Amy Brown explains why breastfeeding is about more than just milk, and why it matters so much to women
If you ask women why they want to breastfeed, the response many will automatically give is often based around how human milk helps protect babies’ health and development. I mean, that’s what we’re told is important, isn’t it? Most health promotion campaigns tell us that breastfeeding is a good idea because it helps reduce the number of colds and stomach bugs babies get, and so on.
And yes, that’s very important. When women can’t breastfeed, one of their main concerns can be that their baby will be harmed by not being breastfed. They want to increase their baby’s protection against illness, particularly if their baby was born too soon or had a difficult start. As mothers, parents, human beings, we worry about our babies and we want the best for them.
But. This is not the only reason why breastfeeding matters. Many women who cannot breastfeed find that their baby is indeed ‘fine’ when they move to formula milk. Formula milk doesn’t suddenly doom your baby automatically to a lifetime of poor health. Health is complicated and affected by lots of things. But just because the baby is ‘fine’, doesn’t mean the mother is fine. Breastfeeding is more than trying to beat the health odds. It’s about more than milk. So much more.
1. Breastfeeding is a reproductive and bodily right
Breastfeeding is closely tied to maternal reproductive and physical health. Not breastfeeding is associated with an increased risk of reproductive cancers, heart disease, arthritis and weight gain. Breastfeeding protects women physiologically from the stress of motherhood: enhancing sleep, reducing stress and downregulating inflammation resulting in better mental health. If these benefits were all available in a pill, its inventor would be richer than their wildest dreams, lauded as a saviour of maternal health. How dare women be told it just doesn’t matter if they can’t breastfeed?
Yet when breastfeeding goes wrong, many women find that this isn’t queried on a medical level. They’re simply told they can’t breastfeed and must give a bottle instead, as if breastfeeding is just a way of getting milk into a baby, rather than being a function of their body. They may be relieved to have the option of formula milk. But that doesn’t mean it’s a simple swap. If you have hearing loss, you’re likely to be very grateful for your hearing aid, but no one would expect you not to care about your lost bodily function. No one dismisses your feelings by telling you that the main thing that matters is that you can hear and get on with it. But we hear this message time and time again with breastfeeding.
2. Breastfeeding is a way of mothering
Breastfeeding is so much more than milk delivery. It is a way to calm, soothe and distract a baby. Breastfeeding is a way of bonding. Levels of oxytocin – which creates feelings of calmness, closeness and togetherness – rise for both mother and baby during breastfeeding. Mothers can feel an intimate sense of connection with their baby. So, when mothers are no longer able to breastfeed, they’re not only losing the milk transfer, but losing the way of mothering they wanted to have. They grieve, for the loss of breastfeeding, but also for the mother they envisaged themselves to be.
3. Breastfeeding can be a way of healing
Breastfeeding can also be a healer, particularly for mothers who have had a difficult birth or whose baby is sick or premature. Some women express how, although they felt their body ‘let them down’ during birth by labour not going the way they hoped, being able to breastfeed, and to see their baby grow bigger and stronger, helped them see their body differently. And for those with a baby who is wired up to different machines, and where nurses and doctors seem to be in charge, breastfeeding and giving breast milk can help parents to feel they are ‘reclaiming’ their baby for themselves.
Breastfeeding can be a way of healing for survivors of sexual abuse too. Although for some, breastfeeding will remind them of trauma, for others it can feel like a way of reclaiming their body by using it to nourish their baby. It can be a symbol of feminine power, if you feel your power was lost to a man, and a symbol of control. You are choosing to breastfeed. You are creating positive memories with your body that will have a lifelong positive impact. Your breasts are a focus for nutrition, not sex. Research has even shown that, amongst mothers with a history of sexual abuse, although sleep difficulties and depression are common, those who breastfeed have fewer issues, likely to be because of the protective hormonal effect of breastfeeding.
4. Breastfeeding is tied to culture and identity
Breastfeeding is deeply embedded in the culture and history of many women. It can be seen as synonymous with motherhood, a part of what it is to be a mother, in particular communities. In many countries around the world, breastfeeding is still very much the norm, and women expect to breastfeed as a way of mothering their baby. Women who have immigrated to countries such as the UK, where bottle-feeding is normalised, can feel bereft when barriers to breastfeeding are placed in their way, when it has such a strong tradition for them.
Breastfeeding can also be about reclaiming cultural identity. For example, Kimberly Seals Allers, journalist and author of The Big Letdown, writes about breastfeeding as being an act of resistance and revolution for black women in the USA; a way to reclaim traditions and re-establish norms that were taken from them historically through slavery and oppression.
References to breastfeeding can be found throughout historical and religious texts, meaning that breastfeeding can be an important part of following religious traditions as a mother. For example, in Hinduism, the primary sacred texts the Vedas, and other ancient Ayurvedic writings, have many references to breast milk, the breast and wet-nursing, all referred to in a context of bringing longevity. Likewise, in Islam, there is a specific reference in the Quran to breastfeeding for two years. Breast milk is seen to belong to the baby – it is a gift from God – and breastfeeding is seen as a mother passing her wealth on to the baby. Men are urged to support and enable their wives to breastfeed, and for some Muslim women, the need to fulfil this obligation is sacred.
Yet despite all of this, women are increasingly told that formula milk is a comparable substitute for breastfeeding. And to argue otherwise is to judge women, or is antifeminist. Whilst formula milk may feed the baby, a woman’s expectations of her body do not go away because she can formula feed. A woman’s feelings that her body has let her down do not go away because she can formula feed. A woman’s desire to mother in the way she wants to do not go away because she can formula feed. And we must do more to recognise that.
Amy Brown is Professor of Child Public Health at Swansea University. She is passionate about understanding how parents can best be supported in feeding their babies. Her fifth book, Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter, published by Pinter & Martin, is out now.
Illustration by Nikole Verdes.
This feature was originally published in JUNO Winter 2019.