Let's chill out about breasts.


There are two big breast fights going on at the moment and I’m nestled snugly between them. In the cleavage. Yes, even as you read this, people are waging war over boobs.The most public battlefront is over at Facebook where discreet images of breastfeeding have been deemed too offensive to remain on the world’s biggest social networking site. Wait, let me check the calendar because nobody told me a leap year means we leaped back to 1953.

Facebook, your ban is bollocks. Look, I know Mark Zuckerberg is really young and everything but it seems he doesn’t yet know the difference between “breastfeeding” and ”topless”.

Because unlike, say, flashing your boobs on a hens night, the only bit of breast visible during feeding is a modest glimpse of skin. It’s barely even breast. More like chest. And it’s far less than you’d see on display in the average food court. Unless your norks are enormous or your baby teeny tiny, their head obscures most of the action. So come on, Facebook. Pull yourself together and lift your ban. Honestly.

When it comes to bosoms, you couldn’t get two organisations more philosophically opposed than Facebook and the Australian Breast Feeding Association. They don’t like each other one bit. Do you know what else the Australian Breast Feeding Association doesn’t like? Formula.

I remembered this last week during a visit with a friend’s new baby when I was drafted into another breast battle, this one far stealthier. Before I explain, you should know this: I’ve breastfed three babies. Two successfully and one disastrously. I say this to establish my credentials as someone who has both loved and hated breastfeeding, who has felt like a legend and a failure, who has used formula at times and who is well versed in the complex politics of The Boob As Food Source.

My friend’s baby was four weeks premature, had lost some weight and was a little jaundice. Nothing serious but still anxiety-making for a vulnerable new mother mainlining hormones and sleep deprivation. Before I’d arrived, the paediatrician had instructed my friend to give her son a top-up with formula “even if it’s just for 24 hours until your milk comes in”. She cried. Tears are a typical new-mother response to most things (“Tea? Coffee? Why are you crying?”) but especially to the idea of formula. We feel like we’ve failed. Guilty. We fear our child will end up living in a cardboard box with no shoes and torn pants and it will be OUR FAULT BECAUSE WE FED HIM SOME FORMULA.

Groups like The Australian Breast Feeding Association have done a bang-up job at publicising the benefits of breastfeeding and I’m not being sarcastic. Is there a woman in the western world who doesn’t know breast is best? Message received and clearly understood.

But in some cases, the pendulum has swung too far, from positive encouragement to negative pressure and borderline bullying.

It happens. It happened to my friend. When I arrived she was quietly seething, having requested formula from a midwife. The woman’s expression suggested my friend had in fact asked for a gram of coke and a naked male Twilight star off which to snort it. Ah, a Lactivist. These are the lactation ‘activists’ who believe so fervently in breastfeeding that formula is their f-word.


Incensed that my friend had been made to feel so bad about following her doctor’s advice, I went to the nurses’ station to ask myself. “Hey! Um, would it be possible to have some formula for my friend in room 48? She has to top up her baby after his BREASTfeed.” They blinked. ‘Doctor’s orders” I added sweetly. Finally, a kindly midwife nodded and quickly ushered me into a locked room where she checked my friend’s chart and frowned. “Can she wait a few minutes because I need to get two midwives to sign out any formula and the shift is just changing.”

Two midwives? Signatures? When I collect my son from pre-school, only one signature is required. No medical qualifications. And he’s an actual person, not a small jar of liquid.

When the midwife finally brought the formula – maybe 100ml – to my friend’s room, I probed her a bit further about the signing out. Were we feeding a baby or negotiating a hostage situation? She winced sheepishly and explained that the hospital was in the process of applying for accreditation as Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace from the Breast Feeding Association. a Baby Friendly Health Initiative (accredited by the Australian College of Midwives)

And what did this mean, I asked. Well, formula was never displayed anywhere – it was hidden – and neither were bottles of ANY KIND EVER. She stumbled over the word ‘bottles’ and looked fearful that it had slipped from her mouth. Were the lactation SAS going to bust in and haul her away for re-education?

To be fair, this midwife wasn’t a hardcore Lactivist (thankfully, most aren’t). While she was at pains to point out that breastfeeding should be promoted as the first and best choice, she also acknowledged that sometimes it just wasn’t possible for mothers to breastfeed or do it exclusively.

True, that.

So the moral of the story this week is simple: let’s chill out about breasts. They’re not dangerous weapons that must be hidden from vulnerable onlookers, half of whom have a pair of their own. And they’re not always a fountain of nutritious love for a baby because sometimes the breasts – or the baby – have other ideas. And Facebook? Stop being a boob.

NOTE: Tara Moss, patron of the Baby Friendly Health Initiative contacted me yesterday after reading this column and we have published her response below in comments. Scroll to read it.

I was also contacted by Nicole Bridges from the Australian Breastfeeding Association who asked me to publish the following to clarify my referring to them incorrectly as the Breastfeeding Association (since corrected) and to also clarify what exactly they do, their official position on formula and how they are involved in the BFHI program I referred to above. Nicole is the Assistant Branch President of the NSW ABA and she writes:

1) We are not the Breast Feeding Association – we are the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA)
2) The ABA does not dislike Facebook, and the Faceboob protest you are referring to was organised by an individual, not by the ABA
3) The ABA does not dislike infant formula, and acknowledge that it is an important and often life saving product for many babies
4) The BFHI program that you refer to, while supported by the ABA, is actually an initiative of UNICEF and the World Health Organization which in Australia is managed by the Australian College of Midwives

As Australia’s leading authority on breastfeeding, we:
– educate society and support mothers, using up-to-date research findings and the practical experiences of many women
– influence society to acknowledge breastfeeding as normal and important to parenting and the physical and mental health of babies, children and mothers.

After reading your article there may be mothers who do not feel comfortable to contact us for support feeling like they will be forced to breastfeed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ABA currently has more than 1,400 trained volunteers and 250 Australian Breastfeeding Association groups, 14,500 members and our trained volunteers counsellors took approximately 80,000 calls to be Breastfeeding Helpline in past 12 months.

Mia, I have organised a comprehensive package of information to be posted to you in hard copy. I hope that you have the time to read through this information and learn a little more about the ABA and what we do, and why breastfeeding is important (contrary to popular opinion, there are in fact NO benefits of breastfeeding as it is the biological norm). Our Association endeavours to support women and their partners to breastfeed, and acknowledge that breastfeeding is only one aspect of skilled and loving mothering and we frequently and happily discuss weaning with mothers. We operate on a policy of unconditional positive regard which means we support all parents and their choices in regards to parenting and feeding.

Breastfeeding? Any thoughts?