What’s missing from contemporary breastfeeding advice? Compassion!

doctor hand comforting patient in a hospital room background

Shell shock was first described one hundred years ago:

During the early stages of World War I in 1914, soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force began to report medical symptoms after combat, including tinnitus, amnesia, headaches, dizziness, tremors, and hypersensitivity to noise. While these symptoms resembled those that would be expected after a physical wound to the brain, many of those reporting sick showed no signs of head wounds. By December 1914 as many as 10% of British officers and 4% of enlisted men were suffering from “nervous and mental shock”.

Today we would call it PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Back then many people called it cowardice:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactivists treat women struggling to breastfeed the same way the British Army treated men suffering from shell shock: with contempt.[/pullquote]

Some men suffering from shell shock were put on trial, and even executed, for military crimes including desertion and cowardice. While it was recognised that the stresses of war could cause men to break down, a lasting episode was likely to be seen as symptomatic of an underlying lack of character.For instance, in his testimony to the post-war Royal Commission examining shell shock, Lord Gort said that shell shock was a weakness and was not found in “good” units. The continued pressure to avoid medical recognition of shell shock meant that it was not, in itself, considered an admissible defence.

It’s appalling when you think about it. Men who were suffering quite severely were treated with contempt instead of compassion. Why? Two reason. First, the army needed men to fight the battles; offering compassion would limit the number of men they could press into service in their enterprise. Second, it was a powerful rebuttal to the story the army told itself about the glory of war.

Sadly, such behavior is still common. We see it today in contemporary breastfeeding advice.

Consider these responses by a lactivist in a Twitter conversation about women suffering as a results of pressure to breastfeed. She is responding to others in the thread and I’ve arranged them in chronological order from earlier to later tweets (not all responses are included).


Sabire’s contempt for women who don’t breastfeed, or worse question the glory and absolute necessity of breastfeeding, oozes from her words.

..you never much liked the idea of breastfeeding to start with and are more in your social and emotional ‘comfort zone’ with bottlefeeding. Impossible for some women to be honest about it:

You were always weak.

…Most people think that if they can’t ^see^ the benefits, then they’re not real.

How dare you question what we tell you!

…If women aren’t reading or accessing this information, if they spend 10x the amount of time researching what buggy to buy as to ‘what are the challenges of establishing breastfeeding and where can I get help?’ then whose fault is that?

It’s all your fault!

… in countries where breastfeeding is the social norm, you don’t get huge numbers of women who feel ‘broken’ – not by pathological breastfeeding (thrush, tongue tie etc) – by but by NORMAL and functional breastfeeding as you see here in the U.K.

If other people can do it, so can you.

We should be asking what it is about U.K. culture that so many new mums feel broken by a normal physiological function that most women in other countries manage without loads of emotional distress.

Perhaps it’s a defect in your upbringing.

It made a relevant point about normalising dysfunction, which people do all the time in relation to breastfeeding and is part of the reason so many women lose heart with it. I’m sorry you can’t see that.

Don’t expect any sympathy for your whining.

Instead of treating women who are sharing their struggles with compassion, Sabire cannot be bothered to hide her contempt. Women who have difficulty breastfeeding are ‘weak, lazy, defective, and incapable of doing what real women do routinely.’ They are malingerers who want to be coddled instead of doing their duty.

Which is precisely what they told shell shocked soldiers in an effort to get them to ‘snap out of it.’

Another lactivist in the conversation is equally contemptuous. Psychology professor Amy Brown recently wrote a piece entitled Here’s Why You Should Ignore Those Breastfeeding Horror Stories:

Try not to pay too much attention to breastfeeding horror stories. People like to share stories – it makes them feel better – without thinking about the consequences for you …

It boggles the mind that a psychology professor — a psychology professor!! — looks at women who are desperate to be seen and supported and responds by telling us to ignore them. Would she tell military personnel to “ignore” the PTSD of returning veterans, not pay “too much” attention to them and treat them as nothing more than a drag on morale?

Perhaps the most famous incident involving shell shock occurred during WWII when General George Patton became enraged when finding a man among the hospitalized troops who was not obviously injured. Told that it was his nerves:

He began yelling: “Your nerves, hell, you are just a goddamned coward. Shut up that goddamned crying. I won’t have these brave men who have been shot at seeing this yellow bastard sitting here crying.” Patton then reportedly slapped Bennett again, knocking his helmet liner off, and ordered the receiving officer …. not to admit him. Patton then threatened Bennett, “You’re going back to the front lines and you may get shot and killed, but you’re going to fight. If you don’t, I’ll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose. In fact, I ought to shoot you myself, you goddamned whimpering coward.”

It was an ugly incident and Patton was ultimately reproved for it and a similar reaction to another soldier. Eisenhower himself was involved and wrote to Patton:

I clearly understand that firm and drastic measures are at times necessary in order to secure the desired objectives. But this does not excuse brutality, abuse of the sick, nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates…

Soldiers diagnosed with shell shock were not weak, lazy, defective or incapable of doing what others do “easily.” They deserved to be treated with compassion, not contempt. Women struggling with breastfeeding are not weak, lazy, defective or incapable of doing was others do easily. They deserved to be treated with compassion and lactivists should be deeply ashamed of themseleves and should apologize immediately and profusingly for treating them cavalierly and with contempt.

I’m not holding my breath, though. Just as army officers viewed the sufferers of shell shock as a powerful rebuttal to the story they told themselves about the glory of war, lactivists view women who struggle to breastfeed as a powerful rebuttal to the story they tell themselves about the perfection of breastfeeding. Compassion would lead to cognitive dissonance. It’s easier and more satisfying for lactivists to treat suffering women brutally and with contempt.