Viv Groskop on the breastfeeding rebellion

Sarah Butters has trouble admitting it, because no one admits it, but she hates breastfeeding. She fed both of her children formula. "I feel so angry about this. There is so much pressure on women," says Butters, 35, mother of Isobel, five, and Eliza, two, and editor of a local parenting magazine in Leeds. "As a mother you feel you should be able to feed your child and I just couldn't do it." After six days of trying and failing, she realised the baby was desperately hungry and got out a bottle.

Five years on, she still feels bad about it. "In this attempt to make sure I was pleasing everyone by being a 'good mother', I had continued trying to the detriment of my daughter. My husband gave her the bottle and I went into the other room and cried for an hour."

Despite concerted efforts at promotion in the UK only one in five mothers are still breastfeeding at all after six months. The "breastfeeding only" rates are even worse: 35% of babies from week one, 21% from week six, at five months it's 3%. Behind these statistics lies an increasingly vocal majority of women who are struggling with breastfeeding or abandoning it - and who are fed up of being made to feel terrible. The blogs on the subject are pitiful: "Does anyone else hate breastfeeding but do it anyway?" "I hate breastfeeding but I know it is so much better for him." "Hating breastfeeding, feeling guilty."

Now academics both here and in the US are starting to ask whether the pressure on women to breastfeed is becoming counterproductive. At a seminar at Aston University later this year, Sue Battersby, a researcher and lecturer in midwifery, will argue that we need to start supporting women who use formula. "Mothers who formula-feed are treated like second-class citizens," she says.

Dr Michele Crossley, a psychologist at the University of Manchester, has just published a paper entitled Breastfeeding As a Moral Imperative, which concludes that "far from being an 'empowering' act, breastfeeding may have become more of a 'normalised' moral imperative that many women experience as anything but liberational".

Even breastfeeding promoters are concerned. Pam Lacey, chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, says: "We have women phoning up all the time saying, 'I can't do this. I'm a terrible mother.' We don't want mothers to feel guilty if they don't do it. It's the system that has failed them by failing to support them."

A British academic who is currently researching breastfeeding and maternal identity says: "It has become a war. 'Did you breastfeed? What kind of person are you?' It has become an index of your capacity as a mother." She would only speak anonymously because she is concerned about attacks from the pro-breastfeeding lobby. "Breastfeeding has become so strongly tied to what it means to be a good mother. There is no space to say, 'It didn't work for me'."

In the US a huge backlash against the breastfeeding lobby is gaining ground and the debate is polarising into "lactofanatics" versus "formula apologists". An article in Atlantic Monthly, The Case Against Breastfeeding by Hanna Rosin, has sent the US blogosphere into hysterics. Rosin questions the economics of breastfeeding: "It's only free if a woman's time is worth nothing." Rosin breastfed all her children but now believes the pressure on women is getting out of control. She dared to query several studies denouncing formula, prompting an angry response from the American Academy of Paediatrics that the "evidence for the value of breastfeeding is scientific, it is strong and it is continually being reaffirmed by new research".

Many mothers speak of the "pressure for the milk to be pure" (ie, their own and not "tainted" by formula). It has become common for mothers to refer to formula as "poison" - either partly in jest or out of guilt.

Juliette Lobley, 32, from Ipswich, mother to two-year-old Emma, gave up breastfeeding after she developed thrush in her breasts. "It was excruciating and I began to dread feeding, to the point that when I was doing it I would be soaking her with tears. I decided to stop as it was affecting my bond with my daughter. But to this day it is something I feel bad about."

Her health visitor had no information to give her on bottle feeding. "I felt hideous feeding her in public. I felt like I needed to have a sign around my neck saying, 'I did try breastfeeding'."

PR guru Julia Hobsbawm, 44, interviewed dozens of women for her book The See-Saw: 100 Recipes for Work-Life Balance. "A lot of women feel stigmatised because they couldn't breastfeed. There is something of an orthodoxy about breastfeeding which has become nasty. The breastfeeding lobby is so black and white. Do you breastfeed? Good. Do you not breastfeed? Bad. I don't think real life is like that."

Both here and in the US very few mothers are entirely comfortable about their breastfeeding decisions and many admit they wish they didn't have to do it. Some see the promotion of breastfeeding as part of the problem. Last month saw the reissue of The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer, a nutritionist who argues that "in the UK a millionaire's formula-fed baby is less healthy than the exclusively breastfed baby of a poor mother". Dubbed "the Freakonomics of motherhood", the book demands that the advertising of formula milk be banned, calls for breast milk to be given an award for the fewest food miles, and praises women for producing "the most ecological food product in the world". So now not only is breastfeeding nutritionally correct, it's also environmentally ethical.

Palmer says, however, that she is not promoting breastfeeding, she is just stating the facts: that we often have no idea of the real ingredients in formula milk (according to her book, fish eyes, potatoes and algae have been found in batches of formula). She also believes women should be provided with a financial incentive. "In our society we do things for kudos and for money. Women get neither for breastfeeding."

Breastfeeding advocates are adamant that, if anything, there should be more promotion because the rates are so poor (in England they are still among the lowest in Europe). Mary Renfrew, professor of mother and infant health at the University of York, describes the health benefits of breastfeeding as being equivalent to "a very powerful broad-spectrum drug".

"This is not a small thing. Many people are still not aware of the scale of the different outcomes of breastfeeding versus formula feeding. There is a huge weight of data that formula is harmful for babies and strong evidence that reproductive cancers are increased in women who don't breastfeed."

Renfrew believes that the problems women have with breastfeeding are not caused by the practice itself - they're caused by the fact that we live in a society that is still hostile to breastfeeding.

The difficulty with the health argument, though, is that it lays women open to the charge of selfishness if they don't breastfeed. Which, argues Rosin, is demeaning. "In Betty Friedan's day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework." In the 21st century, it is not the vacuum cleaner keeping us down, Rosin adds, "but another sucking sound".

Feeding should be whatever makes sense to the mother, says Dr Ellie Lee, a sociologist at Kent University and author of a report on mothers who use formula. "There is no one who would not concede that breast milk is good for babies. But the body that provides the milk is connected to a whole set of social relationships.

"When it doesn't work, women take it so personally. They will say, 'My baby hates me'. It's such a destructive thing to do to mothers. And I think the pressure is getting worse."

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