How About a Mother-Friendly Breastfeeding Initiative?

It's time for safe, accurate, respectful breastfeeding policies.

Posted Mar 22, 2016

FamVeld/iStock
Source: FamVeld/iStock

The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) is an effort to promote breastfeeding among new mothers. Hospitals can apply for Baby Friendly certification and receive it if they institute policies to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding, make infant formula difficult to obtain within the hospital, promote continuous rooming-in of babies and abolish gifts of free formula samples.

Unfortunately, there is nothing friendly about efforts to promote breastfeeding while ignoring the individual needs of mothers and babies. There’s nothing friendly about hectoring new mothers or pressuring them into a specific intimate personal decision.

In my view, it’s time for a Mother-friendly breastfeeding initiative.

What would a mother friendly breastfeeding initiative look like? It would start with some basic truths about breastfeeding and mothering:

1. While breastfeeding has real benefits, in countries with clean water the benefits for full term babies are small, limited to a few less colds and episodes of diarrheal illness across the entire population of infants. Understanding and acknowledging this scientific reality is the first step to a safe, sane, respectful breastfeeding policy.

2. The obvious corollary to #1 is this: once a woman has been given accurate information about the benefits of breastfeeding, it does not matter what choice she makes, and therefore hospitals should not be devoting copious resources to promoting exclusive breastfeeding. Those resources would be much better spent on healthcare.

3. Formula is an excellent source of nutrition for babies. There is nothing wrong with it, and no mother should be made to feel guilty for feeding formula to her child, regardless of the reason for choosing it.

4. Breasts are part of a woman’s body. No one has the right to tell women how they should use their breasts.

5. I don’t know of a single endeavor where humiliation produces positive results. It’s time for lactation consultants to acknowledge that and stop the hectoring treatment being offered in hospitals.

6. In my judgment, boosting fragile maternal confidence is an important task of anyone who cares for women and babies. Setting arbitrary standards, ignoring women’s own needs, and pretending that every woman can breastfeed successfully are sure-fire ways to undermine self-confidence, not build it.

7. Don't treat new mothers as if they are uneducated. Every women knows that “breast is best.” If a woman decides to formula feed, it does not mean that she doesn’t understand the benefits of breastfeeding.

8. Breastmilk does not have magical properties. Its ability to prevent  illness is small and easily outstripped by vaccination. It does not increase intelligence; it does not prevent obesity; and it does not confer health on its recipients.

9. No one has ever demonstrated any benefit to donor breastmilk instead of formula for full term babies.

10. The risk of potentially contaminated donor breastmilk from unregulated arrangements far outstrips any theoretical benefits.

Why is it critically important to make our breastfeeding initiatives mother friendly?

We have made great strides in understanding the devastating impact of postpartum depression, yet we seem to ignore those insights when trying to promote breastfeeding. Adequate sleep, lots of help and feelings of competence can help prevent and treat postpartum depression. Why then do we act as if breastfeeding is more important than these factors so critical for women’s mental health?

It’s time for safe, sane and respectful breastfeeding policies.

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