The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Guest Post: World Breastfeeding Week

(This comes via FOTLG Isabel, who is suitably brilliant. Enjoy)


It wasn’t until I was first pregnant, and started reading the internet, that it particularly occurred to me that breastfeeding was seen as a choice (as opposed to just what naturally follows childbirth) and I was boggled to discover that people on parenting forums (and other places) put energy into debating what was surely a no-brainer. When I did engage and argue a side I came at it as a matter of choice and of doing what was right for the baby, as a health issue, and with a (fairly arrogant) desire to help mothers make better choices.

Over the years I’ve changed my mind. I’m still passionate about breastfeeding. It’s my thing. I know stuff and I really, really want to share it with you. These days, however, I’m not convinced that how we feed our babies is a free choice and I don’t think it’s all about the baby. Breastfeeding is an issue of women’s rights.

I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t gotten an earful of the “breast is best” message and I have rarely met a mother who didn’t want to breastfeed. The women I know vary in how long they wish to breastfeed for and how committed they are to overcoming obstacles but, in my experience, most enter motherhood with the basic expectation that their baby will breastfeed. So if women want to breastfeed, why aren’t our breastfeeding rates higher? (Honking great PDF of Plunket breastfeeding stats)

I think a lot of women are having their choice to breastfeed taken away from them. It’s not always malicious. When my first was born ,early and sleepy, several of the people engaged in my care were concerned about how stressed I was trying to feed him and how hard I was working with breastfeeding attempts and expressing milk. Those who encouraged me to give up sincerely thought they were doing me a kindness (they weren’t and I didn’t but it was a close run thing).

Sometimes it’s really hard to get good information and impossible to discover if the information you are working from is accurate. I am an enormous fan of modern medicine so it truly pains me to see how often those who should be trustworthy give out poor information. When your midwife doesn’t “believe in” nipple confusion, your doctor can’t tell you which antidepressants are safe to breastfeed on and your Plunket nurse is pushing you to stuff your baby full of pumpkin puree what can you do?

And then there are two societal issues which, in my opinion, cause even more harm than all the wrong and misguided advice in the world: our unrealistic expectations of normal baby behaviour and our failure to value parents and parenting. Babies demand near constant physical contact, they need to feed frequently and they wake often in the night and yet paid maternity leave is almost brutally short, breastfeeding in public is often seen as awkward, embarrassing, and impolite and “giving in” to a baby’s needs is considered a moral failure. Even family friendly organisations like Playcentres and schools can pressure mothers to leave babies with another caregiver so they can attend meetings and working bees. A bottle, either of formula or expressed breastmilk, can seem like the solution and a heck of a lot easier than trying to change society and sometimes it does help and everything is fine. Other times you discover that the midwife that didn’t believe in nipple confusion was just a tiny bit wrong.

I believe every woman has the right to use her breasts and her body the way she wishes and, no matter what I think, she should have a free choice how to feed her baby but, if a woman has chosen to breastfeed, no one should be allowed to stand in her way.

49 responses to “Guest Post: World Breastfeeding Week

  1. Deborah August 5, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Many thanks for this post, Isabel. It’s a great post.

  2. Scar August 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    “Breastfeeding is an issue of women’s rights.”


    How about an issue of human rights? Men can breastfeed too; i.e. trans men.

    • Isabel August 6, 2011 at 5:43 pm

      This is a case of the English language lacking the nuance I need to talk about the exact group I mean to refer to whilst still forming a readable sentence. I deliberately didn’t say “human rights” because one of the main points of this post was my change in thinking from primarily considering the right of the baby to be breastfed to primarily considering the right of the person-capable-of-lactating (a group which actually includes cis-men under some circumstances as well as trans-men) to breastfeed without interference or sabotage.

      • Scar August 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm

        That’s bull. English does not lack the nuance; you proved it yourself when you said “person capable of lactating”.
        “Person breastfeeding” or “breastfeeding persons” also works equally well.

        How about you just own your mistake instead of making excuses?

        • tallulahspankhead August 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

          Scar, isabel is a guest here, and this post was not originally written for a forum like this, nor would she call herself a feminist blogger, I don’t think.

          It’s one thing for you to criticize us, but Is is a guest here, and I’d prefer it if you would treat her as such.

        • Emma August 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm

          Call “Don’t be a dickhead” a “tone argument” all you like. Won’t change a thing. It’s still our comments policy.

          • Scar August 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm

            Okay, for starters, we’ve got contradictory statements here. First Tallulah said “It’s one thing for you to criticize us, but Is is a guest here” which directly implies one should not criticise guests.
            Then we have Deb saying “We are not asking people not to criticise guest posts, but we are asking people to do so politely.”
            You might want to get the team on the same page.

            Now we have you saying “Don’t be a dickhead”.
            Is calling someone out being a dickhead? Could you clarify which part of the post that pointing out the erasure of trans men was “dickheady”?
            Is asking someone to own their mistake “dickheadish”? Or is calling out someone for saying something that is clearly bullcrap “dickheadery”?
            Or is it simply challenging something that your guest has posted?
            Feel free to email me to clarify this, rather than clogging this post up with more dickheaderism.

          • Deborah August 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm

            We are asking you to be polite, Scar. We haven’t asked you to be polite to anyone who is part of the blog team, but we have asked you to be polite to a guest in our house. I don’t read Tallulah’s comment as asking you not to criticise. I read it as asking you to treat our guest politely.

            We are not asking you to retract your criticisms, nor to stop criticising, nor are we asking you to leave the house. All we are doing is asking you to treat our guest courteously, even if you disagree with her.

          • Scar August 7, 2011 at 6:14 pm

            And here’s another chime in from a different source.
            Your comments policy doesn’t state “you must be polite”. In fact, it looks tailored to allow some pretty robust discussion and disagreement: “We are fine with swearing, strong language and general excitableness. We are NOT fine with abusing other commenters – even if you don’t use naughty words doing it.”

            That aside, I don’t see how I have been ‘impolite’ unless I’m supposed to call people “milady” or “milord” at the end of every comment. I didn’t even use ‘strong language’, the worst I used was ‘bull’.
            I don’t even know why we are engaging in this massive derail when simply owning the mistake and moving on would have done nicely.
            It’s pretty obvious that what is rankling here is that I called out the OP for erasing a minority and wasn’t lovely and squishy and huggy about it – I was straight-up and to the point.

          • Deborah August 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm

            These are the bits that are problematic, Scar.

            That’s bull.

            This is problematic because it implies that there is some universal truth out there, that you have access to. A simple and polite way to fix it is to say, “I think that’s bull.”

            How about you just own your mistake instead of making excuses?

            The implication of this is that the person who responded to you has done has in fact made a mistake, c/f it being your opinion that she has made a mistake. Further, it implies that the person who responded to you has done so in bad faith. Moreover, it smacks of standover tactics, and of telling someone what she should do and how she should behave. Here’s a simple and polite way to fix it. “I think you’ve made a mistake here.” The simple formulation leaves a way for the discussion to continue, instead of it being a matter of someone winning, and someone losing.

            We would like you, and other commenters here, to treat guest posters here with politeness. We are not asking you to agree with them, or to not criticise them. We are asking you to engage with them courteously, because they are guests here.

          • Scar August 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm

            I see. Even if I provide ample, factual evidence at to why something is bunk, I am still expected to preface it with ‘I think’. I can manage that. I apologise; I will make sure that I preface all of my comments in future.

            I suggested that she own her mistake. I’m not going to shoot at your strawperson, because she DID make a mistake and you damn well know it. She erased the identity of trans men and it the right thing to do would be to own that mistake.
            I think that this derail is nothing but ass-covering for your friend and I think you are being complicit in the erasure of trans identities by continuing to belabour a redundant point about ‘politeness’ instead of saying something “I think Scar might have a point; trans men deserve to be included in these discussion.
            If this was lesbian or bisexual erasure, you’d be all over this shit – and that, I think, is really telling.

          • Acid Queen August 8, 2011 at 1:37 am

            Deborah, when you call people out for their sexism or bisexual erasure you never feel the need to presage your statements with something claiming it’s just your opinion. Why do you feel commenters need to do so?

          • tallulahspankhead August 8, 2011 at 6:36 am

            You guys can call it a tone argument all you like, I wouldn’t put up with you speaking to a guest in my house like that, and I don’t see why I should have to here. You might not like it, but this is our Garden, and we reserve the right to ask people not to be rude.

          • Deborah August 8, 2011 at 7:34 am

            Actually, I’m very careful about the language I use when I disagree with someone. I don’t hold back from disagreeing, but I do phrase it in terms of, “I think”, or ” I disagree with that argument”. I work hard on depersonalising the criticism, so the person I’m arguing with doesn’t feel that I am belittling them. So for example, I don’t tell someone that they are sexist, but I do say that I find a particular remark or comment sexist. I work very, very hard on building space for discussion and community. I do feel the need to make it very clear that something is my opinion, through use of words and phrases such as “I think” and “I feel”. If I have a problem with someone’s language, I don’t say things like, “You are wrong”, but “This is the bit that’s problematic.” It’s all to do with trying to respect the person behind the words, even while disagreeing with what she or he has said.

            I don’t think I’m regarded as one of the more extreme commenters around the NZ political blogs or feminist blogs in terms of my approach to people. I’m sure I’ve gotten it wrong from time to time, but as a rule I work hard on respect and courtesy. Sometimes in the course of a discussion I become terse and blunt, but as a rule I don’t start out that way.

            On second thoughts, I don’t work HARD on it, because my default mode is being polite and courteous.

            Perhaps I have been confused me with a different ‘Deborah’ or a different person around the NZ blogosphere.

          • Scar August 8, 2011 at 7:46 am

            I’m very please for you that you are able to depersonalise your statements, stay detached and not allow your emotions or personal bias to creep into your statements.
            I would love to be in a position to do the same, but I have neither the privilege, nor the spoons.
            Perhaps you could give lessons to me on how to talk about trans issues like a cis person does?

          • Scar August 8, 2011 at 7:57 am

            Tallulah, you’re being very disingenuous.
            If your guest was being a sexist pig, would you still expect the people responding to the post to be polite?
            No. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t. In fact, you actively encourage otherwise with your behaviour in other posts.

            What you’re really trying to say here is “You have to be polite to my friends, and not make them look bad, cuz I said so.” Don’t try to dress it up as some kind of altruism when it clearly isn’t.
            I’m happy to abide by that policy, by not posting on guest posts at all.
            You can stifle real discussion all you like, it’s your blog.

          • Scar August 8, 2011 at 7:59 am

            (I find it ironic though, that this phrase is in your FAQ:
            “The Lady Garden may not be a suitable environment for Delicate Flowers.”)

          • tallulahspankhead August 8, 2011 at 8:37 am

            Scar. We have asked you to be polite. Though my original comment was badly worded, we haven’t asked you not to criticise, we’ve just asked you to abide by our comment policy.

            You raised a criticism of Isabel’s post, she answered you in good faith, making a point a number of us have made before. You chose to be rude to her in response. This isn’t about us “protecting our friend” but about the kind of tone we want to set in comments. And “guest posters” are not fair game like members of the media or politicians are. That’s a fairly easy distinction to make.

            I don not wish to have this conversation anymore. We’ve told you what the requirements are, quite clearly. You can either choose to abide by them or not.

          • Scar August 8, 2011 at 10:14 am

            Tallulah. I have been polite. I have agreed to abide by your comments policy, no matter what its intent, how wide open to interpretation it is, or how transparent your motivations for applying it are.
            I fail to see why you are continuing to belabour that particular point.

            I do not agree that Isabel answered in good faith, nor do I agree that she has raised a point that a number of you have made before.
            I don’t want to have this conversation any more either. You saying that Isabel’s answer was in ‘good faith’ and that you have made the ‘same point’ before tells me that you don’t give a flying fuck about the erasure of trans identities and that tells me all I need to know about you and your fellow bloggers.
            There is nothing more to be gained from discussing your cissexism.

  3. lily August 6, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    So when you yelled at someone on the handmirror “I’m a woman” you wanted to be called a woman. But now when someone uses the term woman without specifically making you feel included, you want them to use transwoman. Yeah, that’s clear.

    Perhaps this is just all about you getting to yell at someone any chance you get. Based on the past few months of having to read your comments on every fucking NZ feminist blogosphere post, I’d say the latter.

    • Scar August 7, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      What? This isn’t about me or my womanhood; it’s about denying the identity of trans MEN who want to keep their breasts and breastfeed after pregnancy (and any cis man who might want to breast feed via HRT).
      Thanks for FURTHER invisibilising and erasing trans men by trying to make this about trans women.

      Yes, I comment on a lot of feminist posts to raise the general awareness of trans identities and problematic, ciscentric ideas and behaviour. I’m not going to stop doing that just because you don’t like me; lifting the marginalisation of trans people and educating cis people is far more important than feeling chastised by the likes of you for using my voice.
      Your silencing technique has failed.

      • lily August 7, 2011 at 6:08 pm

        I guess what I was really trying to get at was summed up by Emma. The way you speak to people on a number of blogs is incredibly dickheadish. And you clearly refuse to get it because you always fall back on the tone argument. Isabel answered you in good faith and got a bad faith ‘Bull’ in return. It’s just deliberately rude.

        • Scar August 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm

          No, what you were trying to get at was something that I didn’t even post about. You were trying to paint me as a serial hypocrite, based on your total misunderstanding of my post.
          I really don’t care if I come across as ‘dickheadish’; if I’ve made a valid point, it remains valid, even if I’m being the most gigantic douchebag in the whole world.
          If you chose to ignore the validity of my statement just because you don’t like the way I stated it, then you’re being a dickhead yourself (oooo, meta!)

  4. muerknz August 6, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Great post Isabel.

    My experience was that I failed to breast feed for a variety of reasons. I saw lactation consultants and midwives and I read books but it just didn’t work for me. I felt a great deal of pressure to breast feed and I still feel like a failure for not managing it. I had an expectation that I would pop baby on the breast and wham bam it would all be fine.

    I would like to see maybe a bit more information about it for mums before giving birth, especially for women with known difficulties, eg. flat or inverted nipples.

    • Isabel August 6, 2011 at 11:13 pm

      More (accurate, up-to-date) information before birth would be a great help and prompt help after the birth too (I don’t know about you but it took three days for the lactation consultant at CHCH Women’s to get around to me).

      • muerknz August 7, 2011 at 1:05 am

        Yeah, it took days to see a lactation consultant. What I found hard was that each different midwife on shift had a different way they wanted me to do things and I found I just got utterly confused.

        One of the things I love about your post is this:

        “…our unrealistic expectations of normal baby behavior and our failure to value parents and parenting.”


        “Even family friendly organisations like Playcentres and schools can pressure mothers to leave babies with another caregiver so they can attend meetings and working bees.”

        I think society isn’t very baby friendly and that makes it so hard for parents.

        I do wonder how much valuable knowledge and help we lose by not living in extended family/community situations. I’m sure I would have managed better if I had had some one who knew what they were doing to come and stay with me for a few days until I had the breast feeding thing worked out. But then there are often downsides to that kind of living arrangement, so I’m not sure really.

        • Isabel August 7, 2011 at 5:27 pm

          We’ve lost a lot by living less communally, we’ve lost even more by having a couple of generations in the mid 20th Century where breastfeeding really fell out of favour. I know I was totally clueless when Crispin was born – it was a couple of days before I realised that you can hear a baby swallow when it’s feeding well!

          • muerknz August 7, 2011 at 8:19 pm

            Yeah, my mum didn’t breast feed so she couldn’t help me which was hard.

            A bit of good news, we went to the local aquatic centre today and there were lots of Breast Feeding Week posters. They weren’t pushy, just clear that mums who were breast feeding were welcome.

          • dimsie August 8, 2011 at 12:39 pm

            My mother didn’t breastfeed me either (that whole ‘better living through progress and science’ mid-century schtick basically killed it for two generations!) and still, I think, finds it generally icky. She couldn’t believe I kept going for over a year, saying she thought three to six months was ‘quite enough!’ Heh. (She was a huge help in other ways, though.)

          • Emma August 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

            My Mum really wanted to breast feed, and with her first two was told she couldn’t because she had inverted nipples. Third (in three years) she was in a different city, they gave her a nipple shield, all taken care of. Ridiculous.

            I was very lucky finding starting feeding easy with both of mine. But with my first, after a couple of weeks, cracked nipples had me in agony, and if I wasn’t still seeing my midwife I probably would have given up. I was crying with pain with every feed. And without Kate, I wouldn’t have known what to do.

        • Jackie Clark August 8, 2011 at 5:12 pm

          I also wasn’t breastfed – lack of milk apparently and I can’t imagine that in 1964, it would have been overly encouraged, either way. This issue is enormously emotive, and as a non – childbearing person, it’s not really my place to verbalise any opinions I may, or may not, have. It is an issue I’ve been immersed in since the age of 16, though, due to having lots of sisters, one of whom was into the La Leche league (in the days when lactating personages were allowed to feed preemie babies their extra milk) in a big way, and over the last 20 years from having friends telling me about their experiences. Some were great, some were okay, some not so good. As with every other experience in our lives, sometimes it turns out the way we expect but more often than not, the outcome is dependent on so many variables that it’s breathtaking.

  5. Huia August 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    An expectant mum recently told me that she was going to take a bloody-mindedness approach to breastfeeding and I think its true! Breast feeding is so challenging that coming at it from a perspective of determination/doggedness is, in my opinion, the best approach.

    Thanks for your post. The more that we talk about the challenges of breastfeeding the more realistic the expectations will be so that hopefully when new mums are struggling with feeding it isn’t a huge shock. Perhaps they’ll be more likely to continue.

    • Isabel August 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm

      Determination helps but it’s not always useful unless it’s backed up by good information – you can work your butt off at an unsuccessful strategy without it helping at all.

      • muerknz August 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm

        Oh yeah, I hear you. I tried and tried and it just ended up with a screaming, hungry baby and me utterly stressed and in tears all the time.

  6. muerknz August 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    I think having realistic expectations is really key. Some women just breeze into breast feeding, but others struggle and I think it’s a good idea to know something about breast feeding before you’re landed with a new baby and all the overwhelming stuff that goes with that.

  7. Deborah August 8, 2011 at 7:38 am

    My experience with breast feeding was very mixed. Easy first time round, but a complete failure the second time round. One thing I found very frustrating the second time round was that I had asked to see a lactation consultant as soon as possible, because I knew that it was going to be very difficult for me to feed twins (due to a couple of lumpectomies for benign lumps, I have only one breast that works for breastfeeding). But the lactation consultant didn’t turn up until day four, by which time things had gotten very difficult for me. Plus the midwives on the ward didn’t offer any assistance, or help even when I asked.

    All this in a hospital that proudly proclaimed its ‘Baby Friendly’ certification. All talk and no do, as far as I could see.

    • muerknz August 8, 2011 at 1:30 pm

      Oh, that’s terrible.

      I think there needs to be an assessment before birth, or as fast as possible afterwards, about breast feeding issues and mums who need extra help should get fast tracked for lactation consultants.

    • Isabel August 8, 2011 at 4:48 pm

      Deborah – that’s a fairly massive set of challenges you had! I think that the timeliness issue is really critical – lots of things which need a tiny adjustment on day one have turned into a huge big deal by day four.

      • Deborah August 8, 2011 at 5:03 pm

        Yes indeed. By the time she got there on day four, the lactation consultant was able to explain that I might have been able to get a let down reflex in both breasts if I had tandem fed the babies right from the start. I would have needed help with that, because one of my babies was quite small and week, and she didn’t suck well. On top of that, she turned out not to like milk very much at all, and she still doesn’t. If I had been able to start each feed with her on my good breast, and her sister on the other, and then swapped them part way through, we might all have managed. But by then it was getting a bit late, and my partner wasn’t committed to breastfeeding in the same way that I was. So it all fell apart at about day 10.

        I came across some fantastically supportive midwives and nurses at various times, but unfortunately, not right when I needed them.

        I have a friend who breastfed her twins for a full year – a champion! But she had a similar experience to mine in that hospital, and she felt that she established twin breastfeeding despite the hospital, not because of it.

        I’ve had a couple of grumps about this on my old blog:
        Childbirth, breastfeeding, power and hypocrisy
        How to support breastfeeding

        Four years on, I might moderate some of the language I used in those posts, but not the basic sentiment, which is that despite all the rhetoric, new mothers, and new parents in general, are not given enough support with breastfeeding.

  8. Oliver (@viricapnity) August 8, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    I actually read this on your live journal page first as I clicked the wrong button on my link bar. It was lovely, I really enjoyed reading it, and I remember the conversation we had earlier this year about my sister. She didn’t manage to breastfeed her first child, though she wanted to. It was very difficult indeed, and she clearly got some of the same poor advice you did. And she was not at all happy about it, and tried to get help, but in the end it *was* too hard for various reasons. Second time, it wasn’t trivial, but she was successful, because she had a different midwife, who talked to her about breastfeeding and made sure she would be able to get support as soon as she needed it. And that was all it took. A small amount of advice from someone who found out what she wanted and helped her do it.

    I really liked this sentence: “I am an enormous fan of modern medicine so it truly pains me to see how often those who should be trustworthy give out poor information.” I could not agree more, and frequently agree at the top of my voice. Particularly reading Deborah’s comments, but the others as well, it’s clear that so much of it is down to chance that we really are failing to meet a women’s or human right, whichever people prefer. And it really shouldn’t be as hard as it sometimes is.

  9. supervery August 8, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    what a fantastic post. As someone who has no children i don’t breastfeed, i think for me this also means my one job is to support my friends in their choices. But more so if their choice to to breastfeed anf push through whatever problems to make it work, it’s my job to support them.
    So thank you

    • Isabel August 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

      Being surrounded by supportive, encouraging people can make all the difference. There’s some research that suggests that giving the partners of pregnant women education about breastfeeding makes a really significant difference to how long those women go on to breastfeed for which I’m sure would hold true for friends, aunties and grandparents as well.

      • muerknz August 8, 2011 at 11:13 pm

        I had someone near to me who was very determined I should breast feed and I felt very pushed about the issue. It was especially difficult when my youngest just would NOT latch and I was an emotional bundle of nerves. I was lucky that my husband was supportive but it was still really hard.

        I think women who don’t manage to breast feed need support and encouragement too, just to know that they aren’t failures.

        • Isabel August 9, 2011 at 10:42 am

          Yeah, if it’s not mindful of the mother’s wishes and needs then it’s not support it’s bullying. My approach with friends is that I can tell them they are doing great and I can give them information if they ask but it’s none of my business what they do with that information.

          I went to a talk a couple of years ago by a counselor who specialises in working with women who are grieving the loss of breastfeeding. There is a huge need for this I think (not necessarily counselling for all but an acknowledgement that mothers who want to breastfeed and can’t are often processing many varied and deep emotions).

          • Deborah August 9, 2011 at 11:00 am

            I felt hugely guilty about not breastfeeding my younger daughters, and I still feel sad about it. The guilt was quite nicely dealt to by a friend who also tried, but was unable to breastfeed. I was saying how bad I felt, and she said, “Of course.” Somehow that made my guilt feel acceptable, and reasonable, so I stopped beating myself up over it.

          • Isabel August 9, 2011 at 11:35 am

            We have this very insidious idea in our culture that if the mother and baby are physically healthy (for various values of healthy) then the mother has no right to negative feelings (this is ture of birth as much as of feeding but that’s a whole ‘nother post).

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