Top 10 Things Breastfeeding Advocates Should *Stop* Saying to Military Moms

Used with permission.

1. “Everyone can breastfeed if they try hard enough.”
No, everyone can’t.  Yes, the percentage of women who physically can’t is very small, but until there are no more Booby Traps – cultural and institutional barriers to breastfeeding- that entire line of thinking is off-limits. See also: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and “If you want to badly enough, you can do it.”  This is especially true in the military where the cultural and institutional barriers can be insurmountable.  There are women in job specialities that simply do not allow for break times for pumping, or where there may be hazardous chemicals that are simply unsafe for mother and baby.  Think about a mom in Afghanistan who is running convoy missions and has full combat gear on (including body armor) watching for IED’s, do you think she really is going to have the time and place to pump her milk, much less ship it home?  Plenty of women ‘try hard enough’ in the military and still don’t succeed at breastfeeding.  Don’t say they didn’t try hard enough until you’ve been in their combat boots.

2. “Formula is poison.” 
How would you feel if someone called the food you feed your infant “poison” or “garbage”? Talk about the facts on formula? Yes. Use pejoratives? No. We can discuss the risks of using formula without simultaneously shaming and belittling the moms who use it.  There are moms in the military, who for whatever reason, simply canNOT pump enough breastmilk during the day while at work for the next day…and so they supplement with formula and breastfeed as much as possible when they are with their baby.  This what they can do, and it does no one any good to tell them that the formula they are feeding their baby is poison (which, btw, it is not).  In fact it may just backfire, by making them feel bad about something they have no control over and possibly be just the excuse they need to stop breastfeeding altogether.

3.  ”Moms should be smart enough to see through formula marketing.”
Formula marketing is insanely effective.  These companies wouldn’t spend bazillions of dollars on it if it didn’t work.  And it doesn’t just work on the uneducated; it’s very savvy and appeals to moms of all backgrounds.  It’s not a matter of being “smart enough”; it’s so pervasive that we can’t blame moms for not always seeing through it.  And let’s face it, the military exchanges and commissaries are not immune to the formula salespeople either!  They have huge sales and end caps and promotions for formula all the time.  Junior enlisted moms are particularly vulnerable to formula marketing because military paychecks are so measly, they have no support at their workplace and all their friends are formula feeding…is it any wonder they fall prey to the marketing blitz?

4. “Breast is best.”
No. Breast is normal.  Breastfeeding is the biological norm.  Anything less is inferior by default. “Best” conjurs a notion of something that only a select few can achieve and sets formula up as the norm; we want to talk about breastfeeding as something that’s achievable for almost all moms. See Diane Wiessinger’s game-changing post on why this language is so problematic, “Watch Your Language.”  I don’t have much to add here.  Breast is NORMAL, but throughout the military healthcare system all you hear about is how “breast is best” which drills in the fact that breastfeeding is something special to be achieved, and often that is something that the average military mom doesn’t have the luxury to do.  We need to change the language starting with the military healthcare system, ASAP.

5. “Formula-feeding moms are lazy.”
If we’re comparing using formula to directly breastfeeding the healthy, full-term infant, breastfeeding is a heck of a lot less work than formula-feeding.  (Moms who pump a lot have more work than the direct breastfeeders, no doubt.)  But preparing bottles, washing bottles, having to go buy formula: that’s more work than just putting baby to breast.  This is just a straight-up fallacy….feeding formula or pumping breastmilk (or both) is A LOT more work than just putting the baby to the breast.  As any military pumping mom will tell you, the day that they can give up the pumping, preparing and washing bottles and pump parts is a day to rejoice.  Breastfeeding moms are the lazy ones!

6.  ”Moms who use formula don’t love/value their babies as much as moms who breastfeed.”
Seriously? Come on. By and large, all moms are trying to do right by their babies and love them in ways words can’t fully describe. Sure, there are bad apples; but they’re on both sides of the feeding debate.  Breastfeeding ≠ good mom. Formula feeding ≠ bad mom. Parenting is so much more than how we feed our babies. Edited to add: See also, “Formula-feeding moms are selfish!”; how we feed our babies isn’t an automatic gauge of character. (Thanks Jessica from The Leaky Boob!)  I wouldn’t want to say this to an active duty mom who knows how to fire an M-16!  All moms love their babies…and military moms are already making enormous sacrifices combining a military lifestyle with motherhood and are under some supreme pressures to make it work.  To tell a military mom who must use formula that she doesn’t love her baby as much as a mom who breastfeeds is beyond hurtful. Until you’ve walked a mile in her combat boots, you do NOT have the right to decide ‘how’ much she loves her baby based on how she feeds him. Period.

7. “Take some fenugreek!”
Insert any number of other token pieces of breastfeeding advice here.  It’s downright dangerous for moms to speak in prescriptive terms when it comes to breastfeeding problems. Most of the time, it’s not that simple, anyway. “Eliminate __[diary, gluten, etc-]___.”; “Buy Reglan/Domperidone online.”; “You have too much foremilk.”; “You only make skim milk.”  Some of it is innocuous enough (albeit wrong) and some of it stands to be pretty damaging.  Sharing stories peer-to-peer is one thing; discussing things a professional should be addressing is another. Please leave the breastfeeding problems to the breastfeeding experts, such as IBCLC’s and La Leche League Leaders.  And at that, leave it to those who can see mom in person to determine what might be the matter.  Yes, very often milk supply issues are the main problem with military mothers, but fenugreek (or insert whatever _____ here) is not always the answer and can be very detrimental, especially if it holds mom back from seeking professional help in time.

8. “You could have breastfed if _____.”
Along the same lines as #7, Monday-morning quarterbacking a mom’s failed breastfeeding experience is a good way to rub salt in the wound.  Unless she’s asking, and only if you have her whole history, it’s probably best to keep quiet with opinions –opinions!on what might have saved her breastfeeding relationship.  You have NO idea what she did or didn’t do to make breastfeeding work.  Some military moms have gone to extraordinary lengths to make breastfeeding happen and still it didn’t work out.  Let’s applaud her for what she did manage (whether that’s one week or one month or one year) and make her feel good about the experience.  Who knows, maybe next time she’ll remember the SUPPORT she received and look for help earlier so she can succeed!

9. “You’ll be able to breastfeed. It comes naturally, so don’t worry about it.”
This gem is usually one that expecting moms encounter. We lost a whole generation – if not more – of breastfeeders. We don’t know how to breastfeed anymore (in general) because most of us didn’t grow up seeing it. So today, moms do need to study up and prepare.  That’s not to say they need to research every worst-case scenario, but some prep is likely necessary.  Breastfeeding might be natural, but it definitely doesn’t always come naturally.  And it certainly doesn’t come naturally when you work in a still male-dominated field, where any hint of femininity and ‘mothering’ attributes are frowned upon.  Breastfeeding is still a taboo subject in the military world.  No one sees it being done, it is whispered about behind closed doors or made fun of by co-workers.  There isn’t any real way to learn about it from fellow co-workers because most give up before returning from their 6 week convalescent leave and your own mother or best friend, who might have given you support, lives halfway around the world from you.  If breastfeeding is a lost art in the civilian world, it is a nonexistent art in the military world.  Classes and support groups are a must for military women!

10. “Facts don’t hurt. You make yourself feel guilty.”
Really?  A lot of moms use formula and they know the risks and the facts.  They don’t feel good about them and they probably feel guilty.  YES, we absolutely need to keep talking about the risks and the facts. But IGT, jobs without maternity leave, being misinformed by doctors: those things don’t discriminate. It could be any mom. Similarly, because one mom made it through X circumstance, doesn’t mean another mom should or will be able to.  Yes, lets stop playing the blame game and laying down guilt-trips…just because your best friend suffered through two bouts of mastitis and pumped through a 6 week TDY and her baby latched on the minute she came home, does NOT mean your baby will, or that you are any less of a mother because breastfeeding in the military didn’t work out for you.  Only YOU know what you are capable of doing.  If you have done the best that you can, given the information, support and circumstances handed to you (which in the military, are not the best)…then feel good about your decision and move on. 

Thanks to Amy West for allowing me to repost her blog post, “Top 10 Things Breastfeeding Advocates Should STOP Saying” with a special emphasis (mine) on military mothers.  My comments are in bolded italics after each point.

Lactivists, advocates, breastfeeding supporters of all kinds (yes, including the ones who’ve used formula!): What do you think? Is it time to put an end to the phrases on this list?  What would you add? Also check out Top 10 Things Breastfeeding Advocates SHOULD Say to Military Moms!


4 Responses to Top 10 Things Breastfeeding Advocates Should *Stop* Saying to Military Moms

  1. Robyn, I loved the post and your added comments. It is so hard to be a mom, let alone a mom who is working full time, living in a foreign country, away from family and friends and tackling so many new things. The support that can and should be given to moms is so lacking and it makes me sad to hear of stories of women who wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t get the help they need but it also makes me sad to hear from women the negative replies from doctors, nurses, WIC offices who are trying to get help. “Try longer, try harder, if you loved your child, it is the best thing and on and on.” The most important job you have as a parent is to give your child love, affection and whether or not your breastfeed is really your business. All moms do deserve to be given information to make the best decision that they can. I was able to breastfeed my daughter for over 3 yrs and was on a few trips away from her but they were no longer than 10 days. This world is complicated enough without adding more worries.

  2. I am so very gla I found your blog! And I’m about to order te book. I’m active Navy an my daughter was fed only BM until was started solids at 6 months. My goal was no formula for a year. However due to an upcoming TAD she will get some formula. Thanks for your insights!

  3. Guilty as charged…ADAF LtCol (ret)…”baby” just turned 30 (years that is)and I left AD when he was 12. Breast fed exclusively for 8mos, and stopped only AFTER I was told “No Mom, want cup”. I was NOT stationed near family, and it was hard work balancing “life”. I would not change anything for all the tea in China. BF in uniform? OFFICIAL REPLY: Never…(Actuality: OF COURSE.. my son needed to eat). We all do what we need to do, and ignore naysayers. I support breast feeding Moms AD or Civilian..I support formula feeding Moms..AD or Civilian. The point is to teach goodness and tolerance and civility to our children, it doesn’t matter at all what they it is delivered..or what Mom is or isn’t wearing.

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