Our regressive, insensitive and cultish attitude to breastfeeding

Blind adherence to the principle of “breast is best” seems to have become more important than treating babies, toddlers and parents as whole human beings.

Both of my children were breastfed, the first one, miserably, hidden away in public toilets or upstairs rooms ( “we set this one aside for you”), or on the sofa at home, following a long trudge back from town (“no, I can’t feed you now, I know you’re hungry, I hear your cries, but someone might see”). With the second it was different. With two children under two, I stopped caring. I ignored all the “this town welcomes breastfeeding” stickers placed only in the loneliest, most isolated places. Took no notice of the “discreet” breastfeeding aprons now marketed at mothers lest some innocent passer-by is corrupted by the sight of babe on tit. I whacked my breasts out anywhere and everywhere. My baby needed feeding. I fed him. I didn’t care what people thought. I might have had twice as many little ones to care for, but life was a whole lot easier.

It’s a couple of years since I breastfed and in some ways I miss it. I liked the bonding and I’ll be honest, by the end of it, I liked the “fuck you” it gave to anyone with the sheer nerve to be offended by it. And many people still are offended by it – really offended. Many of the worst offenders (or offendees?) lurk on Twitter (a surprising number of people feel inclined to tweet their disgust at nursing in public, frequently comparing it to defecation). I’ve never had such comparisons made to my face, but have had the odd “bitty” comment. This form of public disapproval is bad for mothers, bad for babies and terrible for the relationship they’re trying to forge. I still feel shame at not having given my firstborn sustenance freely, whenever and wherever he needed it.

Breastfeeding needs to be made easier, much easier. The trouble is, we’ve set our sights on the wrong people, something which became increasingly clear to me when I trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter. There the whole focus is not on prejudice but on ignorance – to be specific, the presumed ignorance of new mothers. The idea seems to be that society doesn’t need to change, new mothers do. When they don’t breastfeed it’s always because they “don’t know the facts”, or “haven’t persevered”, or have physical and/or psychological challenges that can be “easily overcome”. The idea that perhaps a woman just doesn’t want to – and that that is fine – is something no one in the pro-breastfeeding camp dares to mention. As time goes on, I become increasingly convinced that a great deal of breastfeeding propaganda isn’t to do with supporting women, regardless of how they choose to feed. It’s about pushing a broader philosophical position on how mothers should be, and it’s one I find regressive, insensitive and more than a little bit cultish.

This week American academic Joan B Wolf will give a lecture at the University of Kent in which she will argue the health benefits of breastfeeding are over-rated. This is to tie in with her book Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood.  I have not read the work and am prepared to believe that it is not without its own biases (Wolf is a professor of gender studies, not a clinician). Even so, I am relieved that the perception of breastfeeding as the default “right thing” for any mother to do is being challenged. I don’t think you need to talk to scientists (as Wolf has done) to know that it’s not so clear-cut. Any mother who hasn’t been bullied into losing the ability to think critically should be able to recognise this.  

Here, for instance, are just some of the drawbacks of breastfeeding (not including those based on external prejudice):

  • You’re on call to feed the baby 24/7 (convenient, my arse)
  • Other parents can’t take part in feeding unless you express, which is so time-consuming you end up thinking “sod it, shall we just agreed that I feed him/her?”
  • Other children lose out on one-on-one time with Mummy
  • It makes returning to work more difficult
  • It causes mothers physical pain (“not if you’re doing it properly”, they say. Of course, they’re not around in the morning when you wake up with tits like rock-hard boulders)
  • It can give mothers mastitis (“not if you -” oh, just give it up, you fibbers)
  • It can make mothers lose too much weight (“Too much? Is there such a thing as too much?” you might ask. Well, yes. I lost so much it triggered an eating disorder relapse. On balance, this was not a plus)
  • Variations in milk supply and ability to achieve let-down cause distress and frustration to both mother and baby (one of the reasons I think my youngest self-weaned. By the time he reached nine months, he wanted some consistency, dammit, and who can blame him?)

These, by the way, are all the complaints of someone who found breastfeeding “easy” i.e. me. What’s it like for someone who finds it hard? Why are we so convinced that the benefits outweigh the risks? What about the fact, pure and simple, that this is another person’s body we’re talking about? What about her right to bodily integrity? What about her feelings? (Contrary to popular belief, mummies still have those.) I’ve never seen satisfactory responses to these questions. Women who’ve just given birth are ordered not to be so “selfish”, yet isn’t selfish to base serious parenting decisions on something other than the antibodies found in a particular liquid, a liquid for which there is another, perfectly acceptable if not-so-antibody-tastic substitute.

Four years ago I attended a seminar run by my local breastfeeding support network. It was led by breastfeeding guru and author of The Politics of Breastfeeding, Gabrielle Palmer. Palmer was a good, convincing speaker. It was some of the other breastfeeding supporters I had issues with. They scared me. A lot of them seemed furious – really bloody furious – about the very existence of formula milk. They were outraged at the way formula manufacturers piggy-back on the benefits of breastfeeding in order to promote the alternative, outraged at the way “follow-on” milk has been used to get around bans on advertising formula for newborns. I just can’t get that cross. They’re just adverts. All adverts are sneaky. I’ve used follow-on milk. It is not the sperm of the devil. It feeds babies. It might not be breast milk, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing in and of itself. It seems to me that the whole Nestlé scandal, while indefensible, has been exploited by certain breastfeeding supporters to make the use of formula itself appear morally wrong. This isn’t logical and it isn’t fair.

Yesterday morning I saw this issue discussed on Twitter and it struck me that many mothers – regardless of how they feed their babies – do not hold the extreme views commonly ascribed to them. We do not fall neatly into two camps, those of defensive bottle-feeder and smug, self-righteous breast-feeder. We are able to see nuance and make the compromises we need to as parents. By contrast compromise wasn’t something I encountered in the breastfeeding counsellor who trained our group. She objected even to the use of breast pumps because “feeding a baby from a bottle will cause nipple confusion, even if the milk is expressed”. I did once mention to her that I’d depended on my breast pump after my second child was sent to hospital in a different town. Without expressing, I wouldn’t have been able to spend half my nights at home with my other child while my partner stayed in the hospital. The counsellor’s view was that my elder son – not yet two – should just have settled for not having Mummy at home for a while. I found it hard to believe that the avoidance of baby bottles, regardless of what they contained, should have been more important than reassuring my son at such a difficult time. It felt as though blind adherence to the principle of “breast is best” had become more important than treating babies, toddlers and parents as whole human beings, with a broad range of physical, emotional and practical needs. Is such an attitude really likely to make more women think breastfeeding is worthwhile?

We should of course be frustrated at the fact that those mothers who wish to breastfeed don’t always get the support and information they require. More than that, however, we should be outraged that all mothers, regardless of their choices, will be made to feel bad about how they care for their babies. Breastfeed and you’ll feel the pressure to hide from public view. Bottle-feed and it will be suggested that you have “failed”. And yet however you do it, feeding is caring and nurturing. How can we have let it become a source of shame?

A woman breastfeeds her newborn baby. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.