NB - for our response to Christopher Martyn's 'Observations' in the BMJ click here.
Well - the last 36 hours have certainly been interesting!
I'm not a lactation consultant or a scientist - I'm just a mum with an interest in breastfeeding issues. I don't fully understand all the ins and outs of the studies which the opinion piece in the BMJ covers. Fortunately for me (and for many of you too!) there are people who can write knowledgably about the issues raised by this publication. Step forward the Analytical Armadillo.
However, on the basis of yesterday's press coverage of the issue, I now realise that I understand it a whole lot better than most journalists and tv presenters. I understand how potentially damaging to young babies and their mothers the sensationalist reportage has been.
I understand how many fragile nursing relationships have been undermined by these reports and how many mothers are - right now - questioning their (perfectly adequate) milk supplies. I understand that introducing solid food too early can have a negative impact on a mother's milk supply and that can be the first step on a road leading to less - and often no - breastfeeding. I understand perfectly well how many mothers yesterday, with baby in the middle of the (infamous) 4 month growth spurt may have reached for the (organic) baby rice (!) and started trying to spoon it in. They may be reassured that it has been 'fortified' with iron - just in case their breastfed baby might be deficient....
Just how many of the press reports yesterday mentioned the fact that if a baby hasn't lost it's 'tongue thrust', or can't sit up unaided it isn't ready for solids? Just how many of the press reports discussed gut closure?
How many pointed out that one of the biggest causes of iron deficiency in babies is caused by premature cord clamping ~ which prevents blood flowing from the placenta to the baby before it has stopped pulsing?
There are countless examples of areas where the 'science' here is contested. If I stopped to list them all I'd be here all day, and so would you..
The important point is this: the media created the most sensationalist headlines they possibly could in order to sell papers and increase viewing figures. They bore NO consideration for the true health realities of what they were saying. As the old adage says, 'why let the facts get in the way of a good story'?
The journalists, editors, presenters and 'researchers' did not think for one moment about how many breastfeeding mothers, (mums who had in all likelihood fought hard to establish breastfeeding in the first place) would suddenly come under pressure from their mothers/ inlaws/ friends to wean their baby before they felt it was time to do so.
Here are just some of the headlines from yesterday:
- 'Call for U-turn on when to wean baby after warnings that exclusively breast-feeding for six months 'causes allergies'' ~ Daily Mail
- 'Breast is not Best' ~ The Sun
- 'Mother's milk 'may do more harm than good''. ~ Daily Express
There are many more, and you can find a more comprehensive list of the various media coverage here.
The truth is that the review did not say 'breast is not best' or that breastmilk 'causes allergies'. These headlines are utterly misleading, inaccurate and irresponsible. In all likelihood the papers knew this too. Still - they clearly felt it was a risk worth taking. Never ones to miss an opportunity to 'diss' breastfeeding, most of these stories (and there are many more) were front page news.
We had mums who started to give their children solids at seven weeks wheeled out (Radio 2) without anyone pointing out that there is no debate whatsoever amongst the 'experts' about this. Introducing solids before 17 weeks is not recommended - the gut is not ready. Even the baby food companies are too scared to recommend that you feed their products to babies less than 4 months old, the 'new' report also states this clearly. Completely irresponsible journalism.
Best of all, none of this is news! Experts in the field of infant nutrition have been discussing the pros and cons of the current guidelines for years. Several years ago a similar 'review' in the USA came to similar conclusions. More research needed.
Although I can't help but wonder which formula companies were wining and dining the authors of that report, I am citing it here as an example of how this front-page news story just wasn't news! So what if it was just published in the BMJ, this debate is much older than that.
Why did they do it then?
Well, we live in a formula-feeding culture where breastfeeding advocates are frequently accused of 'bullying' people into breastfeeding and 'making' them feel bad when they struggle and give up.
I personally believe that the media plays a big role in creating the 'myth' that breastfeeding advocates are bullies. By and large that is completely untrue, and quite frankly I'm sick of it.
Most of the breastfeeding advocates I know are mums, they know how hard it is to learn to breastfeed and they've been sleep deprived too. They've had crap labours and been fed innaccurate information by health professionals. Those mums seek to advocate breastfeeding because they want to help other people avoid the sadness and yes, guilt, that comes when breastfeeding doesn't work out.
Mums who don't breastfeed do often feel guilt, but many also acknowledge that this guilt comes from within, and don't seek to blame anyone else. They often go on to successfully breastfeed their other children, often with some help from the bullies.
Sometimes they become so passionate about breastfeeding that they even turn into 'bullies' themselves! ;)
But the media love to bash breastfeeding because it appeals to the masses. It's a bit like 'sport'. It allows the majority to feel better about something they are insecure about, at the expense of the minority. The media know that by putting a headline out which will make people feel better about themselves (even temporarily), they will sell more newspapers or raise their viewing figures. It's the equivalent of giving out a free chocolate bar - the only difference being that giving out a chocolate bar doesn't cause people to make life-changing decisions.
Only 1% of babies in the UK are exclusively breastfed until they are six months old. That means that 99% aren't - and that's a lot of mums who fell short of the 'target'.
99% is a really big majority, and you can see how the media might benefit from creating headlines which appeal people who feel guilty for not meeting those (all-important!) guidelines...
This makes me wonder who the REAL bullies are. I mean, it's really easy for the papers to get mileage out of breastfeeding mums. First of all we're women, and women are easier targets than men (yes, I know it's the C21st but it's still true). On top of this we're a small minority of women, and people already resent us. We're the school swots - if you like... (Ok, I know that's not the case - but I hope you see what I mean).
Mums who are openly passionate about breastfeeding annoy people. You might think you're just proud and 'loved up', but really that looks like gloating to a lot of people...
Still - does that justify the press maligning breastfeeding all the time?
Not in my opinion.
If someone is openly passionate about their religion, or their colour, or their sexuality, we might not always agree with their life-choices, but in our 'liberal' culture we accept it and we realise that they are entitled to express themselves however they want! Not so with breastfeeding. Because you might make someone feel guilty.
Funnily enough, persons of colour, religious groups, homosexuals, and other minority groups are protected from irresponsible reporting in the press by special guidelines.
A headline such as 'Black is not Best' would be unimaginable (I have chosen something deliberately provocative btw - it's obviously nonsense).
People are naturally coloured, they are naturally gay or straight, people are also naturally breastfed. It is the norm. It shouldn't need to defend itself but it does. It's still OK to bash breastfeeding and breastfeeding mums. It's ok to lie about breastfeeding facts and call breastfeeding advocates names. It happens all the time with impunity. But WHY? Why is it still ok to do this?
Actually, it's not ok.. I believe the press has gone beyond criticising 'bullies' and is now on dangerous ground. Ground that actually puts mothers and their babies at a considerable disadvantage. The headlines and distorted reportage really have caused damage. Despite the fact that some newspapers will now print 'balance' pieces and perhaps even have to print retractions, they KNOW that the headline was worth it. It's the headlines that people remember.
Perhaps some of you will think that by comparing breastfeeding mums to other minority groups I'm exaggerating. Imagine if someone was thrown off a bus for wearing a turban? Or if a gay man felt so intimidated that they went to eat their dinner in a toilet? These things happen to breastfeeding mums - and if you breastfeed for long enough, the chances are that you will - sadly - have a negative experience associated with it eventually. Racism still exists in the UK, but it is tolerated far less than it used to be, and the press do not inflame it. Imagine if they were allowed to - what sort of headlines do you think the Daily Mail would print?
I would like to see the media forced to stop their sensationalist headlines and treat the topic with the care that it deserves. All mothers and their babies deserve respect and access to good information. I believe that issues related to infant feeding deserve the same respect given to other issues.
OFCOM is the body set up to regulate broadcast media such as television and radio. The PCC deals with written word, such as newspapers and magazines.
The Press Complaints Comission's Editorial Code says:
'The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability'
But you can print prejudical headlines about breastfeeding. The printed press in the UK is currently self-regulating. It's code is (perhaps inevitably) light-weight. Interestingly though, elsewhere on their website they say this:
'The PCC also does an increasing amount of proactive work with groups of people like to need to know about our work, such as Coroners, the police, witness services and bereavement support groups. There is more information about this work in the Dialogue with the Community section of the site. The PCC from time to time issues special guidelines to editors which are designed to add even further to this protection. In 1997, for instance, the Commission issued guidelines on the portrayal in the media of persons suffering from mental illness. Other specific areas the PCC has tackled include the identification, against their wishes, of lottery winners. In 2001, the Commission produced practical advice to help people suffering from press harassment and acted to emphasise the need for care in the reporting of matters involving race and religion. In 2009, the Commission published briefing notes on the reporting of suicide; and on the payment to parents for material about their children, in the wake of the Alfie Patten case.'I would like to see issues related to infant feeding (including breastfeeding) included on that list.
OFCOM's code (which is considerably more robust) says:
5.13 'Broadcasters should not give undue prominence to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy in all the programmes included in any service (listed above) taken as a whole.Meaning of "undue prominence of views and opinions":
Undue prominence is a significant imbalance of views aired within coverage of matters of political or industrial controversy or matters relating to current public policy.'
from section 2 'Harm and Offence'
'2.2 Factual programmes or items or portrayals of factual matters must not materially mislead the audience. '
also here (article 10) :
- Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. [...]
- The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
I would like to see OFCOM start to regulate to protect the health of mums and babies by ensuring they receive accurate information about feeding practices.
I would like them, for example, to ensure that when a programme shows a mum making the decision to bottle-feed or struggling with breastfeeding (you see it all the time in the soaps), they include information about bodies which can provide breastfeeding support (such as the LLL, ABM, BFN etc), at the end of the show in the same way they do when they run a story about domestic violence, debt, gambling, or sexual abuse.
Again, you might think this is extreme. The statistics show that many, many women run into problems breastfeeding (65% of them have given up before their baby is a week old), and very, very few of them get the correct advice to allow them to cope. Given the risks of with formula feeding both for babies and their mothers, it is an important issue. The damage stopping breastfeeding can do to a mother's mental health is only just coming to light ~ sometimes I wish this information was shared more ~ particularly by the popular press. Both these issues impact negatively on so many women and their babies.
I have complained about misleading headlines before. I hit a brick wall. Others have tried too - same thing.
Although it is tempting to complain again and again I don't see what purpose it would serve. The regulations need tightening up in order for us to have any success in defending breastfeeding from the seemingly endless media attacks on it.
I want to ask the PCC and OFCOM to re-think the way they regulate the issues related to infant feeding. I want to present them with a good argument, and lots of pressure.
If you feel strongly about the way the news yesterday was presented and would like to do something about it, please, complain all you want, but please also consider taking the time to write to the PCC and OFCOM yourselves - perhaps this article will give you some ideas for what you might like to say to them. Their contact information is below.
You can also SIGN MY PETITION.
Perhaps we can turn this press disaster into something positive - and use the disgraceful press coverage of the issues to our advantage.
Please don't expect 'DBM' to do it all (after all, I'm really just another busy mum doing this as a volunteer!) - if you just assume someone else will complain you're on a hiding to nothing.
We all have to take responsibility for challenging the real breastfeeding bullies.
2a Southwark Bridge Road
2a Southwark Bridge Road
You can complain via this form & you can make suggestions (like broadcasting contact information for breastfeeding support agencies with any programme which discusses breastfeeding ) here.
You can make complaints here: email@example.com
And you can make suggestions (like asking for special guidelines to be drawn up to protect breastfeeding reportage) here.
I would love it if a representative from every breastfeeding support group in the country wrote or rang in. I'd love it if we ALL made the effort. I know you're - in general - a pretty laid-back bunch, but this really has gone on long enough. Please help to change things.
I'll go a step further, contact your MP. Tell them how you feel and Include a link to this blog if you want. It's time we campaigned properly for this issue.
To use a term coined by mum on the DBM facebook group earlier, 'Breastfeeding Mothers Against Discrimination' or 'BeMAD!'
Don't be in any doubt, we can create change.