'Breast is Best' has become another way to control women's bodies

'Breast is Best' has become a dogma. And like many dogmas before it, women suffer as a result.

'Breast is Best' has become a dogma. And like many dogmas before it, women suffer as a result. Photo: Stocksy

Breast is Best: it's the breastfeeding slogan that's presented as a universal truth.

From midwives and doctors to the World Health Organization, 'Breast is Best' is presented simply as a fact, rather than an opinion or preference. It's even printed on the tins of baby formula.

The pervasiveness and support for breastfeeding has been chalked up as a feminist victory. We have fought, and won, not only the right but social acceptance to breastfeed our babies in public and in the workplace.

Any attempt to prevent women from breastfeeding wherever, whenever and however they please is met with public backlash and subsequent back peddling.

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And that's great. But 'Breast is Best' has become a dogma. And like many dogmas before it, women suffer as a result.

For many women, 'Breast is Best' isn't the empowering message its proponents claim. Rather, it's robbed women of the very thing we were fighting for: bodily autonomy.

It gives women only two options: to breastfeed and be a good mother or to bottle feed and be a bad mother.

Because, implied in the statement 'Breast is Best' is that every other feeding option is sub-standard. And what mother would want to give her child anything but the best?

Recent research suggests that the benefits of breastfeeding have been overstated. When socioeconomic factors are taken into account there's no difference in the health and development of breastfed babies versus those who are bottle-fed.

We need only look to baby boomers to know the 'Breast is Best' dogma is silly. There's a whole generation of post-war babies that never got a drop of the stuff and society didn't crumble.

Nonetheless, we find ourselves in a situation where midwifery students are being taught that formula is so bad for babies it should only be available via medical prescription.

I've heard stories of doctors who have told tearful mothers who are struggling to breastfeed that formula is like poison for their babies and that they simply need to try harder to breastfeed.

And I recently watched a group of mothers argue that a baby's right to be breastfed should be enshrined in law. What about the mother's right not to breastfeed?

Such views might sound empowering in a textbook or a doctor's surgery but it can be devastating at 2am when your baby is screaming and your nipples are bleeding.

Let me be quite clear: I'm not anti-breastfeeding. I tried really hard to breastfeed my two daughters.

If women want to breastfeed and they are physically able to do it, more power to them. I think it's great that society is supportive of their decision. But the reality is that many women find breastfeeding extremely difficult, painful and time-consuming.

For many women it's not the easy and convenient option that the brochures would have us believe. In many instances, breastfeeding is a luxury for women who are physically able and have a lot of time and support.

The myth-making about breastfeeding has to stop; the idea that you only need to work at it and it will come naturally just sets women up to fail.

Being attached to a pump eight hours a day in order to increase your milk supply isn't natural or healthy. It's mechanically-enabled torture. I should know. That's what I went through to feed my first baby.

The 'Breast is Best' dogma has become all about the baby and nothing about the mother.

Is breastfeeding best for a woman who can't produce milk and feels like she's failed motherhood because of it?

Is it best for a woman who's been sexually abused and finds the process of breastfeeding triggering?

Is it best for a mother who can't afford the time or the money to sit down for hours every day to breastfeed?

Is it best for a sleep-deprived and isolated mother who can't give the baby to someone else to look after for a while because it will need to be fed?

My own struggles with breastfeeding consumed me with such a sense of failure and inadequacy that I felt physically sick every couple of hours because I knew I would have to try to feed my baby again soon.

How can breast possibly be best — for me or my daughter — when it made me feel physically sick just to hold her?

Fortunately, breastfeeding is not enshrined in law or controlled by doctors or midwives, but 'Breast is Best' has become so toxic that women are policing each other, and breastfeeding has become just another way to control women and their bodies.

When politicians try to remove our reproductive rights we fight for our bodily autonomy and we will not accept anything less than "My body. My choice".

We need to apply the same principle to feeding our babies — whether it's breast or bottle.

Kasey Edwards is author of 30-Something and the Clock is Ticking. She has consulted to both formula companies and health bodies with breastfeeding support services. www.kaseyedwards.com