I am SO fed up with seeing health reports watered down through fear of upsetting people.
We’re used to seeing the benefits of breastfeeding qualified so as not to be seen to â€œbullyâ€ or â€œguilt tripâ€ mothers who didn’t manage to breastfeed. People who dare to suggest, based on endless scientific studies, that formula is not equal to human breastmilk as a source of nutrition for human infants are villified for making vulnerable new mothers feel pressured.
But research does not bully or blame. People do that.
As a result of this endless tiptoeing around the facts, many mums are unaware that the World Health Organisation guidelines not only recommend exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months, as the NHS guidelines, but also to continue breastfeeding alongside solid food up until 2 years. The WHO makes no comment on practicality or achievability of this target. It’s just cold hard facts â€“ this is what the evidence shows is best for babies.
It’s not just breastfeeding advice that gets diluted so not to offend. Did you know that research suggests we should actually be eating at least 8 portions of fruit and veg per day, not just the 5 that are recommended in the UK? The nutritional guidelines don’t mirror the research because 8 portions is considered unachievable for the average person here and they don’t want to set targets too high in case we don’t try at all.
Because that’s the obvious reaction isn’t it?
Eight portions? I’ll never manage that…. If I can’t meet the target I just won’t bother eating veg at all. Lets have chips instead!
Is it really necessary to baby us like this? Can’t they just give us the facts and let us work with them?
At the moment even breastfeeding up to 4 months is unachievable for a lot of women in the UK. Some of those choose to stop. Some struggle and eventually give up. Some don’t get enough support. Some feel empowered, some feel guilty… Being aware of the WHO guidelines might make you feel angrier about lack of support, but I don’t think is going to make you feel any worse.
Realistically, I don’t think that having the full facts would change the statistics much. The majority of women know the benefits of breastfeeding. Those who give up early on are not doing so easily or willingly. There’s no doubt that more support and less blame is the way forward in improving breastfeeding rates.
But I don’t understand why that means ignoring or diluting the facts. If research proved that eating homemade bread daily had massive health benefits for you and your child, wouldn’t you want to know, even if it sounded like an unachievable target?
If you had never made bread before and no-one would give you the recipe, would you feel guilty when you gave up after a few days of trying? If kneading the dough gave you repetitive strain injury and infections, and no-one was there to help, would you feel guilty about stopping? What if you had to go back to work and didn’t have the time or energy to bake bread for your baby to eat at childcare?
Even if it didn’t work out, wouldn’t you still want to know that the bread you did manage to bake was worth it? That those days when you cried with tiredness and frustration meant something?
And what if you discovered you were good at baking bread? What if you enjoyed it? Would you be marginalised and made to feel guilty because you continued to bake when others couldn’t? Would you be looked down on for letting your child eat your homebaked bread in public when there was sliced bread available?
Making bread is an art. Some people find it easier than others and others need lessons and practical help. If you decided that homebaking wasn’t for you, or after a while of trying your best, you made a decision to use sliced bread (an effective and much-needed substitute, but without the same long-term health benefits) would you feel guilty? Maybe you would. But would you take issue with the research itself, just because the target was unachievable for you? Would you feel bullied by the facts? I don’t think so.
It sounds ridiculous. So why is it so different if you are talking about breastfeeding instead of breadmaking?
There are a lot of obstacles to breastfeeding up to 2 years in our society, not least combining breastfeeding with working. In a lot of cases it is, effectively, unachievable. But some of us do get there, either through intention or accident. And we’re made to feel abnormal, or told we’re â€œsmugâ€ for succeeding at something that others haven’t. Watering down the evidence doesn’t make more mums try breastfeeding, it doesn’t help more mums continue, and I doubt it reduces the guilt when breastfeeding doesn’t work out.
In the real world, parenting means compromise and there should be no blame or guilt attached to the way you feed your child. Modern lifestyles are not always optimised for health.
But if everyone was aware that breastfeeding was recommended up to the age of 2 or more, maybe the minority who already breastfeed longterm wouldn’t be be marginalised and made to feel guilty either. Maybe those who currently feel pressured to give up at 6 months because â€œthose are the guidelinesâ€ would feel empowered to continue until they are ready to wean.
Health research is about evidence, not judgements. It provides us with the information we need to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families. It is not always possible to do it all, even when you are aware of the benefits. But if we don’t even have all the facts to start with, how can we feel confidence in our choices?