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An Open Letter to Jamie Oliver about Breastfeeding

Dear Jamie

Whilst I haven't had chance to keep up with all the media furore that has followed your breastfeeding comments, I've read enough of the same old knee-jerk replies to fill in the gaps.  It's really quite fascinating what some can extrapolate from about 35 words isn't it?

Unlike others I feel dads and partners can be critical to feeding outcome, and I struggle to accept that in 2016 we are trying to deny men the right to comment on something that has serious long-term implications for both their baby and its mother. Should we dismiss the opinions of male obstetricians, midwives and gynaes too?

Infant feeding is different to sugar or junk food though, so I hope you're braced; it's a beast that divides the masses like no other.  You don't simply have to convince governments and corporations to step up, you also have to negotiate the complex minefield of those completely failed by a system, living in a society which as this quite clearly highlights, makes it virtually impossible for the vast majority of mothers to have a hope in hell of feeding their babies as long as they intended. 

And to be honest Jamie, quite a few are pretty pissed off about that.

I'm a tad unimpressed with the whole situation too to be honest, particularly the newest trend to try and silence all discussion surrounding infant feeding for fear of offending, well, everyone.  Honestly if I hear the words "mummy wars" one more time, I fear I may lose it entirely.

The great infant formula marketing machine (protecting its multi billion pounds profits), has done a great job of shutting down dialogue by suggesting mothers should feel guilty or are being judged, they have the boobs so it's all their responsibility right?  But take it from them, the people generating vast profit from you not breastfeeding, you're doing fine...*cough*

Anyway, they've worked tirelessly to understand their market and generate loyalty from their customers, despite serving them up aluminium laden cans and follow on milk containing bonkers levels of iron which may impact on development.  This means those who should be shouting the loudest they have been failed, are instead the first to defend those who were ultimately pretty key to them failing.  Many call for respecting the decisions of others, all without realising it's often a mere illusion of "choice" and in fact women are being played on a giant scale.

Irony much?

Some find breastfeeding easy from the start, some manage to get the support to work around problems and eventually find it easy, convenient and free. Others don't.  And yes, sometimes those pissed off mums become angry when they learn that actually they didn't fail, they were failed - and some become vocal; you probably know them as the "breastapo".

Plenty work hard to stop this message reaching profitable parents; state it's easy and you're either smug and superior or a judgemental "breastfeeding Nazi". In fact the bullying of marginalised mothers is so normalised in our society, that even doctors in the public eye feel it's acceptable.

This means we only hear one voice and it continually reinforces how impossibly hard breastfeeding is. How it's "optimal" (like eating 100% clean with daily gym workouts, and I'm sure you of all people will realise most people don't aspire to that), but hey not doing so is "OK", don't be "extreme".  Despite the fact that mothers in the West are not intrinsically broken, today we don't plan to breastfeed, we plan to try - and I understand why.

This leaves us in a tricky position and a giant catch 22 situation.    Many feel the best way to stop parents feeling the emotions they do, is to pretend how you feed your baby doesn't really matter.  Being happy matters, a happy mum = a happy baby.  Nobody seems to question how being happy helps to prevent the myriad of health implications of feeding choice, in fact debate often turns to trying to dismiss those too, but the alternative is problematic.

When humans hear something that contradicts what we believe to be true, or which creates internal conflict in relation to a choice or decision made, it triggers something called "cognitive dissonance".  This is a super uncomfortable state for us, and one we immediately try and resolve - typically by dismissing the new information (where possible) as untrue, often ultimately resorting to anecdote (e.g. I wasn't breastfed and I'm fine).

When we address the general public, we are reaching parents who NEED information if they're going to have any hope of making an informed choice.  We are reaching those who have never had children and who are ambivalent.  But we also have to recognise that from health professionals, to bloggers, to celebs, many are carrying their own baggage and will be triggered.  When this happens nobody listens, anger fuelled shouting just results in one big noise.

Lactation isn't Russian roulette, old wives' tales or a random unpredictable event that is inevitably horrific and painful to begin with.  It's biology, it has a scientific journal and in the same way we try and investigate why people can't conceive, rather than suggesting adoption at the first appointment ((because it may be "fixable") - exactly the same holds true for feeding. There's also loads we can do around and immediately after birth to facilitate an organised co-ordinated baby, who is in the best possible position to establish feeding and prevent problems arising.  We can tell parents what the very first sign of a problem looks like and who to call, but who even talks about that when half the people helping don't understand it themselves?  

Change can't happen when simultaneously cutting vital services, au contraire it would mean stepping up and paying for the support needed.  It would mean moving away from relying on the volunteer breastfeeding organisations, who as it stands are already propping up the failing service; most (and I speak from experience) work tirelessly, taking calls in their homes often at unsociable hours, driving to visit parents, without pay, because they recognise there are such gaps in the care parents receive - because they've been there themselves and because they care.

I've met so many mothers who are frustrated or angry, in pain or struggling with a baby suffering reflux or colic as a result of their feeding technique.  The resulting contradictory emotions at odds with instinct and combined with hormones, can make them feel like they're going mad.  This is often diagnosed as post-partum depression, because mum is tearful, or more emotional than expected - but after weeks of no sleep, a baby that doesn't settle and knee jerking pain at every feed, with not a single member of her care team trying to establish why; it's hardly bloody surprising.

We are failing parents who are doing the best they can, with the knowledge and help they have at that time, and then turning around and telling them it's their fault.  Misogyny and politics are rife, a blind eye is turned to something that costs the NHS millions and millions of pounds and we mislead both parents and healthcare professionals with the language used

Much as I hope you can make a dent Jamie, I fear the backlash from your own audience may prevent you from making the difference/contribution you could to breastfeeding in the UK.

Edited to Add:
Thank you for all the positive feedback and mahoosive share rate!  I've been told off for not offering to extend a hand of support to Jamie if needed. I didn't because I don't really expect Jamie to read my letter, let alone need help from me given how many thousands of people are blowing up his news-feed.  But of course Jamie, call me anytime ;)  


  1. Thanks for this AA. So much truth here.

  2. This is exactly how I feel about this whole thing too. Thanks for writing it. The narrative around breastfeeding in general is so negative and limiting that when I had my baby the only thing I was comfortable saying was I was going to "try" to breastfeed which is tragic really then after I got on pretty well I was too worried about stigmatising others to talk about it. What a stupid situation.

  3. It's interesting that we can say to parents who struggle to quit smoking, "you MUST stop smoking." We give them the facts about the risks involved and as much help as they need. But parents who struggle with feeding are considered too fragile and stupid to understand uncomfortable facts.

  4. I think he has every right to speak out on the topic. I can also understand why some would take offense when he uses the word "easy" in the same sentence as "breastfeeding". For many it doesn't come easy - especially initially!
    Looking beyond the exact words he said - his intentions were good. His ability to influence decision makers and his courage to speak up on important "nutritional" topics make him an asset to the cause. By raising awareness he has the potential to make breastfeeding easier for all mothers - lets not silence him. Please visit my petition to help improve breastfeeding support (subsidised lactation visits) in Australia