VICTORIA WHITE: The health system and the baby formula firms are feeding off mums’ guilt

Victorial White's article last week about the immorality of SMA sponsoring ‘pregnancy and baby’ fairs, in Cork and Dublin, drew a phenomonal response, some of it positive, some of it angry. Here she expands further on her arguments and responds to the criticism. (Comment on this story) 

The anger was sad, because it was from the usual source: mothers who wanted to breast-feed, but who had to formula-feed. It was claimed that I made formula-feeding mothers feel guilty, which is the usual mantra when anyone lists the advantages of breast-feeding.

The charge of making women feel guilty keeps breast-feeding out of the media in this country, and it is a major tool of the formula companies.

I remember, in the Eastern Health Board centre in Rathmines, Dublin, 15 years ago, picking up a leaflet about breast-feeding that advised me not to feel guilty if I couldn’t do it. That was when I flipped to the back and saw it was published by a formula company.

We will have to risk making formula-feeding mothers guilty in this country, if we are ever to lose our status as the worst breast-feeders in the developed world.

A generation of mothers will have to tell their daughters that although there are many child-rearing skills they wish to pass on, formula-feeding is not one of them.

And we will have to learn to point the finger at the people who really should be feeling the guilt: greedy formula companies, lazy health service providers, and mercenary governments.

Mothers who tried and failed to breast-feed should not feel guilty. They should feel angry. Irish women, 56% of whom attempt to breast-feed, are equipped with the same boobs as Norwegian women, 98% of whom breast-feed, 80% for six months or more.

Even in the UK, breast-feeding initiation has gone up to 81%. Only a miniscule percentage of women have a physical problem with breast-feeding, and this is not surprising as, otherwise, the human race would not have survived.

The main reason for the recent jump in Irish breast-feeding rates is the arrival of East European women. The longer they have been in this country, the less likely they are to do it, because they adapt to our formula-feeding culture.

Young mothers in Ireland, nowadays, can’t rely on their mothers to teach them what is, initially, a difficult skill to learn. To change the formula-feeding culture, every health professional who comes into contact with mammies and their children should be thoroughly trained to teach this skill and they should believe it will work.

The only way to achieve this is for the Department of Health, from the minister of health down, to prioritise breast-feeding as, in the words of Save the Children, “a public health imperative”. That’s what the Norwegians did in the 1950s and 1960s, though they had mostly continued to breast-feed newborns.

You would have thought that the ERSI’s recent “conservative estimate” of a €12m annual healthcare cost, levied on the Irish people for the treatment of childhood infections in exclusively formula-fed infants, would have persuaded the Government to take action.

The free GP card for the under-sixes, with no properly resourced breast-feeding policy, begins to look like a free-for-all for the pharmaceutical companies at our expense. And as for the idiocy of attempting to tackle childhood obesity, but not starting with a fully resourced breast-feeding action plan…

The only difference between angry Irish mothers who tried, and failed, to breast-feed and their happily breast-feeding Norwegian sisters is the lack of consistent support in our hospitals and health centres.

Not only do children have a right to feel cheated, by the Irish system, of the health benefits of breast milk, but their mothers also have a right to feel angry that they themselves were deprived the health benefits of breast-feeding.

Most of all, they have a right to feel angry because of the guilt that they feel when they see articles such as mine extolling the benefits of breast-feeding.

Because these mothers are not lazy or careless. If they were any of those things they wouldn’t give a damn about how they feed their children.

They feel guilt because they love their children so much. Every woman in Ireland should be sick to think that loving mothers, who would go to the ends of the Earth for their children, have to bear guilt because our health service didn’t support them to give their babies the milk their bodies make.

The Irish Examiner’s Facebook page lit up last week with heart-rending posts that highlight how our health service fails mothers and babies: “My son was taken immediately from me….Soon, my body shut down and I dried up completely.

“Yet, I get told how I’m poisoning my baby with formula, or I was just lazy, or how I’m not giving him the best. Well, he’s my son and I love him more than anything…”

It brings tears to my eyes to think that this loving mother should have to bear the fact that what she gave her beloved son was not “the best”. I’m sure he gets “the best” of everything else. If he’s school-going, I bet he has a pencil case full of colours and a school lunchbox bursting with goodness.

How dare the Irish health service abuse the overwhelming love mothers feel for their babies by depriving them of the ‘key to the larder’ that holds the super-food made just for them?

This leaves them as easy prey for the formula companies’ latest marketing scam.

Oh, and then there are the Facebook posters who call themselves ‘pro-choice’. They say women should be free to choose breast or bottle and “the world might be a better place if people just minded their own business.” But choice is never free and it most certainly isn’t in this case.

Formula is heavily marketed and breast-feeding isn’t.

In any case, it is the women who want to breast-feed on whom breast-feeding advocates focus. The National Infant Feeding Survey (2008) showed a whopping 81% of Irish mothers stopped breast-feeding before they wanted to. It also showed that the longer the woman stays in an Irish hospital, the less likely she is to continue to breast-feed.

We need a profound cultural change on infant feeding, but it will only happen if we Irish mothers stop defending ourselves and start advocating what the science says. As one Facebook poster commented, she never wore a seat-belt as a child, but she’s not telling her children to do the same.

Evolution has given mothers a tendency to compare our skills with those of others, because the health and success of our offspring was our only status for most of our history.

But we have to resolve to stop the blame-game now and concentrate the full force of our love and passion on reviving breast-feeding for the next generation.

Mothers who tried and failed to breast-feed should not feel guilty. They should feel angry


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