Every time I see an apparently well-intentioned opinion piece on breastfeeding or other health matters filled with statements that any doctor could tell you are false or misleading, I feel saddened. Every time I see an article that creates false divides between breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding mothers, I feel saddened. There are a lot of blogs out there and a lot of opinion pieces. A parent or parent-to-be searching for answers online is going to come across a lot of good information, and a lot of potentially damaging misinformation as well.
With this in mind, I have a plea. My plea is this:
As writers, can we please treat health matters with care?
Can we please insert facts and references into opinion pieces on health matters, and not only expressions of our own naturally limited personal experiences?
The great thing about research is that it encompasses experiences outside our own. It provides perspective. It provides, well, science. And on matters of health, though the science may sometimes seem confusing or contradictory, on many matters, the science is well and truly in. On breastfeeding, for example, the science is in, yet every opinion piece that begins with ‘I support breastfeeding but’, and then goes on to list reasons why women shouldn’t breastfeed, or why breastfeeding doesn’t have any ‘real’ benefits, or why breastfeeding will be an awful experience for you (because it was for the writer), undermines decades of research, important health messages and hard facts.
Every article that perpetuates the myth that there are no benefits after six months and breastfeeding mothers are ‘only doing it for themselves’ is false and unhelpful. Every article that uses terms like ‘breastfeeding nazi’ or is called ‘F*ck You Breastfeeding’ (Yes, the real title of a piece I won’t link to here), labels mothers who breastfeed past infancy as ‘sick’, or mothers who formula feed as ‘selfish’, spreads misinformation, lowers the quality of an important, complex discussion and encourages a false divide between parents.
Further, we risk fuelling misinformation and unlawful harassment of parents every time we get caught in a broad public debate about the personal opinions of a TV host regarding the need for mothers to be ‘discreet’ and refrain from breastfeeding in certain public areas, without staying focussed on the fact that breastfeeding mothers have the legal right to breastfeed whenever, wherever and however they need to (without covers or under covers, directly from the breast or expressing into bottles, etc) in any public space, regardless of their attire, the age of their child, or what you think about it.
Every parent must make decisions for themselves and their children. Some decisions are tough. Will every parent form their own opinions along the way? Naturally. Should we share our opinions? Some of the time, yes. It is human to do so. But beware. Just because someone has an opinion does not make it correct – even if it is printed in a well-read publication.
Let’s be careful not to perpetuate the so-called ‘mummy wars’. Let’s take aim, not at other women, but at the systems that let women down with inadequate medical, social, financial and workplace support. According to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare over 90% of mothers in Australia will breastfeed, but the majority will quit before they choose to, largely due to external pressures and lack of support. Let’s be careful not to create false divides between mothers who breastfeed and mothers who don’t, or parents who work and parents who do not.
Oversimplification is not the answer, either. The popular mantra I see in many opinion pieces at the moment is ‘happy mother equals healthy baby’, and unfortunately, though I would like that to be true, strictly speaking it is not. The happiness – and sanity and ability to cope – of a parent is hugely important and has a strong bearing on the wellbeing and health of his or her children, but it simply does not follow that being a happy parent can save your child from health problems. Happy mother quickly becomes unhappy mother when baby is not well – I know this from personal experience and experience in the area of maternal health. The idea is to be informed so you can reduce the chances of ill health or be aware of what may be happening if something does go wrong. In my view ‘Happy mother, healthy baby’ is unfortunately an overly simplistic idea when applied to health choices, even if at its essence it is a statement that I want to support because it attempts to tackle a very serious problem – the harassment of parents (particularly mothers) for making perfectly valid and legal choices that others disagree with.
We all deserve to live our lives by our own choices, free of harassment, and we deserve real information on matters that count so we can make choices based on the best information available. This applies to all health matters, of course, but breastfeeding is the topic I am best placed to comment on at this time because my honorary role as UNICEF Australia’s Patron for Breastfeeding for the Baby Friendly Health Initiative requires regular fact-checking on my part, discussions with experts and attendance at maternal health conferences. This does not make me an expert, only someone who is very familiar with this topic.
In my experience, the quality of the popular discussion around breastfeeding in Australia is very poor and divisive, and in no way reflects the professional discussions in this area. We can and should rectify this.
So, why listen to me? This is after all, just another blog. You should not rely on a blog or an opinion piece for important health information.
I don’t want you to believe me.
I want you to believe The World Health Organization, The Australian Department of Health, The US Department of Health, UNICEF, the Australian College of Midwives and the Baby Friendly Health Initiative, all of whom are creating better breastfeeding education and support services, and systems that provide more support for all parents regardless of how they feed their children. If you are expecting I hope will not rely on opinion pieces, but will speak to a reliable and qualified doctor, midwife or health professional, and take a look at the hard data at the links above so that you can make informed decisions and put in place support systems to better achieve your breastfeeding goals, if that is what you choose, or know what you can do to help boost your child’s health and reduce existing risks if you are not able to breastfeed. (Do compare the information at the links above with any advice you receive, even from your health professional, and never feel afraid to ask questions or seek help with services like the free National Breastfeeding Helpline 1800 mum 2 mum.)
With good information we can make healthier decisions for ourselves, or at least know what ideals to aim for. With good information we can better adapt to the realities and challenges ahead, whatever that means for us as individuals.
As a writer I pledge to always try my very best to fill my writings with research, hard data and a sense of balance.
And if I am reading an article on health matters that includes no references to credible health professionals or organisations, I will stop reading.
We could all use a little less misinformation. I’ll leave you with this quote, most often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan –
You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.
* Image above: With UNICEF representatives and representatives of the Australian College of Midwives at the 2011 International Breastfeeding Conference in Canberra.