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Breast is best ... but should we ever demonise a father for bottle-feeding his son?

Breast is best ... but should we ever demonise a father for bottle-feeding his son?

Did anyone see the recent scandal involving New Zealand footballer Piri Weepu? No, he was not caught taking drugs, in a threesome or match fixing. His sin was, wait for it, bottle-feeding his six-month-old son.

This image, from a New Zealand government anti-smoking advertisement, drew the ire of the local chapter of international breastfeeding association La Leche, who pressured the government to remove the offending few seconds of material from the resulting ad.

I get it, breast is best. There is no argument about that. In an ideal world all babies would be breastfed for the full year or more, no quibbles. But guess what La Leche, we do not live in that world -- I know, because in that world I have an apartment above the Annandale Hotel and a full head of hair.

Piri Weepu in the advertisement that La Leche lobbied to remove.

Piri Weepu in the advertisement that La Leche lobbied to remove.

We live in the actual world, a world where women have financial pressure to return to work, a world where women are sometimes physically unable to feed their babies, a world where partnerships dissolve and child raising is shared.


La Leche’s annoyingly twee motto is “happy mothers, breastfed babies”, which is all good and well but the overreaction to this brief, almost subliminal, image of familial support says much -- and quite rightly caused quite a storm across the Tasman.

Later, the organisation backtracked saying the anti-smoking image was simply inconsistent with the New Zealand government’s other “health promotion campaigns”.
“Our concern was about keeping health messages consistent; why would you have one Government campaign inadvertently undermine another?” they said in a statement.
Quite simply because a father bottle-feeding his child does NOT undermine anything, it does not take away from the importance of breast milk (which for all we know was expressed into the very bottle in question) it is not a subversive act. It is the reality of millions of parents around the world, the fact it puts up a red flag shows your organisation is completely and utterly out of touch.

All it does it to make breast-feeding exponents appear inflexible and reactionary.

A disclaimer at this point, I have done my fair share of bottle-feeding, it was nice, but I would never hope, nor expect, it to be anything like the real thing. Men cannot nurture their children with their own bodies, we donate our biological matter early and stand back and see what sticks. But, if circumstances require us to step up, whether it be through physical impairment, mental health or, quite frankly, because our partner has had a horrendous bloody night we should not feel like we are giving the kid Laudanum.

My wife was passionate about breast-feeding our first son, and although she returned to work she expressed twice a day in the not-very-private surrounds of the baby change facilities of the Art Gallery of NSW.
For our second child it was more complicated, we had kids later in life and, with number two, my wife struggled with her milk supply. Our second child also came out late, overcooked and underweight, and he fed every two hours for the first couple of months. During that time I watched him grow from a shrivelled prune into a plump, healthy little baby, my wife going round the clock to give him the best start possible.

But around the second month, her milk began to dry up. We had already been on the rough end of the breastfeeding brigade’s stick at ante-natal class where I was chastised like a naughty school boy for saying I could take one of the night time feeds from a tired partner; when making a list of equipment needed for baby, my suggestion of a bottle was disallowed.

So, she did not turn to a breast feeding association, due to the stigma she was conditoned to expect, instead she went to her far more understanding GP who put her on medication to increase the flow of milk. It worked for a while and I watched her battle on for as long as she could, waiting for the inevitable moment she would have to stop. She fought hard, I would have quit long before she did.

I knew the end would be painful for her, ante-natal class had set up the belief that to fail at breast feeding was to fail at being the perfect Mum; she was also desperate to treat both her children equally. In the fifth month when the final breast feed came she felt “guilt that I hadn’t tried hard enough”. I was angry at those zealots then, that allow no room for messy real life to intrude, I am angry at them now (can you tell?).

Most breast feeding associations are big on this zealotry but not so big on PR skills. La Leche claims they are promoting breastfeeding through “support, encouragement, information and education”, but they appear to have left out “fear and intimidation, with a healthy dose of tut-tutting”.

Let me say again, I understand the important of breast milk, but when you leave no room in your message for compromise you may as well join the unwavering, unfaltering eccentrics of Speaker’s Corner. You will repel more than you will convert.

And when you stigmatise or demonise a father bottle-feeding his son, you have lost sight of your message, and the result is that you are appearing not helpful, nor supportive, but just plain sour.