Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Breast Intentions: Review

Last month I read Breast Intentions: How women sabotage breastfeeding for themselves and others, by Alison Dixley. This book has really challenged me, so I thought I'd give it it's own post rather than lump it in with my regular Wednesday knitting and reading.

You might be familiar with Dixley from her blog, The Alpha Parent. I followed it for a while on facebook, but I stopped because I found it to be unnecessarily hard on mothers. I'm definitely going to revisit the blog after reading the book, but my feelings are very mixed.

Breast Intentions is about how mothers communicate about and react to their experience of infant feeding practices. This is not a warm book about how mothers support each other despite their differences. The chapter titles are: Deception; Guilt; Excuses; Envy; Contempt; Defensiveness; Sabotage. She describes how mothers who have given up breastfeeding feel bereaved and guilty, and how they create a practiced explanation of how this happened, both to convince themselves and others that they have not done anything wrong (they haven't, of course. The only person who feels this is themselves. Feeding your child artificial milk is not actually an abusive thing to do!). Dixley discusses how failure is built in to many women's breastfeeding experience from pregnancy, by lowering expectations, buying artificial feeding equipment just in case, and being exposed to myth-sharing by other mothers. These factors have an enormous impact on the likelihood of breastfeeding success. She also discusses how mothers who have given up breastfeeding push the myths of failure on to expectant and new mothers in order to cover their own experience.

It might be assumed that only artificial feeders come in for criticism in this book, but breastfeeders do not escape unsinged by Dixley's burning evangelism. She claims that breastfeeding mothers cannot identify with artificial feeders and cannot help but judge them, and that the most unsympathetic are those who have been through the most to breastfeed. However, she believes that there is a positive side to this contempt, and that stifling it prohibits the exposition of flaws in parenting practice. In other words, we should hold mothers to account for their feeding decisions. 

I found this book especially challenging because while I feel that what Dixley has to say is deeply unpleasant, I also know much of it to be true. As a breastfeeding mother, I frequently experience other mothers spontaneously and unsolicited giving me detailed accounts of how and why the end of their breastfeeding attempts came about. These stories come from mothers with children of all ages, whose infant feeding choices were made recently or long ago, and always feature the same excuses that Dixley lists in her book as tested and acceptable. I feel that my job in life is not to judge other people, but to be as supportive as I can. When I receive these stories I always assumed that the best thing for me to do would be to help the mother to find the positive side of her story, to be comfortable with herself as a mother, to show that I as a breastfeeder don't judge artificial feeders. After a few years I did start to wonder WHY these stories kept coming, when I felt that they were none of my business. I also started to get tired with some of the excuses: complaints about lack of support from people who didn't seek it out; claims that mothers didn't know what was normal when they hadn't bothered to inform themselves; tongue tie as a complete reason for not breastfeeding when I have successfully fed two tongue tied children for years. I have to agree with Dixley that we have to stop proliferating the myth that it is common not to be able to breastfeed. It is, as she says, simply common to quit.

Recently there was an article in the BBC about a piece of research on infant feeding practices and future intelligence. The article was titled "Breastfeeding "linked to higher IQ"." I criticised the article on my facebook page, commenting that it would be more accurate to say that not breastfeeding might be linked to lower IQ, since breastfeeding is the biological norm. I believe that using more accurate language is important for improving perceptions and understanding of breastfeeding. This is why I use the technical term "artificial feeding" or "artificial milk" rather than the more widely used marketing term, with its scientific connotations. For the record, and as I stated on that thread, I do not believe that breastfeeding or not is the only factor determining intelligence. The thread raised some defensive artificial feeders, one of whom stated that we shouldn't publicise such studies because they are hurtful to artificial feeders. This anecdotal evidence strongly reinforces Dixley's work. We shouldn't prevent mothers who have yet to make their infant feeding choices from accessing pro-breastfeeding information, and therefore increase the probability of their breastfeeding failure, in order to shield those who feel they have failed at breastfeeding in the past.

I feel that the people who should read this book are expectant mothers, both those who have yet to make any infant feeding decisions, and those who have artificially fed a previous child and hope to breastfeed in the future, and health care professionals who have the power to sabotage infant feeding decisions, or to collude in their self-sabotage, such as midwives, health visitors, and GPs. I still can't say whether I recommend this book or not. The most accurate thing I can say is: it isn't nice, but it isn't wrong.

I'd appreciate your thoughts on this book and these subjects, but please don't take this as an opportunity to criticise mothers without being helpful. It breaks my heart that this major issue divides us sister-mothers in such a painful way.



  1. Wow, this book sounds like it might not be as much of a help as a hurt to mothers, no matter what side you fall on. I think that we could all do with more support of one another. I feel like that is how it used to be. Women were supportive in their individual communities of each other, but now it seems that there are so many opinions and no one can be supportive of another's very individual decision. I have nursed all three of my babies - and it hasn't been easy. I am lucky enough to stay at home with them. I'm not sure how I would have been able to continue if I had to go back to work, especially in the early months! Good food for thought.

    1. This is my concern Heather. I think part of Dixley's point is that if we want to prevent hurt for future mothers we might have to be a bit brutal in the present. I wish I had a magic wand on this subject :(