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“Try Breastfeeding!” what’s wrong with that?

In reaction to the formula shortage crisis, on May 12 actor and singer Bette Midler tweeted, “TRY BREASTFEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.” Within seconds, the world of formula-feeding parents went crazy.

Was she suggesting that new mothers desperate for formula should be able to breastfeed as though lactating instantly was something you could get your body to do through sheer force of will?

Or was Midler really just scolding and saying I told you so, if you had breastfed from the get-go, you wouldn’t be in this terrible predicament? Nice.

Maybe the Divine Miss M intended to offer a piece of sage advice: Try breastfeeding when you give birth so you won’t have to worry about scouring ebay for off-brand formula.

Yet, that doesn’t make sense either because pregnant women are not the ones scrambling for formula. And anyway, according to the Centers for Disease Control, over 80 percent of new mothers in the U.S. do try breastfeeding (up from 33 percent in the 1970s).

An outcry ensued. Even former Trump advisor Stephen Miller, not exactly known for sensitivity, took Midler to task.

Walking back her original comment, Midler tweeted back, “No shame if you can’t breastfeed, but if you can and are somehow convinced that your own milk isn’t as good as ‘scientifically researched product,’ that’s something else again #wetnurses.”

Tweets re Bette Midler

That’s what she really meant?  That women who were sitting around fretting that their breastmilk wasn’t as good as formula needed her reassurance that it was? And “wet nurses?” Okay … it’s “Game of Thrones” time, I suppose, because wet nurses (lactating women who breastfeed the babies of women who can’t) died out a long time ago.

Bette Midler gave birth to her daughter, Sophie, in 1986 when new mothers were discouraged to breastfeed and formula companies were allowed to be pushy in hospitals by putting advertisements in infant basinets. They also provided loads of free samples for mom to go home with. This messaging, combined with a lack of support for breastfeeding from hospital staff, did not promote breastfeeding; to the contrary, it  promoted formula.

“In the 70s and 80s women had to fight hard to be able to breastfeed,” says Hoboken-based lactation consultant Carmen Baker. “They were being discouraged by their OBs and pediatricians. It was just something people didn’t do. If you did, you were regarded as a hippie.”

Carmen is an international board-certified lactation consultant, a designation that did not exist until the 1990s in a field still relatively fringe until the 2010s.

As a postpartum doula who specializes in preventing mood disorders, I know that challenges with breastfeeding can contribute to a mother’s depression and anxiety. So does judgment. Those who chimed in and agreed with Midler’s flippant remark were met with passionate disagreement and fury. It’s no wonder it made many formula-feeding parents indignant. Already in crisis, unable to find the essential nutrition for their babies, these parents are now subject to the offensive assumption that they could have done “what just comes naturally.”

But breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally to every new mom nor is it the right choice for everyone. It’s not an option for adoptive parents. It’s not an option for breast cancer survivors. It’s not an option for women taking certain medications.

It also disregards the fact that many women who use formula did initially (and valiantly) try to breastfeed through bleeding nipples, sleepless nights, overwhelming anxiety, and low breast-milk supply. They sought advice from experts, tried supplements, drank special teas, and went to great extremes in order to do what “is free and available on demand.” If all those efforts eventually led to formula feeding, it feels like a kick to the gut when someone judges that decision.

What about all the parents who didn’t have a medical or “justified” reason not to breastfeed? When did it become acceptable for others to criticize them for being too “lazy” or “uncommitted”? Since 2010, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U.S. surgeon general have all identified breastfeeding as “a public health issue.” That prompted the flood of public opinion to come crashing through.

Today’s parents are subject to shame and judgment by our culture at large because breastfeeding is not considered a personal lifestyle choice anymore. Midler’s “Try breastfeeding!” carries the same tone of superiority as the admonition obese people often hear to “Try dieting!”

We don’t know what led that person to become obese. One could have an endocrine imbalance or unresolved childhood trauma. But as part of a morally evolved culture, we should have the decency not to ridicule others about their condition or appearance. Seems as though criticism of those who formula feed remains the final frontier of shaming.

In this regard Ms. Midler is not entirely out of sync with our country’s general disconnect over women’s health issues. Major influencers like the WHO and the AAP state that women should breastfeed exclusively for at least six months right after childbirth, yet America still lacks a maternal leave policy consistent with that recommendation.

But problems for women don’t end there. “Breast is Best” is well intentioned, but it prioritizes the baby over the parent, and it makes the health and well-being of infants fair game at the water cooler but not the health and well-being of new mothers. This has got to stop. The pendulum has swung too far. It’s time we balance everyone’s needs when a baby is born and ask, ‘What is best for this family?’

Jayne Freeman

Jayne Freeman, aka Mamarama, has been working with area parents for over ten years. She is a certified childbirth educator, certified breastfeeding counselor and certified in postpartum doula support....