“Try breastfeeding!” What’s wrong with that?
In response to the formula shortage crisis, on May 12, actress and singer Bette Midler tweeted, “TRY BREASTFEEDING! It’s free and available on demand. Within seconds, the world of formula-feeding parents went crazy.
Was she suggesting that new mothers who desperately need formula should be able to breastfeed as if instant breastfeeding was something you could force your body to do by willpower?
Or was Midler really scolding and saying that I told you, if you had breastfed from the start, you wouldn’t be in this terrible situation? Pleasant.
Perhaps Divine Miss M meant to offer sound advice: try to breastfeed when you give birth so you don’t have to worry about scouring ebay for off-brand formula.
Yet that doesn’t make sense either, because pregnant women aren’t the ones jostling for formula. And anyway, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 80% of new mothers in the United States try to breastfeed (up from 33% in the 1970s).
An outcry ensued. Even former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, not exactly known for his sensitivity, took Midler to task.
Returning to her original comment, Midler tweeted, “No shame if you can’t breastfeed, but if you can and you’re somehow convinced your own milk isn’t as good that a ‘scientifically studied product’ is something else #wetnurses.”
Is that what she really meant? That women who worried that their breast milk wasn’t as good as formula needed reassurance that it was? And “the nannies? Alright…it’s Game of Thrones time, I guess, because wet nurses (nursing women who nurse the babies of women who can’t) died a long time ago.
Bette Midler gave birth to her daughter, Sophie, in 1986 when new mothers were discouraged from breastfeeding and infant formula manufacturers were allowed to be pushy in hospitals by putting advertisements in baby bassinets. They also provided loads of free samples for mom to come home to. This message, combined with a lack of breastfeeding support from hospital staff, did not encourage breastfeeding; on the contrary, he promoted the formula.
“In the 70s and 80s, women had to fight to be able to breastfeed,” says Carmen Baker, a Hoboken-based lactation consultant. “They were discouraged by their OBs and their pediatricians. It was just something people didn’t do. If you did, you were considered a hippie.
Carmen is a board-certified international lactation consultant, a title that did not exist before the 1990s in a field that was still relatively marginal until the 2010s.
As a postpartum doula who specializes in preventing mood disorders, I know breastfeeding difficulties can contribute to a mother’s depression and anxiety. Judgment too. Those who chimed in and agreed with Midler’s flippant remark were met with heated disagreement and fury. It’s no wonder this has outraged many formula-feeding parents. Already in crisis, unable to find essential nutrition for their babies, these parents are now subjected to the offensive assumption that they could did “what comes naturally”.
But breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally to all new moms, nor is it the right choice for everyone. This is not an option for adoptive parents. This is not an option for breast cancer survivors. It is not an option for women taking certain medications.
It also ignores the fact that many women who use formula have first (and valiantly) tried breastfeeding due to bleeding nipples, sleepless nights, overwhelming anxiety, and low production of breast milk. They sought advice from experts, tried supplements, drank specialty teas, and went to extreme lengths to do what “is free and available on demand.” If all of that effort ultimately resulted in formula feeding, it feels like a kick in the gut when someone judges that decision.
What about all the parents who had no medical or “justified” reason not to breastfeed? When did it become acceptable for others to criticize them for being too “lazy” or “uncommitted”? Since 2010, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the US Surgeon General have all identified breastfeeding as “a public health issue.” This caused the flood of public opinion to surge.
Parents today are subject to shame and judgment from our culture as a whole because breastfeeding is no longer viewed as a personal lifestyle choice. “Try breastfeeding! from Midler carries the same tone of superiority as the warning obese people often hear “Try dieting!”
We do not know what led this person to become obese. We could have an endocrine imbalance or an unresolved childhood trauma. But as part of a morally evolved culture, we should have the decency not to ridicule others for their condition or appearance. It seems that criticism of formula feeders remains the final frontier of shame.
In this regard, Ms. Midler is not entirely out of step with our nation’s general disconnect on women’s health issues. Major influencers like the WHO and AAP say women should exclusively breastfeed for at least six months right after giving birth, but America still lacks a maternal leave policy that meets this recommendation.
But the problems for women do not end there. “Breast is Best” is well-meaning, but it puts the baby first over the parent, and it makes infant health and well-being fair game at the water cooler, but not health and well-being. – to be new mothers. This must stop. The pendulum has swung too far. It’s time to balance everyone’s needs when a baby is born and ask yourself, “What’s best for this family?”