Storm in a baby's bottle

Yet again parents are coddled to within an inch of plausability, this time over breastfeeding

Good grief. Piri Weepu is shown bottle-feeding his six-month-old daughter Taylor on an anti-smoking ad, and somehow this image of nurturing and positive fathering is construed as an attack on breastfeeding. As my nearly-three-year-old would say, "What?!"

In case you've missed this little storm in a baby's bottle, let me sketch in some details. Weepu is part of an anti-smoking campaign developed by the Health Sponsorship Council. The beloved All Black proudly lives in a smokefree home and is without a doubt a great role model, so kudos to the Council for getting him on board. In the ad, which was shown to the La Leche League, Plunket and NZ College of Midwives before its public release, Weepu is shown -- for two seconds -- feeding his little girl with a bottle. All three organisations complained and the offending image has been removed from the ad. Despite this, pro-breastfeeding campaigners have gone septic.

First the obvious problems with the argument that this two seconds of bottle-feeding is an attack on breastfeeding. How do we know by simply looking at the image that Weepu is not giving his baby expressed mother's milk? How do we know that his partner -- like many women -- didn't try very hard to make breastfeeding work but found she couldn't? Why would anyone see the image of a father helping with the baby care, feeding his child and nurturing her, and not think, "How lovely" instead of "How outrageous"?

And why do we parents have to put up with another scolding from well-meaning bossyboots in the health sector? Come on -- give us some credit for being able to distinguish between something we see on TV and the practices we choose to employ in our own homes, for being able to assess the available information and make an informed decision that works for us and our families. We are not imbeciles, despite what you all seem to think. This coddling gets tiresome.

The benefits of breastfeeding are enormous and well-publicised: it is the best nutritional start for an infant; according to neurologists, it is a magic bullet for brain development; it enhances infant immunity; it is fantastic for mother-baby bonding; it is a cot-death preventative; it reduces the mother's risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers; it is a hang of a lot cheaper than formula, fully portable and always available.

Having seven days ago welcomed baby number two into the world, I can tell you that the "breast is best" message is as clear and present as it ever was. My doctor talked to me about breastfeeding in the run-up to the birth. There were pro-breastfeeding posters in the halls of the hospital where I gave birth. I was encouraged by the midwife to breastfeed within half an hour of the baby's arrival. During the three days I spent in hospital, nurses frequently checked on my breastfeeding progress and offered useful pointers. The midwife who visited me at home yesterday also asked about feeding and gave me some advice. When the Plunket nurse starts visiting in a month or so, I am confident that she, too, will have lots to say about breastfeeding. This is a standard experience for new mums in this country. We are told and told and told about the wonderful benefits of breastfeeding, which is all for the good. To go against the grain and choose to bottle-feed instead would require a very independent spirit indeed; the more likely scenario for many of those women you see bottle-feeding is that they couldn't breastfeed, for whatever reason, not that they are dumb or selfish.

According to Plunket, breastfeeding rates have steadily risen in the past 10 years. And according to the OECD, our breastfeeding rates at six months of age put us in the middle of the league table, about the same as Australia and well above the UK and US to whom we so often compare ourselves. Between 20 and 30 percent of Pakeha and Asian babies are exclusively breastfed at six months; around 18 percent for Pasifika; and around 14 percent for Maori babies. No doubt, it could be better, especially for Maori and Pasifika families, but I'm not sure that you would call this a crisis. Rates are much higher at six weeks and three months, which makes sense -- by six months many women have returned to the workforce.

A side-note: I was stunned to hear health campaigner Lynda Williams on Close Up last night suggesting that New Zealand is a "hostile environment" for breastfeeding mothers. Sure, you may get the occasional gentleman of a certain age turning rosy if you feed in a public place, but hostile? I don't think so. I fed in public with my last baby and will do so again, and I don't anticipate the slightest squeak of hostility. I think the trick is to respect the other people using the space. It's common sense: don't strip down to your waist, use a muslin to shield yourself, choose a discreet spot, get on with it.

So why are the breastfeeding fanatics beating up on Weepu, who was simply lending support to another cause, that of the anti-smoking message? He is obviously non-plussed. He quite justifiably told the Herald, "They are my kids, I'm not going to have anyone tell me how to raise me kids." I hear you.