End infant feeding shaming in UK public services

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We are a group of parents who have come together to campaign for compassion, autonomy and safety in infant feeding in the UK. We have breastfed, formula fed and mixed fed our babies and we stand united against all forms of infant feeding shaming. 

Some of us have experienced shaming comments about our breastfeeding, which is why we recently pressured the Dutch airline KLM to change its policy to clarify that breastfeeding is welcome on board its flights. Those of us who have fed our babies formula have also experienced shaming. Sadly this has been primarily in NHS and public services providing care for new families. Our experiences include:

  • Services calling formula milk 'artificial', 'synthetic' or a 'breastmilk substitute' in their infant feeding materials.
  • Being denied formula to feed our hungry newborns, either instead of or in addition to breastfeeding, while in hospital. This left us feeling like we were doing a bad thing by feeding our babies formula.
  • Staff refusing to give us information about how to prepare formula safely, even when our babies were receiving formula to supplement breastfeeding on medical recommendation.
  • Seeing the walls of maternity and children's services adorned with beautiful pictures of breastfeeding and nothing comparably positive about bottle feeding.

None of this is an accident. Most NHS maternity services have adopted the Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI), a programme designed to promote and increase breastfeeding rates. Under the government's NHS Long Term Plan all hospitals are now required to work towards BFI accreditation. While the BFI has good intentions to protect women's legal right to breastfeed and give them practical support in doing so, we believe aspects of BFI policy are shaming.

BFI guidelines require the following:

  • Antenatal education should not include demonstrations of formula preparation in classes where parents might be intending to breastfeed, so as to avoid 'reinforcing bottle feeding as the cultural norm'.
  • Parents whose babies are being given formula for clinical reasons to supplement breastfeeding do not need to be shown how to prepare formula feeds as this 'will only undermine their confidence in their ability to continue breastfeeding'.
  • Information about formula should not be 'on general display or left in leaflet racks' (in our opinion, giving the impression that formula is something to be ashamed of and kept from public view).
  • Maternity units must audit and seek to cut formula supplementation rates, which explains why our requests for formula to supplement our hungry babies were denied.
  • There should be no images which idealise bottle feeding. Images of bottles and teats should only be used to reinforce technical instructions.

It is no surprise to us that research shows that mothers who formula feed frequently experience high levels of shame in relation to their feeding method. Indeed, members of our group, Infant Feeding Alliance, have hidden formula cans in our recycling, disguised formula in bottles intended for pumped breastmilk and avoided formula feeding in public. We have felt judgement from some of the healthcare professionals responsible for supporting us in our babies’ earliest days. For some of us, these feelings of shame led to social isolation, undermined our self-confidence as parents and contributed to postnatal mental illness.

That is why we are asking BFI in the UK to revise its guidance so that accredited services are required to:

  1. Insist on the use of non-stigmatising language. Terms such as 'artificial milk' or 'artificial feeding' have no place in compassionate and respectful communication. Formula milk should be called formula milk.
  2. Give formula milk to parents who ask for it in hospital. All parents should have their feeding decisions fully supported, including those who decide to change direction.
  3. Make information about all feeding methods widely available and accessible to all parents.
  4. Introduce positive representations of all infant feeding methods, including bottle feeding, breastfeeding, chest-feeding, expressing breastmilk and tube feeding. 

We believe that these would be positive steps towards a compassionate infant feeding policy, supporting all loving families to feel welcome and celebrated as we nourish our babies.

Please join us in calling for change by signing this petition and sharing it with your networks.

Please also follow us on Twitter and Facebook and use the hashtag #endinfantfeedingshaming to raise awareness of this issue.