Monday, October 3, 2011

How the Breastfeeding Industry is destroying Breastfeeding.

Arie Brentnall-Compton

I've spend 10 years (!!) as a loud, active protector of breastfeeding. I've worked within the breastfeeding community, as an LC, been the first person to connect babywearing & breastfeeding as public health issues, a writer & so much more. I've attended countless conferences, tradeshows, speakers' events & taught at just as many. I've been observing an unnerving trend and a concept that James Akre introduced to me over 4 years ago has crystalised of late.

A very large, capital I Industry has built up around "breastfeeding". What started as a small group of committed, WHO Code supporting companies has morphed into thousands of companies marketing "feeding products". Previously Code compliant companies have shifted their focus to "Feeding", offering little or no breastfeeding imagery, or products directly known to interfere with the success of breastfeeding. By creating an industry around the ostensible support of nursing mothers, companies have changed the culture around breastfeeding. The average new mother today is inundated with blog posts, ads, product samples and more more for things like breastfeeding cookies, bracelets, apps, creams, teas, menu plans, covers, hot/cold packs and so much more.

It's an individual's choice to purchase & use what they'd like, make no mistake. The sum total of the entire industry and it's rapid growth over the past few years has accelerated to give the impression to today's first time mother that breastfeeding is expensive, time consuming, requires a lot of paraphernalia & often doesn't work the way they'd planned. It's important to know that the vast majority of these products simply didn't exist even a few years ago. It's also important to note the changes:

-Lansinoh, a beloved product for nursing mothers long endorsed by La Leche League, now sells bottles & other "feeding accessories" in violation of the WHO Code.
-Boppy, one of the first commercial brands of nursing pillow, have rebranded as feeding pillows. There is currently not a single image of breastfeeding on their site or in their marketing.
-Medela, once a Code compliant supplier of pumps & accessories, is now marketing bottles & low quality pumps to mothers.
-Generically, many larger brands of nursing covers (a non-existent product category until about 10 years ago), have shifted their marketing from being a breastfeeding aid (which is debatable) to providing a cover while pumping, bottlefeeding, or simply holding a sleeping baby. The imagery infrequently shows women actually nursing anymore.

I spent upwards of 7 years as a nursing mother. I used a variety of products to make our time nursing a little bit easier, mainly bras & other nursing clothing. There isn't anything at all wrong with using & appreciating the often innovative products designed to serve us during our nursing careers. Indeed (full disclosure), I owned a retail store for 4 years that focused partially on breastfeeding items, although we never sold items we knew interfered with the normalisation of nursing. I also do work as a lactation consultant & breastfeeding educator, with the longterm goal of teaching my way out of a job.

My experiences tell me that all the growth we are seeing does not equate to progress. It appears that breastfeeding initiation/duration rates in many areas are actually on a downward trend. The industry, as a whole, is a death knell for normal breastfeeding.

It's hard for women who have yet to develop a successful nursing relationship to sort out the useful from the useless, the harmless from the harmful. Part of the problem with the growth in items available has been, as I've said, the overall cultural change. While covering with a blanket used to be a choice for women who felt modest or private, mom's groups now regularly have women aplologise to other attendees for having forgotten their nursing cover. When a mother worried about her supply out loud a few years ago, a La Leche League Leader may have helpfully made some suggestions for evaluating if her supply was in fact dropping (it's usually not) & suggested she nurse the baby more to increase the production. That same mother expressing concern on social media today is likely to be sent to purchase a bag of lactation cookies marketed with dubious medical claims. Other products prey on the same fears: bracelets, charms & apps imply you may not remember to nurse on the "correct" side; cookies, teas, supplements imply your supply may be inadequate without them. Nursing covers, hiders, hats & more suggest it's more appropriate to nurse covered with a commercial product.

I want to reiterate that while there will be individuals who found benefit from each of these products, it's not looking like the longterm result of their availability will be a societal increase in breastfeeding initiation or duration. Of perhaps more concern is how quietly some of the lactation industry's biggest players have simply removed the breast from the feeding entirely.