If you’ve been anywhere near social media lately, then you’ve probably seen the immense flak celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, is copping for discussing breastfeeding during a recent radio interview. Even singer Adele chimed in, expressing a strong dislike for Jamie’s comments.
Oliver said, “We have the worst breastfeeding in the world [the UK has the lowest rate]. If you breastfeed for more than six months, women are 50% less likely to get breast cancer. When do you ever hear that? Never. It’s easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free.”
What? A man, even a soon-to-be father of five, shouldn’t be giving breastfeeding advice, right? I mean he doesn’t have breasts; he’s never dealt with nipple pain or late night feeds every twenty-five minutes. So really, how on earth is it acceptable for him to be giving breastfeeding advice?
Here’s another way to look at this recent controversy: if Oliver is not qualified to have a say about breastfeeding, then perhaps we shouldn’t expect a woman to have any say regarding circumcision. After all, she doesn’t have a penis, so she can’t possibly understand the decision either to remain intact or consider surgical circumcision, can she?
And perhaps we wouldn’t accept a female pediatrician providing information regarding circumcision, again because she doesn’t have a penis. But wait… we actually do allow women to share information, form opinions, and make decisions for their baby sons, about staying intact or selecting surgical circumcision.
Perhaps breastfeeding and circumcision aren’t identical comparisons, but it does illustrate that you can in fact form an opinion, do research and share information about things that your body doesn’t have.
The obstetric profession is heavily dominated by males too, yet we flock to them in droves for care during pregnancy and birth.
Jamie Oliver Isn’t Talking About YOU And Your Breastfeeding Journey
Birth, breastfeeding, infant sleep and discipline are all emotional and feud-inducing parenting topics. In reality, none of them should cause division and debate, but such is the world we live in.
When we hear research results, advice, opinions and news stories, many of us tend to take it personally, assuming that everyone’s words are directed at us, and taking it as a judgement of our specific circumstances. In reality, Jamie Oliver’s words aren’t actually about you and your breastfeeding experience. Not in the slightest.
He is making a comment, however, on the sad state of our overall support for women’s health in today’s society. Perhaps referring to breastfeeding as “easy” isn’t entirely accurate, especially if you have dealt with toe curling nipple pain due to a persistent poor latch, but his overall message is important. Breastfeeding does reduce the risk of certain cancers and other health concerns, it does offer more nutrition, and it can be free (except when a mother needs to pay for lactation support, pumps, etc). His wording might not be perfect, but that doesn’t make the message entirely wrong. None of us is perfect, but many of us have good hearts and good intentions.
You see, breastfeeding promotion, research and public health campaigns aren’t about you as an individual, they’re about society. For example, the goal of a government’s public health campaign is to ensure the health of its citizens as a whole, reduce public health costs, and promote overall wellness.
Research shows that breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer. We know that cancer is a serious women’s health issue, so why isn’t it shouted from the roof tops? Saying that breastfeeding reduces the risk of cancer isn’t saying that if you choose not to, or are unable to, breastfeed then you will develop breast cancer. It is simply saying that breastfeeding reduces the risk, and from a public health standpoint that’s important. It means better health for more citizens, which means fewer resources go towards treating possibly preventable cases. Women have the right to make informed decisions, and not promoting the things we do know prevents women from making fully informed choices.
Male Support Of Breastfeeding Is A Necessary Part Of Public Health
Research has shown time and time again that a father’s support for breastfeeding significantly increases the rate of initiation and duration of breastfeeding. Find out more in BellyBelly’s article, Blokes, Boobs and Breastfeeding, written by a father, David Vernon.
We shouldn’t discourage men from having an interest in breastfeeding; we should encourage them to learn and take an interest. Without their support, fewer women would be breastfeeding.
Access to lactation education and support from an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) can be extremely helpful as a mother initiates breastfeeding. But what happens at 2am, when a mother’s exhausted, the baby’s fussing, and she’s struggling to get baby to calm down to latch? The breastfeeding tip line might help, but having a supportive partner to offer a hand and encouragement will go much further.
A new father might be uncertain about the benefits, or isn’t even aware, of the supply-demand relationship with regard to breastfeeding. So, rather than supporting the mother in getting through the 2am feed, he might offer that handy formula sample, in the hope of getting everyone back to sleep quickly. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with making an informed decision to supplement with formula, but if the mother really wants to breastfeed exclusively, offering the bottle could undermine her confidence in breastfeeding.
Should We Be Surprised That Jamie Oliver Discusses Nutrition?
Jamie Oliver isn’t exactly known for accepting the western culture’s way of eating. In fact, he has often caused waves by speaking out about the poor nutrition we offer our children. Whether he’s talking about school lunches, or neighbourhoods where the only food option is fast food, he’s practically made it his mission to make sure communities learn about nutrition. He’s gone so far as to challenge the US Department Of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees most school lunches in the US. He isn’t criticising parents or saying they’re doing wrong; he’s pointing to those responsible for providing access to good nutrition.
It seems Oliver isn’t interested in sugar coating things to keep the peace; he’s all about making noise and causing change – an admirable quality in many eyes.
Breast milk does have more nutrition than formula. That doesn’t make formula awful or unhealthy; it simply means breast milk has more nutritional value that a baby can absorb more easily. Just as Jamie Oliver has recommended whole foods in school lunches, it makes perfect sense that he would advocate for breast milk, our biologically normal, whole food infant nutrition.
There’s No Room For Guilt
As a society, we cannot allow guilt to dictate health and wellness. No mother should feel guilty about her breastfeeding journey or lack thereof. We need to understand that as individuals we must make the healthiest choice for us, in our specific circumstances, but we cannot allow that decision to overshadow evidence being shared.
If you make an educated decision not to breastfeed, that’s a choice you are more than entitled to make. If breastfeeding doesn’t work as planned, due to your health, baby’s health or life circumstances, then it’s nothing more than unfortunate circumstances and shouldn’t leave you with guilt. It doesn’t mean your baby will be ill or that you will get cancer, but neither does it negate the studies showing that breastfeeding reduces the risk of certain cancers and reduces the risk and/or severity of certain childhood infections. These studies are for the population as a whole, not directed specifically to you as an individual.
Jamie Oliver isn’t saying mothers aren’t trying, and he isn’t saying you or other mothers have done something wrong; he’s pointing out that as a society we don’t support breastfeeding. We aren’t sharing the evidence, we aren’t providing lactation support and education. Mothers are not failing; society is failing mothers who wish to breastfeed.
If you’re unable to breastfeed, for whatever reason (medical, circumstantial, etc), then all the evidence and support in the world can’t change that. Through education, you know that while breastfeeding has benefits, we have access to adequate alternatives. Your unique situation doesn’t change the evidence, it just means that for you, what’s best will look different from what’s best for the general population, from a public health standpoint.
If you’re struggling with guilt or shame, Brene Brown is a brilliant shame researcher, and has some mindblowing books and articles on overcoming these feelings. She also writes a great deal for parents.