You’re trying to not like me. You’re mad at me because I’m calling breastfeeding normal, and you didn’t breastfeed. Or you breastfed for awhile, it got complicated, so you weaned to artificial baby milk. Or you pumped your milk and fed it to your baby in a bottle, which wasn’t actually breastfeeding but was human milk feeding and why do we have to split hairs here?
And you think I’m calling your behavior abnormal, because that’s the opposite of normal, right? Abnormal. Irregular. Odd. Strange. Defective. Freak. It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it, when we want to call one behavior normal but there are all these nice, smart, loving people who don’t do that behavior … so what do we do?
What if we called those other behaviors alternative? We have normal, and we have alternative. Dictionary.com gives us 3 noun and 4 adjective definitions for this word. Let’s work with this noun:
one of the things, propositions, or courses of action that can be chosen
… and let’s call this our adjective:
employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment
So, we call breastfeeding the norm (normal) because biologically, it’s the next step for a mammal that gives birth to a baby, and we can call artificially feeding the alternative because it’s another thing, proposition, or course of action that can be chosen. Now, when we describe breastfeeding, we’re still left with normal, because it’s still … well, normal. Except, here in the United States, it isn’t culturally normal. Go ahead, click on that link to the Centers for Disease Control and take a look. Less than half? Not exactly commonplace. Run-of-the-mill. Conventional. Prevalent. Standard. Normal? And yet, the alternative, the option that supposedly follows nontraditional ideas, methods, etc. and exists outside of the establishment … that’s the behavior adopted by the pretty significant percentage of mothers and their babies (and yes, I see that data is a few years old, but I’m willing to put it out there in light of how relatively steady those numbers stayed over an 8-year period and of how similar the experiences mothers share with me are to the ones I was hearing about 4 years ago).
Does anyone else think this is kind of backwards?
Artificial infant feeding is an alternative. It’s a viable choice when normal isn’t possible or when normal isn’t ideal. And, while breastfeeding is most definitely normal, and, from the point of view of the baby, ideal, our culture has some improvements to make before breastfeeding feels ideal to every mother. So we have alternatives.
The World Health Organization places breastfeeding as the optimal way for a baby to be fed, stating:
Breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; it is also an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers. As a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond. Exclusive breastfeeding from birth is possible except for a few medical conditions, and unrestricted exclusive breastfeeding results in ample milk production.
(OK … wait! Did you read that right? This part:
while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond
I guess I’ll have to write about that in another post!)
The World Health Organization, in its global strategy on infant and young child feeding, recommends viable alternatives when breastfeeding is not possible/chosen. In order of biological normality, these are the World Health Organization’s recommendations for infant feeding:
- mother’s milk from mother’s breast
- mother’s milk fed through an alternate vessel (cup, dropper … bottle is last on the list because of safety/hygiene issues in some countries)
- milk from another healthy mother/wet nurse/donor
- artificial baby milk
Clearly, this is not the picture we see here in the United States, although organizations such as MilkShare and HumanMilk4HumanBabies are, of late, emerging from the hidden “counterculture” of mothers who provide their milk for other babies. I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out where we’ve gone wrong as a culture, and I’m realizing the answer to that question is multi-layered and involves a web of money trails, myths, cultural gainsays that have penetrated our concept of what bodies are for, and so many other factors — but this answer does nothing to get us out of this hole. We can’t untangle the mess that’s been made, we have to start over and reclaim our concept of normal. We can keep our safe, viable alternatives for those who need them, but the time has come to re-establish the normality our culture has allowed to slip through its very fingers.
Want to read more about this? Check out Jessica, The Leaky B@@b’s blog post about how we can speak truthfully about infant feeding without slinging mud.