you’re feeding a toddler or pre-schooler then it’s also needlessly sexualised.
All of this creates a culture of censorship, so we never openly see how normal it is for breastfeeding to weave into our lives after the chaos of the fourth trimester.
It’s not “mom-shaming” to celebrate your milestones.
It’s not “mom-shaming” to discuss the benefits of breastfeeding.
It’s not “mom-shaming” to be proud that you breastfed for one day, two weeks, three months, or four years.
It's not mom-shaming to share information about breastfeeding, or facts about optimal infant nutrition, or breakthroughs in SIDS prevention and immunology.
Motherhood is not a competition. Making informed choices means we all win.