"I'm going to be very blunt in the hopes that it awakens more people to the dangers of infant formula."
Those were the introductory words of a post written by Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D. on Psychology Today's Moral Landscapes blog. The post, entitled "In light of last week's posts: Is Pushing Formula Evil?" originates from the question -- why do institutions push formula on normal infants?
That is a very legitimate and important question. It is one that I have asked numerous times on this blog, raising issues like lacking lactation training among health professionals, giving formula samples as a "breastfeeding prize", the impact of formula samples given in the hospital, and ways to know that your health care professional is not supportive of breastfeeding. All of those issues, all of those posts, originate from the premise that the vast majority of mothers do want to breastfeed and that all stars should be aligned to ensure that they have every chance possible to meet their own breastfeeding goals.
However, there was more to the question when Dr. Narvaez asked it. The full question, as written in her post (emphasis hers), was: Why do institutions push formula on normal infants when it is VERY RISKY? Yes, she used ALL CAPS . Other than the last paragraph of her post, which includes a few bullets on changes that she would like to see in the health care system, the rest of Dr. Alvarez article doesn't address the initial question at all. Instead, most of the space is taken up with a description of just how risky formula is. The problem, however, is that instead of listing scientifically verifiable facts, she used loaded judgmental non-scientific terms like fake food and junk food and starvation diet to describe formula feeding and used vague (and to a great extent unproven) terms like ill health, depressed and lower intelligence to describe the impact of formula feeding on babies. Her remarks were, of course, also short on footnotes or other references.
Her aim, as she stated at the beginning of the post, was to "awaken more people to the dangers of infant formula." In my experience, using loaded judgmental non-scientific terms isn't a good way to awaken people. It is, however, a really good way to get people to shut down and block out anything you have to say. It is also a really good way to get them angry.
Some people, like Suzanne from Fearless Formula Feeder, think there is an upside to Dr. Narvaez's post. "In fact, I kind of liked it," she wrote in her post called Good versus "Evil": How ignorance can bring out the best in the breastfeeding/formula debate, noting that it "brought women out of the woodwork" to tell their own stories, and also brought out professionals (like therapists and lactation consultants) who told her that her approach was wrong and damaging.
Personally, while I agree with the positives that Suzanne mentioned, I worry that the damage will be much greater than the upside. I think that Dr. Narvaez's post adds fuel to the fire and gives greater legitimacy to the argument that lactivists are cold-hearted, uncaring, uncompassionate, "Breasfeeding Nazis", when most of us are nothing like that. We didn't need Dr. Narvaez's horrible post for people like Amy from Just West of Crunchy to write the Top 10 Things Breastfeeding Advocates Should Stop Saying. We didn't need Dr. Narvaez's judgmental words for Best for Babes to come up a Credo that notes that "ALL moms deserve to make a truly informed feeding decision and to be cheered on, coached and celebrated without pressure, judgment or guilt" and that "ALL breastfeeding moms deserve to achieve their personal breastfeeding goals without being undermined by cultural and institutional Booby Traps." We didn't need Dr. Narvaez's drivel for Suzanne to start her Fearless Formula Feeder blog to support formula feeding moms "without being a boob about it." We didn't need Dr. Narvaez's ignorance for Katherine from Postpartum Progress to call in experts to address breastfeeding and postpartum depression on her amazing blog. I didn't need Dr. Narvaez to prompt me to write When it is Not Breast or I Won't Ask You Why You Didn't Breastfeed. The positive discussions were already happening, I think.
Yes, I think we were moving in the right direction, but that doesn't mean that the fire was out. The fact that my friend Casey from Moosh in Indy worked harder than anyone I know to breastfeed her child and still feels the heavy weight of society's judgment on her shoulders as she raises a bottle to her baby's lips, is extremely sad. As she wrote in her post, the one about me not being able to breastfeed, the assumptions made about bottle feeding mothers are hardly ever good ones. So this strong-willed, loving, amazing woman who I'm so proud of, now wears a bracelet on her bottle feeding arm that says "Thank you for judging." Partly tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but maybe sadly necessary too.
Many of us in the breastfeeding community have been working extremely hard to extinguish the fires that burn in the breast versus bottle debate. We need to continue that work, so that women can be supported in their feeding decisions no matter what. We did not need this woman to come along and throw more fuel on the fire. By "we" I mean both breastfeeding advocates and formula feeding moms. We need less judgment and more support in all corners. We need to work together to put this fire out, not to fan the flames. As Lauren from My Postpartum Voice noted, if you need to preface your article (as Dr. Narvaez did) with "NOTE TO MOMS: Don’t read this if you are feeling vulnerable, guilty or overstressed. NOTE TO ALL: I’m not a therapist but a researcher in child development," chances are you shouldn't be writing it.
I know that World Breastfeeding Week has come and gone for another year (I wrote about breastfeeding in front of teenagers over at Care2.com and got to show my Covering Up is a Feminist Issue video in the community keynote at BlogHer '11 in San Diego), but as usual the discussion doesn't end there. Dr. Narvaez has taken us two steps back. We will need to work that much harder to create true support for breastfeeding moms and for formula feeding moms. For every person who rolls their eyes and says, "not another breastfeeding post", I'm sorry...blame Dr. Narvaez because we have to keep fighting this fire until it is out.
Image credits: Fire photo = neiladerney123 on flickr, bracelet photo = used with permission from moosh in indy.
Sunday, August 14, 2011