I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room when I was heavily pregnant with my second child, waiting for my turn to become un-pregnant. They had booked my C-section for 8 AM, but, surprise, surprise, it was a busy day and I was bumped several times, so it was a while before they could even get me a bed in triage. So there I sat in the waiting room for 2 hours, my huge pregnant belly making every position in the pastel hospital chair uncomfortable, staring at the posters on the wall because I didn’t have a smart phone at the time. I remember that there was one poster about how smoking can lower the birth weight of your baby, and then approximately five posters about how “Breast is Best.” I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this campaign, but if you’ve ever been in a maternity ward you’ve probably seen a poster like this, emblazoned with the slogan “Breast is Best” and listing the benefits of breast milk for a newborn. At the time I was too uncomfortable to even contemplate this campaign, but I have had some time since then, and the conclusion I have come to about the “Breast is Best” campaign is rather simple: I think it stinks.
Now I understand that we might need campaigns such as this in other countries, because in some third world countries, women in poorer areas, due to heavy advertising and a general lack of education, can become convinced that large companies (not naming any names … Nestle) have a greater understanding of what is best for their baby than they ever would, so they opt to buy expensive formula instead of giving their baby the free, luscious milk that flows from their nipples. In a place such as that, educational campaigns about how formula does not in fact trump breastfeeding are probably quite necessary — and this is great, because breastfeeding is indeed, as many studies have shown, a little bit better for a baby than formula, plus it’s free, and if you’re cheap like me, this is an amazing benefit to breastfeeding. But here, in North America, a campaign that loudly declares on hospital walls that breastfeeding is best is really not necessary anymore, in my opinion. Maybe it would have been helpful 30 years ago or so, but today it really feels like it’s doing more harm than good.
Sure, there are probably a fraction of women out there who have decided not to breastfeed for fear that it will negatively impact their breasts — Jennifer Lopez famously fits in this category, being one of the only women I know of who actually did give a really unscientific and dumb reason for deciding not to breastfeed. But J Lo’s dumb reason gets to be her dumb reason. Her body is her body, and that’s fine. And maybe these posters are geared towards helping the J Los of this world remember that breastfeeding is a great option for a baby and that they should consider it, but there are not very many J Los in the world, as it turns out. For every J Lo, in fact, is about a million other moms who are feeling guilty, ashamed, and maybe even less of a woman or less of a mother when they see the slogan “Breast is best” because these women aren’t able to breastfeed.
There are many legitimate medical and emotional reasons for being unable to breastfeed, including (but not limited to) medical issues, incompatibility between a nipple size and a child’s mouth size, a baby’s allergies, clogged ducts, or the fact that some people’s breasts just don’t make milk, or at least don’t make enough. I remember being in the hospital after my son was born prematurely, and trying to coax what little boob-juice I could out of my on-fire nipples in the pumping room (which, by the way, had giant industrial-sized milking machines that I swear must have been there since the 1960s). Usually it was just me in there, but occasionally this giant-breasted lady would come in, peel open her cute work blouse, hook up 2(!) cups, one to each nipple, and flip through a magazine while veritable waterfalls of creamy, beautiful milk poured from her willing nipples. She would make small talk with me too, about being a working mom with a nine month old, and would groan about how “full” her breasts were while I grimaced, glancing down at the pitiful half-centimetre of white-gray liquid that I had spent an hour extracting. I was jealous of that mom, for sure. My breasts never achieved that level of potency, and yet, in the end, I had just enough breast milk for my wee ones, thankfully.
That is not to say I didn’t almost give up, though. My nipples were a calloused, bleeding, stinging, hot mess for the first few months of each of my nursing ventures, to the point that I seriously considered giving up breastfeeding a few times. Because when someone (me) is not sleeping, is constantly trying to figure out the needs of a small, screaming infant, and when organizing a shower for oneself becomes as complicated as organizing a family trip for four to the Orient, one does not always feel that enduring the seven fires of hell on your nipples is worth it, frankly. Consider also the scads of women who have endured this hell for months, only to be forced to give up because their baby wasn’t getting enough, or a duct got clogged and stopped production, or their baby simply never could manage to latch on properly.
And so, being the amazing mothers these women no doubt are, they perhaps will decide that instead of starving their baby and/or putting themselves through further torture, they will use formula instead. Formula, wonderful formula, which has been tested and re-tested and supplied with every possible nutrient it needs to grow a teeny tiny baby to be healthy and strong and smart and beautiful. Oh formula — the product of brilliant scientific minds whose sole purpose in this venture was to develop something that would give these little tiny babies everything they need to get a good start in life. Maybe this is starting to sound like a commercial for formula, but I don’t care. Formula is one of the most amazing things that our world has come up with, in my humble opinion. And I am confident that many of the women who have had to use it really have made the best, or only, decision for their babies, for themselves, and for their families.
But then these women who have decided to give formula to their kids will come to the hospital for their six week check-up, and they will sit on that same pastel chair that I sat on in the hospital waiting room, and while they struggle to prepare a bottle for their screaming, hungry infant they will look up, briefly, and their eyes will fall on that poster that says “Breast is best.” And in that one moment, it is likely that they will feel shamed, misunderstood, and maybe even guilty for not providing what is “best” for their children. And I hate that that mother was made to feel that way. You probably ruined that mother’s day, hospital, with your guilt-producing posters.
But maybe you didn’t know that would happen — and I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt here. So how about you just simply update the slogan “Breast is best” so that it takes all of this into account? For example, how about this: “Breast is great, and formula is pretty good too. It’s also great that you didn’t let your baby starve — thanks, mom and dad!” Or maybe this one: “Breastfeeding is good to do, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and for those instances there is formula! Bottoms up, babies — your parents love you so very much and want you to grow big and strong!” Or how about just simply: “Food is best! Feeding your baby is the best thing you can do!”
I know that these are not as catchy as the original, but I think you’ll find that that doesn’t matter. That bottle-feeding mama will leave knowing she’s made a good decision for herself and her baby by making sure to provide the sustenance he needs, and don’t you think that’s a good enough reason to make this change? Yeah, I do too.