Why I think the language around breastfeeding needs to change

So. Breastfeeding. With a new baby it has been on my mind a lot recently. It was also on the news a lot last week after the Royal College of Midwives released a statement that women's informed choice to breastfeed, bottle-feed, or a combination of both "must be respected".

I do hope the new statement brings on a change. The language employed in the promotion of breastfeeding is incredibly guilt-tripping and quite frankly, damaging. Damaging to mothers, damaging to babies and damaging to the whole aim of promoting breastfeeding.

I haven't talked about it here before but I have found breastfeeding a huge challenge. It was difficult and nigh impossible the first time. I wished and hoped that it would have been different with my second-born, but alas, it was even worse this time. 

mother breastfeeding in a hospital

The message you get given through all antenatal information makes it seem like it shouldn't be a challenge. All leaflets and information given is all about how breast is best, all mothers can and should breastfeed, it is difficult, but you just have to persevere and try and breastfeed you shall. That just about covers the NHS-issued angle to breastfeeding promotion.

When you venture on internet forums, you start to hear all sorts of extreme opinions. Breastfeeding gets equated to good parenting, that you are choosing to give the best to your baby, and that formula is evil and if you don't breastfeed you have chosen the easy route. Breastfeeding is apparently the natural thing to do and women have been doing it since the beginning of time. It is just because "modern women" have options to use formula and are lazy about it, that breastfeeding rates are low.

Well, that is just blatantly untrue. Women have always struggled to breastfeed for various reasons. Always. That's why lactation failures have been described in medical literature already in 1550BC, and archaeologists have found baby bottles dating over 4,000 years. Or hey, we've all heard about wet nurses too haven't we? That used to be a regulated and well-thought of profession back in the day.

So what if you can't breastfeed? Or what if you just simply do not want to? You are still going to hear all about how you should and definitely can breastfeed, if you just try hard enough. And try you must if you are to be a good mother.

First time around, I remember walking down the hospital corridors to the refrigerator to get my formula milk and having to walk past posters with smiling mummies, their suckling babies, with affirming statements such as "I'm happy. She's happy. Breastfeeding is the best decision I ever made" and "I'm not saying it's always easy. I'm saying it's worth it" and "Breastfeeding - What could be more natural?".

It wasn't just upsetting. It also made me incredibly angry. Why does this need to be stuffed down your throat when you are at your most vulnerable? How dare they start guilt-tripping women when they need support the most, whatever way they are feeding their babies, whatever the reason?

Second time around I spotted a poster in the delivery room (out of all places), saying the hospital was "baby-friendly" so they would not provide any formula milk or feeding equipment and you should prepare to bring it from home if you want to use any. It annoyed and angered me at the same time. What's so baby-friendly about starving babies if they need to be fed? And how about mother-friendly? Off you trot to local shops in your sleep-deprived state if you are finding it difficult, too bad, we are baby-friendly here! Thanks for slamming that in the delivery room where you are already tired, sleep-deprived and highly emotional.

The guilt-tripping language makes mothers feel like failures. It is damaging and should stop.

mother bottlefeeding in a hospital

It's also damaging to babies. If you are told breastfeeding is natural and you just have to make an effort, how long will you try? Anecdotally, I've heard of so many babies being readmitted for jaundice, dehydration or low weight gain, and it just doesn't make sense to me. Why not just educate women on how to feed their babies safely, whatever the means? I know it would have been a lot more useful for me to have someone talk to me about sterilising and baby-led feeding while in hospital, than having a couple of leaflets handed to me when leaving and Googling this information home.

There is a lot of promotion of breastfeeding, but the actual support when women face problems with it just is not there. Midwifes, bless their hurried hearts, I am sure try very hard to help at busy post-natal wards but there is only so much help you can give when your training tells you how to latch babies on and that everyone can and should do it. I found much of the help was almost like blind leading the blind, young midwifes repeating the lines about a good latch and to just keep trying, without any relevant personal or practical experience below their belts. Adequately trained breastfeeding counsellors or lactation consultants are rare to find, there might be one available once a week a couple of hours at a local breastfeeding clinic. Local doesn't really mean local by the way - it could be anywhere miles away from where you live. And when there are issues that could be corrected (like tongue ties, or prescriptions for drugs that help with milk coming in) you can be sure there are long waiting lists for treatment unless you can afford to go private.

It's just bizarre - the language employed and the contrasting lack of support. It is not right and it is not realistic. 

There are a huge variety of reasons why some women can't or choose not to breastfeed. We've all got our own priorities, our own motivations, and our own physical and mental abilities to work with. Women are perfectly able to understand information given to them about infant feeding, and make the best possible choice for their babies and for their families. Be that breast or bottle. So just give us the information and respect our choices. Without the guilt-trip.

What are your thoughts on breastfeeding?


  1. I am sorry you had a bad experience. Did you desperately want to breastfeed? I totally agree, there needs to be better support to enable breastfeeding, but let's face it, in our bottle-centric society, we have lost a lot of the "know-how" and practical help with breastfeeding difficulties. And you're right, there needs to be unbiased, independent information about formula feeding. Of course you will interpret an encouraging poster as "guilt-tripping" and "pressure" (but not everybody will) - but please think about the enormous pressure, backed by millions of £s, of formula marketing, advertising and misleading health claims that we are constantly exposed to.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I did want to breastfeed.

      I am sure the posters (and other messaging around breastfeeding) is not meant to be guilt-tripping. I mean (and hope), whoever designed them and approved them is not a sociopath looking to make women feel bad at a particularly vulnerable stage in their lives! Still, the language matters, especially around such an emotive and complex subject. Not sure what country you are from, but in UK the tendency has been to lay the blame on individual women, and against that background any implication that women are not doing the best for their babies is triggering. I am far from the only one feeling this way. That's why I am arguing you should pay special attention to the language used around breastfeeding.

  2. What a coincidence that I’m reading this whilst (breast)feeding my daughter her evening milk!

    I never had trouble producing milk, but with my second I’ve the trouble that she’s a finicky eater who doesn’t want to eat out in public or if there’s too much noise...from her brother....until she’s desperate for food. I’ve found that each to their own on these topics but I’d agree with you that the language is dated and patronising. I’ve not seen the statement myself but have obviously recently been in a hospital.

    What angers and annoys me more though, is the way that things get brushed off for second time moms.ive a 3 year old and now this 5 month old and I swear that even in the delivery room they were just like “you know what to do when it’s time, you’ve done it before”. Fuckers.

    Mutta enivei, kukin syöttäköön lapsensa miten parhaaksi näkee ja viis veisatkoon siitä mitä muut sanovat elleivät ole auttamassa 24/7! Hyvin se menee oli sitten tissi tai pullo (jota kumpikaan meidän lapsista ei suostu ottamaan!).

  3. Ha ha yes - there was an element of that! People just think you already know what to do because you've had a child before. And to be honest, I sometimes felt a bit self conscious asking for help as I felt like I should already know what to do.

    Mut joo olet aivan oikeassa siina ettei kellaan ole nokan koputtamista syottamisasioissa elleivat ole siella tekemassa ja auttamassa! Mulla taa kakkonen ei suostu ottamaan tissia taas ollenkaan - pullo menee kylla. Ykkonen oli ihan painvastoin


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