Life at 1: breastfeeding

The longitudinal television program Life at 5, following from Life at 1 and Life at 3, is now showing. This is a series of programs following the development of eleven children, returning to them at intervals. It’s associated with Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children: the parents of the eleven take the survey and the producers of the television program use the survey to inform the documentary, at least loosely, and experts in child development comment on the children.

If anyone who reach ABC iView (location locked to Australian residents) wants to catch up, and it’s accessible to you, Life at 1 and Life at 3 are currently available, as is part one of Life at 5. Presumably the second part will go up this week after it airs on Tuesday.

The whole thing has my Hoyden antenna up a bit, so I am going to post a few discussions of some of the aspects of the show I was less impressed by.

Today: breastfeeding.

Feeding choices and necessities are not discussed for most children in Life at 1 (in which individual children seem to range in age from birth to about 15 months old, rather than all being 12 months), which would be the only episode where the Australian breastfeeding numbers suggest we’d be likely to meet a breastfeeding dyad in a sample of eleven children.

The major exception is Loulou, the child resulting from an IVF pregnancy of Louise, a mother in her forties who the narrator says has been trying to have children for ten years. Louise has a negative breastfeeding experience. (Transcript from Life at 1, Part One, this transcript begins at 24 minutes 28 seconds in.)

[Large black dogs approach a locked screen door from the outside.]

Woman’s voice: OK.

[Cut to a close up of a pale skinned newborn with closed eyes and a protruding tongue, rooting. Part of a breast appears in the shot held in a adult hand wearing a ring. The nipple, areola and surrounding area are moved towards the baby.]

Woman’s voice: Come on. Come on darling.

[The hand moves the breast around, teasing the newborn. The shot cuts to Louise, a pale skinned woman with light brown hair. Louise is wearing a pink top, and has lifted it up to expose her left breast. Her right hand is supporting the head and neck of Loulou, a pale skinned light haired newborn clothed in green, in the cradle hold near her left breast. Her left hand is holding her breast and squeezing it just above and below the areola. Her posture in general, and her left arm in particular, look tense, and her facial expression is concerned and determined.]

Narrator: Louise has been told that in the early weeks of life breastfeeding is the most important experience that a mother can give her newborn baby.

[Louise teases Loulou with the nipple, but Loulou does not latch.]

Voiceover by Melissa Wake: breast milk is tailored for human babies, it’s tailored for their maximum cognitive growth…

[Cut to Melissa Wake, a pale-skinned woman with light curly hair, in a studio speaking to the camera calmly and authoriatively. The screen identifies her as “Assoc. Professor Melissa Wake, Paediatric Consultant, Longitudinal Study of Australian Children”.]

Melissa Wake: … so growing their intelligence, it contains immune substances so it protects against infection, it’s believed to protect against conditions such as asthma…

[Cut to a high shot of Louise and Loulou. Louise is continuing to tease Loulou with her nipple.]

Melissa Wake: … so you’re giving your baby the best start to life you can if you can breastfeed them for a substantial time.

Louise: [sigh, sounding as if she is either exasperated or in pain. She addresses Loulou, who is grunting, in an upset but not angry-seeming way.] We haven’t been having a good time have we?

[Cut to a close up of Loulou’s face. Her eyes are opening and closing and she is grunting and crying softly. She moves her head from side to side and then seems to be attempting to latch.]

Louise: I know we’re both learning this thing. It’s so hard.

Narrator: In the first six months of life the recommendation is that breastmilk is the only food that should be given to a baby and it should be part of a baby’s diet until they’re at least twelve months old.

[The scene changes. It is a large white walled and floor room filled with colourful children’s toys. Many of all the eleven children are in the room with most or all of the parents. They are largely playing and talking cheerfully. Brief close ups of various faces are mixed with the wide group shot. The sound of chatter is heard indistinctly.]

But it seems we’re ignoring this advice. When the ten thousand mothers in the study were asked how long they breastfed ten percent said they didn’t breastfeed at all and another twenty percent had stopped before their baby was even three months old. So why are women struggling with the most fundamental task of motherhood?

[Head shots of individual mothers of some of the other ten children are seen.]

Kathy [mother of Anastasija]: I wasn’t producing enough and she was still screaming for food.

Kathryn [mother of Daniel]: I stopped breastfeeding because my milk ran out.

Steffi [mother of Joshua]: I think it’s… not enough food.

Kim [mother of Declan]: My milk… virtually dried up at three months.

Tamara [mother of Wyatt]: I didn’t breastfeed at all because I wouldn’t have time in the day to do it if I went back to school.

[Louise is shown pushing a pram up to a building. Loulou is asleep in the pram. Louise’s footsteps echo as the narrator speaks.]

Narrator: Louise knows that breastfeeding will establish the strongest bond between mother and daughter, that it will stimulate growth and intelligence. Her goal is to breastfeed Loulou for at least a year, but after only three weeks she’s on the verge of giving up.

[Cut back to the original scene with Louise wearing a pink top. She is leaning Loulou over her shoulder.]

Louise [crying]: I feel a bit like a failure. A sense of failing. With this. [It’s/Is] really big and I really don’t want to.

[A pale skinned late middle-aged woman approaches a door labelled “Day Stay Clinic” and enters. From here on, this woman, who isn’t introduced by name or given a title, is called Nursing Coach in this transcript. The scene changes to Nursing Coach and Louise in a dim room. Nursing Coach is standing facing Louise, who is seated holding Loulou in a cradle hold. Nursing Coach is moving Loulou with her hands.]

Nursing Coach: [unclear] Now see what happens there. So her [unclear] is free to move

Louise [voiceover]: If she got sick or ill in some way I seriously think I would blame myself because I couldn’t breastfeed her and maybe that’s why

[A third woman is observing Louise and Nursing Coach from about one metre to Louise’s side. She is not introduced and does not speak in any part of this segment. Nursing Coach moves Loulou into position and she latches onto Louise’s breast.]

Louise: [gasp and grimace of agony]

Nursing Coach: Now, have you got your toes curled?

Louise: Yes.

Nursing Coach: OK, does it still hurt?

Louise: Yes, yes it does.

[Nursing Coach begins to touch Loulou and Louise’s breast, seemingly trying to show her how to break the latch.]

Nursing Coach: OK we need to take her off. So you need to get this thumb…

Louise: But I can’t, I’m just stuck.

Nursing Coach: Let her go, let her go, let her go, let her back. OK, finger in there somewhere. Now finger in that somewhere, to push that jaw so she…

[Loulou’s latch is broken and Louise rolls her eyes.]

Narrator: Loulou is not attaching properly to the breast. Louise’s nipples are cracked and sore. The pain is excruciating.

[Nursing Coach again moves Loulou into position, and while it’s not totally clear what is happenin, appears to jerk Loulou forward to encourage a latch.]

Louise: [yell of pain]

Nursing Coach: Uh uh uh uh uh. [To Loulou, lifting her up and away from Louise] Up you come.

[Loulou is crying loudly and frantically. Louise puts her own face in her hands for a moment.]

[Another latch is shown.]

Nursing Coach: Good. Now. Just relax your fingers if you can.

Louise: [gasp of pain] Come on darling.

[Cut to Louise’s partner and Loulou’s father Shannon, who is driving and speaking to a camera in the front passenger seat. Neither Louise nor Loulou seems to be in the vehicle.]

Shannon: I think there’s a little bit of post natal depression happening. I think it’s… it’s a whole new adventure that neither of us have ever experienced before. Louise likes to be in in control of things even though she’ll debate that with me. Um, and this is something that she can’t control. A child… I must admit that I was ignorant. I thought here is breast, here is child, put child on breast, job’s done. But I never knew that it’s not all like that for many women.

Nursing Coach: Want to try the other side?

[Loulou is shown latching.]

Louise: [extended cry of pain]

[The camera pans back. Louise is arching her back with pain.]

Nursing Coach: [exasperated voice] What do you need to do now Louise?

Louise: Remove her.

Nursing Coach: Take her off. Quick sticks! Your fingers! Quick sticks!

[Loulou cries.]

Nursing Coach: Enough.

[Louise stands and cuddles screaming Loulou.]

Narrator: Louise struggled with breastfeeding for six more days.

[The scene cuts to Loulou sleeping in a cot.]

Narrator: The dream for a nurturing and intimate experience with her baby is shattered.

[The camera pans to a single couch, in which Louise is sleeping under a cotton blanket marked “PROPERTY OF [text hidden]” and the cuts back to Loulou, now awake and calm in the cot]

Narrator: For Louise, it feels like she’s failed Loulou in the first weeks of life. Time will tell if the enormous expectations that Louise heaps on herself will play a role in shaping the personality of her daughter.

Watching this was upsetting for me. I had a painful start to breastfeeding that became very upsetting. In my case, my son’s latch was judged good and his weight gain indicated that his consumption was fine, so I was advised to wait out the pain. It disappeared when he was about 14 days old. But there were definitely moments that I did the equivalent of sitting in his room wrapped in a blanket feeling like I sucked as a mother. I reacted very badly to the exasperated “Quick sticks!” sequence in particular. It was hard not to see it as some kind of punishment: if you can’t breastfeed well, you will be trapped in a room with no natural light and a breastfeeding coach who will eventually get pretty sick of your whining.

There are of course reasons why this portrayal of breastfeeding might have ended up being negative. It’s possible that the intention was that Louise, who seems to have been cast as the late-life IVF mother with high expectations who wants everything perfect for Loulou (a problematic framing in itself) was the mother whose breastfeeding story they’d decided to tell, and it happened to turn out badly.

I certainly don’t say that Louise’s story shouldn’t be told: it looks terrible and she grieved for the loss of the breastfeeding relationship. It’s one of the ways breastfeeding can turn out. But it wasn’t contextualised with much successful breastfeeding. The only other child mentioned or shown breastfeeding in Life at 1 is Shine, who is seen latching once soon after her birth. (Shine and Loulou are the only babies seen as newborns, other than Ben, who was delivered at 28 weeks with his quintuplet siblings and who is shown as a newborn only in a couple of still shots from his lengthy NICU stay.) Later, in Life at 3 Shine’s parents mention in passing that “boobie” is her favourite word, so it can be presumed she was breastfed as a toddler, but she isn’t shown nursing, and that snippet is in the context of the obesity episode. (We’ll come to it.) That’s not a lot of airtime compared to the “I didn’t have enough milk” sequence above.

The show as a whole is generally more observational than it is directly educational, so it is not a surprise that they do not offer breastfeeding resources on air (eg, the ABA hotline, or mentions of lactation consultants and how to find them); the series doesn’t, say, talk about how to find help when it addresses poverty either. There’s a very small set of breastfeeding links on the ABC website. But considering the amount of time that is spent having the experts interpret footage of experiments being run on the children (things like how they interact with a new toy, or a stranger), it would have seemed reasonable to have Melissa Wake or another paediatric or lactation expert push back a little bit about why breastfeeding isn’t as common as they recommend. As it stands, the portrayal is of breastfeeding failure being the usual case, and of long term milk supply problems being typical.

Update: Y points out in comments that there are Life at 2 videos on the website, and if you view Shine’s video you will see some discussion of baby led weaning, breastfeeding on demand and footage of toddler Shine nursing.

See other Life posts at Hoyden: Life at 3: obesity, Life at 1, 3, 5: disability, Life at 1, 3, 5: general discussion

Categories: media, parenting

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13 replies

  1. I’ve been watching the Life at… series with interest, and thought the same thing. The whole litany of “I didn’t have enough milk” wasn’t challenged or contextualised in any way that would give prospective breastfeeders any hope. If they can assume that stress in utero can strongly increase your chances of developing a certain kind of personality or behaviour, then surely they could discuss the potential outcomes of the success or failure of breastfeeding, ideally such a major part of a young child’s experience of getting to know the world. From a program that purports to help parents discover what can give their children the “best start to life” framing breatfeeding as a negative or doomed-to-failure experience is baffling.
    I felt really bad for little Ben, and I couldn’t help whether the constant refrain of “he’s so fragile, he’s so much weaker and more nervous than the others and needs more help” couldn’t possibly be self-fulfilling. Yes, such a dramatically underweight child has a lot of catching up to do, but surely at some point he will start to pick up on the fact that he’s supposed to be the tiny helpless one.
    Oh and let’s not get started on the organised activities in Life at 3, and the mother-toddler pedicure session in particular. Maybe the parents’ “active lifestyle” will lessen the girl’s chances of developing obesity, but I’m not convinced the beauty ideals she is surrounded with are entirely healthy, either.
    Perhaps I’m being unfair on the program (and the parents) but I do find the omissions of analysis as interesting as the inclusions…

  2. It has been a very interesting series in terms of unpicking the bias in the show in all sorts of areas – in spite of themselves; because I think they are trying hard to not come down hard on any particular parenting style/choice/circumstances. But there is much to feel concerned about, even in this small segment you have highlighted here, and I found others when I was watching the series too, like the ways in which introverted babies versus extroverted babies were discussed in terms of their performance during some of those classic experiments about attachment and seperation.
    They still got a lot of things right in the series and I love the premise of documentaries like this one so I am enjoying it all the same.
    I might come back and add another comment when I have caught up on last week’s episode. Thanks for starting this thread, is great to have an opportunity to unpick it somewhere with other parents.

  3. Thanks for starting this discussion and am looking forward particularly to analysis of the “obesity” episode (Life at 3: Part One).
    I was also disappointed in the lack of positive breastfeeding representations in the series but was truly shocked by the clip of Louise and LouLou’s encounter with the nursing coach.
    The violence of the nurse forcing LouLou onto the breast was really disturbing to me and has stuck with me over the years. Nothing about the scenario seemed conducive to forming a good latch.
    The breastfeeding stats that they provided from the longitudinal study also surprised me a little.
    From memory they stated that the breastfeeding rate at 6months was something like 39% for working and 56% for stay at home Mums. I guess I assumed that the rate would be considerably higher for stay at home Mums? Although it was unclear if the rate meant exclusive or partial breastfeeding and there was no explanation of how they defined working and “stay at home”.
    To me the gap isn’t so huge and women combining work and breastfeeding are doing a pretty good job to be at close to 40%.
    What I do find interesting is that very few of the published journal articles linked to on the studies website focus on breastfeeding. Those that do tend to focus on the impact on breastfeeding of women’s return to work. There was only one article that I found that talked about overall rates and this only analysed data up to 2 months of age. This article talked about the importance of early intervention for at risk groups.
    They ask several questions related to breastfeeding in the parent interview questionnaire but, unlike the tv show, they don’t ask why breastfeeding ceased. I think they also could have asked a couple more breastfeeding related questions that could have been useful in analysing drop off rates. eg timing between feeds, medical barriers.
    While I think it is important to support women to continue to breastfeed as they return to work I think the conversation really needs to focus on those stats for stay at home mums. I can’t believe that 44% of women (for whom access to breast is presumably not an issue) are physically/medically unable to breastfeed at all at 6 months of age and we need to have a conversation about the lack of support/socialisation preventing women from continuing to breastfeed.
    Like you say Mary, seeing Louise’s intense pain, LouLou’s distress and hearing endless comments about low milk supply do nothing to counter the negative myths around breastfeeding.
    And, how do you ever learn this skill if, even on a show about giving your child the “best chance at life”, you barely see even one complete successful feed.

  4. blue milk, if you want to post on the introversion/extroversion aspect, feel free: so far I’m planning obesity and probably also one on Daniel and his family and then maybe anything I pick up on from Life at 5, which I haven’t seen yet.
    But on that subject I was also rather surprised by the interpretation of the separation experiments. I was under the impression that they were usually interpreted the other way around; that a child should show distress at separation from their primary carer, not that a approx 12mo child should be able to cope with that. (Both “shoulds” have their problems!) But Ben’s separation anxiety, and the anxiety Jara’na develops later as a toddler, are both portrayed as extremely worrying.
    We view my own son as moderately extroverted, and his reaction would have been more anxious than any of those shown except Ben’s.
    They said something at some point about all personality types being valuable, and my husband (who is extremely introverted) said something like “just because a personality type exists, doesn’t make it valuable!” The show doesn’t really back up this claim with a discussion of the values of introversion, or for that matter of caution about carer separation or strangers! The only Life at 1 claim about introversion is that it exists, basically.

  5. On the breastfeeding subject, I should mention that Kim is shown breastfeeding Declan’s younger brother in several shots in Life at 3. It seems to be a fairly good portrayal: she’s not struggling, or shutting herself away to feed, she’s latching the newborn on and then talking Declan around from some 3yo drama (“I’m STILL CRYING NOW”). But there’s no older baby/toddler nursing seen yet.

  6. Before I even start – declaration: whether a mother can or cannot breastfeed, will or will not breastfeed, wishes to breastfeed or is repulsed by the whole thing, batttles on with low supplies, or is a lavish Jersey cow — it is her business, her body and her decision. Louise and LouLou’s struggle was heart wrenching.
    Back in the mid-sixties when my first child was born (in Bankstown Hospital) I wanted to breastfeed, and I had milk and to spare, but was having problems with the practical aspects of it all. The nurses (understaffed, overworked and mostly non-mums) were useless in this regard. Their main concern was that Bub should be nursed for no more than 5 minutes on each breast at each (staff regulated) feeding session.
    Our personal salvation came in the form of the ‘lowly’ cleaner – a Ukrainian woman of middle age, few teeth, and less English. She noted my struggles getting the Boyo to latch on, took a quick guilty look around, adjusted the nursing position with a nudge and gesture (never touched the Boyo) and then stood back beaming when everything just ‘clicked’. Then she put her finger to her lips for silence, said “no tell nurses!” and went on mopping the floor. We went on to six months with the Boyo, and lost the plot then — a combination of BAD advice from the Baby ‘Elf Centre sister and my inexperience. My second child, Daughter Dear, was breastfed to twelve months,.
    I was one of the lucky ones – minimal discomfort in the beginning, no problems with supply, and healthy strong bubs who ‘got it’ very quickly, with a little help. But years later it was agonising to see my daughter struggling to establish breast feeding, and to listen to the ridiculous advice of the midwives without interfering, that sort of stress being the very last thing DD needed.
    Gae, in Callala Bay

  7. I did a double-take when I read this last line:
    “Narrator: For Louise, it feels like she’s failed Loulou in the first weeks of life. Time will tell if the enormous expectations that Louise heaps on herself will play a role in shaping the personality of her daughter.”
    What on earth does that comment have to do with the experiences of breastfeeding just portrayed? “The expectations that Louise heaps on herself…” she’s a mother! Her expectations of herself are probably going to be just a teensy bit affected by how society and culture and the people in her life and, clearly, the people filming her heap contradictory expectations on her head (or breasts, as in this case).
    That last statement: very worrying.

  8. I agree with you about the breastfeeding segment. I was wincing so much with Louise’s experience. I had the exact same experience myself with my first child. I have yet to meet a lactation coach who is not ‘rough’ and pushing. I did not breastfeed my first child, but successfully fed my two youngest. I did go to some breastfeeding sessions before and after my second, but I really feel that I taught myself.
    Lactation consultants never seem to tell you that yes, it will hurt at first. Until you get toughened up a bit. So I always thought with my first that he was not latched properly. Because it always hurt.
    And even now, with my oldest at 8yrs old, there is some residual guilt about not breastfeeding him. Even though, he is academically ahead and well adjusted. Just like the 2 that I did breastfeed.
    I wish all the families good luck. And I watch with great interest, since I have a 5 year old and a 3 year old.

  9. I know this wasn’t aired, but if you watch the video for “Life at 2″ on the website
    There are some great positive comments about baby-led weaning, breastfeeding on demand and some shots of toddler feeding (@ 2.59)

  10. Y, thanks, that sounds good. I only discovered that there was extra video on the website today.

  11. breastfeeding has become just another way we can control women by shaming them, especially about their bodies.
    This is tragic.
    In my nannying career, I’ve encountered a substantial number of women who had horrific breastfeeding experiences… and no one even once told them that they weren’t a bad mother for not enjoying it or not doing it.
    My opinion is that your baby is happiest when you (as a parent) are happiest. If breastfeeding makes you miserable, and you don’t have support – don’t do it. Enjoy your baby instead. Ideally all women would get terrific support for breastfeeding, but unfortunately in so many cases that doesn’t happen.

  12. Alien Tea, the purpose of breastfeeding discussions here, mainly, are to push back against “unfortunately in so many cases that doesn’t happen”. Indeed, women shouldn’t be shamed for human milk versus baby-suitable artificial feeding choices, but society should be shamed for considering the limited ‘support’ that Louise is shown receiving as adequate (assuming that the editing has given a fair representation, which I realise might not be the case). Not all mothers would access greater support, but it looks like Louise might have, had it been accessible. I would have, if it had been accessible.
    And considering that breastfeeding is not widely discussed with people unless they are about to become parents, it would be really good for a show of this style to show some unremarkable and some positive breastfeeding experiences, because this segment makes it look exclusively like a way for mothers we are supposed to read as hyper-perfectionists to upset themselves.

  13. My current thinking on this is that a cultures perspective around breasts has a whole lot to do with rates of ‘successful’ breastfeeding.
    This is an extremely generalised statement, which Ill make anyway, knowing that there are always exceptions to any ‘rule’ [which Im not proposing this is] – where breasts are largely unsexualised, are not seen as shameful & to be covered at all times, are not used to sell everything from motor oil to fast food, where babies are fed *wherever they are* – women dont have the same problems and issues around breastfeeding. Its a no-brainer.
    How can we think that women is this culture have *any chance* of getting breastfeeding right when we dont see how other women do it, where we have to hide our breasts pretty much all the time, where there is still the possibility of a furore over breastfeeding in public, where women more often than not have no realistic postnatal support [Im talking here about an ideal situation where, from birth, a mother/baby dyad has no outside expectations of anything other than feeding the baby for *weeks* after birth]?
    When girls are exposed to women breastfeeding as a matter of course [ask yourself how many women you saw breastfeeding before you had children of your own – and by breastfeeding I mean you could see the breast and the nipple, see the baby latching – my personal answer = 0], and nobody cares if your breasts are covered or not, or if there is a baby hanging off them or not, and there is no pressure for you to return to work/juggle the demands of other family/housework etc, then I reckon we might have a chance to be ‘successful’ – until then any breastfeeding is a major fucking victory and yet another example of how impossibly high the bar is set for mothers.
    Pretty much everything is set up against mothers being able to breastfeed – the fact that we need antenatal ‘classes’ to show us how to is the most telling cultural failure of all. Then many women have traumatic birth experiences that by and large remain almost completely unaddressed. Then mothers leave hospital where they have received days worth of conflicting and often contradictory advice to a home where if they are lucky, their partner will have some paid parental leave, if they are very lucky they will have some other kind of family/friend support as well [mother, MIL etc, striking the big bingo if this support person is/was a successful breastfeeder themselves].
    I was a ‘successful’ breastfeeder with both my children – but both times I had the care and attention of a midwife who had looked after me all through my pregnancy, attended my births and continued unstinting care for 6 weeks postnatally. In fact the first feed that my first child had was my midwife’s breastmilk! [Prem baby in NNU, long story].
    So I was lucky, I got the bingo, but lots of women dont even get the card, and thats the failure.

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