Did breastfeeding pressure lead a new mother to suicide?

Sadly, pressure is not an unfortunate side effect of lactivism; it's a feature.

Posted Jan 21, 2017

kieferpix/iStock
Source: kieferpix/iStock

The suicide of a young mother is an unspeakable tragedy:

Thirty-two-year-old Florence Leung went missing without an explanation in late October, causing New Westminster police to launch a massive search. It was revealed she was suffering from postpartum depression and her family was concerned about her well-being.

On Nov. 16, Leung’s body was found in the waters near Bowen Island. No foul play was suspected.

Her husband believes that breastfeeding pressure contributed to her suicidality:

Do not EVER feel bad or guilty about not being able to “exclusively breastfeed”, even though you may feel the pressure to do so based on posters in maternity wards, brochures in prenatal classes, and teachings at breastfeeding classes. Apparently the hospitals are designated “baby-friendly” only if they promote exclusive-breastfeeding. I still remember reading a handout upon Flo’s discharge from hospital with the line “Breast Milk Should Be the Exclusive Food For the Baby for the First Six Months” , I also remember posters on the maternity unit “Breast is Best”. While agreeing to the benefits of breast milk, there NEED to be an understanding that it is OK to supplement with formula …

Postpartum depression, like all clinical depression, is a multifactorial problem. No one can say for certain what causes it. But we can say for certain that bullying makes it worse. And contemporary lactivism, breastfeeding activism, is plagued by bullying.

I finished my medical training before breastmilk became “the elixir of life” and before colostrum became “liquid gold.” What scientific evidence came to light in the last 35 years to elevate breastfeeding from one of two excellent forms of infant nutrition, the other being infant formula? No evidence. Indeed most of the scientific evidence around the purported benefits of breastfeeding is weak, conflicting and riddled with confounding variables. To the extent that there is definitive scientific evidence about the benefits of breastfeeding in first world countries, it appears to be limited to 8% fewer colds and 8% fewer episodes of diarrheal illness across the entire population of term infants in the first year. In other words, the vast majority of term infants will experience no obvious benefit from breastfeeding.

So if the scientific evidence hasn’t changed, what happened? Two things: the monetization of breastfeeding and the adoption of pressure and guilt as marketing tactics.

Organized breastfeeding support originated with La Leche League, started by a group of seven traditionalist Catholic women whose goal was to keep mothers of young children out of the workforce. They reasoned that Mary, mother of Jesus, would not have worked because she was breastfeeding. Therefore all mothers should breastfeed so they wouldn’t be able to work either.

La Leche League was originally a volunteer organization that shared breastfeeding information and offered free support. It had to be a volunteer organization because the whole point was to prevent mothers of young children from working. But by the early 1980’s, mores had changed and the folks at LLL reasoned that they could charge for information that they had been giving away for free. They spun off the organization that created the lactation consultant credential and began campaigning vigorously for the employment of lactation consultants in hospitals, doctors’ offices and private practices.

Initially they met the existing demand for breastfeeding support. But like any industry, they wanted to grow and that meant expanding the market for their services beyond those women who wanted to breastfeed to those women who didn’t. They hit upon the perfect tactic: exaggerating the benefits of breastfeeding, fabricating “risks” of infant formula, and, above all else, pressuring new mothers.

Make no mistake, bullying is not an unfortunate side effect of contemporary lactivism. It is a deliberate tactic designed to increase market share. It is meant to create a sense of fear, obligation and guilt.

The foundational document of marketing breastfeeding through bullying is Diane Weissinger’s Watch Your Language.

All of us within the profession want breastfeeding to be our biological reference point. We want it to be the cultural norm; we want human milk to be made available to all human babies, regardless of other circumstances …(my emphasis)

In contrast, all of us within the medical profession want HEALTHY BABIES and HEALTHY MOTHERS to be the biological reference point. We are concerned with outcome; the breastfeeding industry is concerned with process, specifically the only process by which it can profit. And profit depends on pressuring ever more women into breastfeeding.

The breastfeeding industry induces fear by lying about the benefits of breastfeeding and ignoring the risks (dehydration, starvation and death); it induces obligation withcatch phrases like “breast is best,” and “Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative,” and it induces guilt by insisting that “even one bottle of formula” is the mark of a mother who doesn’t truly love her baby.

Lactivists have perfected a particularly vicious form of bullying, gaslighting. This is a specialized form of invalidation that involves denying reality. A mother says her baby is hungry? Tell her all babies scream like that. A mother worries that she is not producing enough breastmilk? Lie and say that all women produce enough milk. A mother needs medication incompatible with breastfeeding? Tell her she doesn’t really need it. A mother says that breastfeeding is harming her baby’s physical health and her mental health? Tell her that she is a failure at mothering before she’s really even started and imply that her baby deserves a better mother than her.

Is it any wonder then that some women will commit suicide as a result and a far greater number will experience significant postpartum depression?

We must put an end to the bullying of new mothers by breastfeeding advocates.

  • Take down the “breast is best” posters and acknowledge that fed is best.
  • Stop exaggerating the benefits and denying the risks of breastfeeding.
  • End the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative immediately.
  • Stop pretending that “even one bottle” of formula harms breastfeeding or babies.

Breastfeeding advocates like to cite the theoretical “cost savings” from increasing breastfeeding rates. But what does it cost to hospitalize a mother for postpartum depression? What is the cost of the lost earnings of a mother who commits suicide? And what is the cost to a child of losing his or her mother? Incalculable.

How much suffering will it take before we repudiate the pressure tactics of breastfeeding advocates?

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