Radical breastfeeders turn 50

The Australian Breastfeeding Association turns 50 this year, and last month I spoke at the launch of Nursing Mums, an illustrated history of the ABA, at the Queensland office at Coorparoo, to celebrate and eat cakes. Most of the women at the launch had their babies in the seventies or eighties. They told stories of an organisation that had given them not only the best chance at breastfeeding in a world where it wasn’t the norm, but also lifelong friends and confidence that they could achieve change. Now they’d come full circle, and many were watching their own daughters breastfeed as a matter of course.

It might have ended differently if in 1962 in Victoria, Mary Paton hadn’t stopped breastfeeding her first child at four months of age. Paton was doing what she’d been told at the hospital, maintaining a strict four-hourly feeding routine, but her daughter wasn’t gaining as much weight as the infant health sister wanted. At the sister’s suggestion, Paton added formula after each feed. Paton’s milk supply dwindled and soon, like many of her friends, she switched to full formula feeding. But this didn’t sit well with the occupational therapist who had strong ideas about child development and the intimate bond between mother and baby. Researching internationally, Paton switched to the approach taken by the pro-breastfeeding La Leche League in the US for her next child, which had no strict routines and no formula.

Breastfeeding rates in Australia were at an all-time low early in 1964 when Paton and five friends met in her living room and decided to form the Nursing Mothers’ Association of Australia, modelled on the La Leche League. They were radical. Looking around the launch afternoon tea at these kindly, gentle folk, you might not describe them that way, and perhaps not all revolutions have such excellent cakes, but the ABA’s struggle was part of the broader struggle for women’s rights and they were radical. They picked breastfeeding, which epitomised perfectly beliefs about women and their bodies, and the Goliath they took on was a combination of big business that wanted to sell infant formula and a medical profession and infant health network united in the belief that “scientific” mothering, with strict rules about sleep and feeding, was better than mother mothering.

Scientific mothering was anything but scientific, as it turned out, and it probably helped that the ABA was largely right once the actual science started coming in about child development. Nowadays healthcare professionals can’t get enough of telling women to breastfeed – nothing better than being told what to do as a new mother. I remember an officious young hospital midwife telling me I needed my newborn to have a Special-K mouth. She was peering at my breast at the time, which I did not like, and I was trying to imagine my son’s little cherub mouth as a cornflake, hoping something was getting lost in translation. She meant the K rather than the flake, she explained, which was no more helpful.  Breastfeeding is seen now as the only way to feed a baby, and while this has changed practice for the better, it’s a small step to mother guilt, that hairshirt we all occasionally don ourselves or try to put on one another. Yes, breast is best. Yes, there are links to later life health, although recent research shows we may have gone a tad far in linking breastfeeding to things like becoming an astronaut and solving climate change. Breast may be best, but in this, as in all things, we need to accept that people can make their own decisions.

And that may be the ABA’s greatest strength. With its gentle peer-based counselling and helpline, the association achieved something extraordinary, something worth celebrating with cakes. They brought breastfeeding back from the brink. My mother didn’t breastfeed, facing all the resistance the ABA set out to overcome. By the time I came to have a child, late in life, I had so many resources, it never even occurred to me to contact the ABA; of course I’d breastfeed. It may be that the ABA has even made itself redundant; if so, it’s the best achievement they could have hoped for.  


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 26 April 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!