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.

Comments (20)

by Nathaniel Wilson on February 07, 2012
Nathaniel Wilson

Agree 100%.  For the first time in a long time, my wife and I watched Close Up last night and were staggered at the rhetoric used by Ms Williams.

On a side note, we'd also question the usage of exclusively breast-fed to six months as being a measure of success.  On the advice of several doctors, including a paediatrician, we started to feed our child solids at four months, in conjunction with breastfeeding, which for us worked superbly.  I'm not suggesting we as a society stop encouraging woman to breastfeed, more questioning why exclusivity should be held up as the ideal.

by barry on February 07, 2012

Can you show me where "pro-breastfeeding campaigners have gone septic"?  Williams view that NZ is hostile to breastfeeding may be a bit OTT, but that hardly qualifies.

I have seen nowhere in the news about this story where anyone has been criticised for bottle feeding a baby.

 Where are people "beating up on Weepu"?  Not demonstrated in the link?  Where are the stories criticising Weepu for his choices?

 Yes several groups asked the piece not be shown because it may send the wrong message.  It was not necessary for the message that was intended, that of loving families without cigarettes.

Some pro-breastfeeding campaigners may overreact in some cases, but I really can't see where they have in this case.  Are you not sure you are not over-reactng yourself?

by Andrew Geddis on February 08, 2012
Andrew Geddis

"I have seen nowhere in the news about this story where anyone has been criticised for bottle feeding a baby."

See here.

by Maureen Jansen on February 08, 2012
Maureen Jansen

I think there is a deep context behind this. In the 50s and 60s, maybe a lot earlier, bottle feeding was the norm and then in the 70s, when I had my bubbas, breast feeding was sweeping back in on a wave of La Leche League support. They broke down a sort of squeamishness that had developed around this oh so natual method of feeding. It was quite a revolution. I remember being a bit of a breast feeding fanatic for a short time. I'm a lot more tolerant now as a grandmother watching young mothers going through the same old doubts and fears. I also believe that baby formula is probably a lot better than it used to be!

However, I'd hate to see us going back to the bad old days when bottle feeding was the thing to do. I think we need to encourage as many mothers to breat feed as can manage it comfortably. A powerful role model like Piri Weepu can so easily send out a subliminal message that it is desirable for the baby to be bottle fed so that both parents can share the feeding; that it is a way for the father to bond etc.

Interestingly he said that his babies were allergic to dairy. That's cow's milk, isn't it. They wouldn't be allergic to their mother's milk. Allergies to cow's milk are good reasons to breast fee, surely. 

by John Stroup on February 08, 2012
John Stroup

Come on , now, don't we have more important things to deal with?

I'm a "boomer", and during that era, there were experts [Dr. Spock, and no, not the one from Star Trek] that were going around telling every one what to do with babies.

This really does comes down to the individual responsability of the parents. Have people become so drained of the ability to make individual choices that this is now an issue?

If you want to get into an issue, that is one worthy of a look, individual responsability vs social responsability [collectivism]. This does not merit a "policy" decision.

Babies have been born, fed, and thrived without interventions, why are we getting into this now? Don't get distracted, there are bigger fish to fry.

by Eleanor Black on February 08, 2012
Eleanor Black

I agree with John -- there are bigger fish to fry. Babies are born and raised regardless of the social norms of the day re. feeding them. However there are ways to optimise their experience, and that is what Plunket et al are aiming for -- and given the history outlined by Maureen, they have made great progress in maximising babies' health outcomes.

I support that, but think that when it comes to bottle feeding a lot of people tend to lose perspective -- this latest debate is an excellent example. Bottle-feeding doesn't work for everyone and formula is a life-saving alternative. I know plenty of women who were harangued and hassled for bottle-feeding at a time in their lives when they needed support and understanding -- not a piece of someone's mind.

And as a parent of two littlies, I am struck once again by the unwelcome intervention into mothers' choices, such as the woman featured in today's Herald. Give us credit for having brains and using them.

by NiuZila on February 08, 2012

I fully support Ms Williams rhetoric.  The reason why some people, such as the author of this post, do not experience a hostile environment towards breast-feeding in public can be largely attributed to the work of organisations such as Leche League, Plunket and NZ College of Midwives in promoting breastfeeding.  By trying to make sure public messages are consistent, public attitudes have changed.  I agree with other commentators, at no point is bottlefeeding looked down upon, but rather it is about having a consistent public message about how positive breastfeeding is.  Sure we all talk about personal responsibility, but we know that messages are influential, afterall why did smokefree NZ use Piri Weepu for its message if it did not think he would have some sort of influence?  Furthermore, the stats mentioned above show the low percentage of Maori and Pacific mothers breastfeeding.  Having a Maori All Black bottlefeeding is a message, while its influence is debatable, it is a message worth deleting to stop any confusion over public messages about breastfeeding.  My wife is at home with our second child, 3 months old - we too have heard all the messages about breast is best... and its these messages which allow my wife to confidently decide its ok to go to the mall or the cafe and not have to prepare bottles because of any perceived negativity from members of the public.

by Tim Watkin on February 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

Sure, America's tensions with Iran and the slaughter in Syria may be bigger fish, but let's not under play the importance of breast feeding. Bonding with parents is one of the key indicators of a safe childhood, breast feeding means less chance of obesity and is all round better for a babe's development. So John when it comes to a couple of the biggest social issues we face, it is worth stressing its importance.

But the point here is the reaction – that anything other than that option needs to be censored. Some mums can't breast feed. All Blacks by definition can't breast feed! So let's not rush to condemnation.

And let's see things through more than one lens – the criticism I was making of Treasury in my post a few days back. Sure, the Weepu image may have a tiny downside re breast feeding, the it's got a huge upside men shown bonding with and nurturing their kids. Isn't that an influential message worth showing NiuZila?

I reckon a few seconds of Weepu and his child won't threaten your wife's decision given all the info on the positives of breast feeding. It's a fair point that the organisations listed have helped promote the importance of breast feeding, don't you think that this sort of over-reaction does more harm than good to their message? It's not for them to control everything, even to the point of undermining other positives.


by HIlary Stace on February 08, 2012
HIlary Stace

Male 'experts' have been telling women how to give birth, feed and raise children since way before Truby King saw a marketing opportunity in 1907. I see it as a gender issue. Men can't have babies or breast feed which only seems to make them more determined  to control how women give birth (decades of childbirth in large teaching hospitals fighting gravity lying prone tied up with stirrups, sterile gowns and anaesthesia) and feed their babies (four hourly feeds only, holding out at 6 weeks,strict toilet training). When women try to take back the initiative for themselves as supporters and mentors of other women through organisations like LLL, or Parent's Centre in its early days (or even as midwives) there are such extreme reactions from the prevailing patriarchy. 

Women now are 'allowed' to breast feed, to have home births or midwife assisted births generally, have fathers present at birth, resist anaesthesia, have the baby beside them rather than in a hospital nursery, and a whole lot of other 'freedoms' many of our mothers and grandmothers didn't have, only because women-led groups have fought for them.

by Maureen Jansen on February 08, 2012
Maureen Jansen

Tim, there are so many other ways a father can be seen nurturing his child.

I remember the 70s/80s wave of "breast is best" and the La Leche League and how it seemed to be the pakeha middle class mothers who tended to follow the call. I'm not sure of the history and the stats (Hilary?) but if that still tends to be the case, I can understand women's health groups recoiling when seeing a fantastic Maori role model like Piri Weepu bottle feeding. This is looking at the big picture and is NOTHING to do with zealots who abuse individual bottle feeding mothers. 

by HIlary Stace on February 08, 2012
HIlary Stace

There are several issues here. Breastfeeding is not easy for many (most) mothers as it can hurt and take a while to establish, be messy and takes time. Mothers need a great deal of support (such as lots of rest time) to get things working smoothly. It is often much easier and convenient to bottle feed.  Fathers often prefer bottle feeding. NZers are generaly uncomfortable with breastfeeding and anyone who has breast fed in public would have noticed this.

Corporations such as Nestle have noticed this and  promoted formula feeding as the aspirational option, particularly in developing countries. The consequences can be disastrous for mothers and babies where the equipment such as sterilised bottles are not available, and formula is expensive. But breast feeding internationally is still very much on the back foot, and I mainly blame the forces of capitalism for this -  greedy corporations and societies (including ours) which place have little value on nurturing and caring for children, and more on economic transactions.

So, regardless of context or intention,  an image of a powerful man bottle feeding a baby reinforces so many stereotypes and subliminal anti-breast feeding messages.

by barry on February 08, 2012



Are you saying that Eleanor knew that report was going to be in the Herald before writing the article?  If so it might have justified the claim "gone septic".  Although the article doesn't identify the zealots.  The behaviour complained of in the article seems to have happened before the advertisement editing, so can hardly fit the rhetoric in the article.

I really cannot see anything in the story to justify this article.


To summarise what happened.


1. The ad was made and an early cut shown to a number of groups including Plunket, LLL and the Midwives.  Naturally those 3 representatives suggested removing the clip with the bottle.  The ad makers agreed.

2. Somebody reported the editing to the media who made a big song and dance, and sought to make a big story of it, interviewing people who can be expected to have strong views.  You can hardly blame LLL or other breastfeeding advocates for this.

3. In a polarised debate, there will be people come forward with complaints of things that have happened to them (either abused for bottle feeding or breast feeding).  these are largely anecdotes and not necessarily indicative of a "septic" atmosphere.

I can understand the MSM selling papers and TV advertising by making a story out of nothing, they are too lazy to look for real stories.  However I thought that Pundit usually looks a little behind the story.


Would we be jumping on ALAC, or SADD if the ad had shown a quiet beer being drunk (nothing wrong with that), and they had asked for a change?  The whole point of advertising is that perceptions do matter.

by Tim Watkin on February 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

Hilary, you're again looking at this through one lens – it's also a health issue, a safety issues, a fathering issue, not merely a gender issue... And if it is, the organisations involved seem to be treating mothers as pretty simple and are terrible at PR.

I don't buy the idea that there's significant anti-breastfeeding pressure – having had a child in the past week, I can tell you that the corridors of Auckland's maternity ward and Birthcare are full of pro-breastfeeding messages and breastfeeding info. The midwives all stress its importance; we had no mention of bottles. I think as many mothers would know 'breast is best' as NZers would know drink-driving is daft.

So yeah, Maureen, there are other ways to show fatherly nurturing (although few more intimate or representative in a couple of seconds). I still say the positives outweight the negatives on this one.

barry, you can look behind a story and come to difference conclusions!

by Tim Watkin on February 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

Oh, and the Dndn longitudinal study from 2002 showed an 88% initiation rate of mothers breastfeeding in 2002. Lower then desired but better than most Western countries. That's a start for you Maureen...

by NiuZila on February 09, 2012

It's not really just a 2 second shot... it's a 2 second shot in an advert that will most likely be screened during primetime television over many months, part of an official public health message, and featuring a Maori All Black. 

Isn't it like product placement?  Sure it doesn't need to spell out much, but the (subliminal) messages of having products associated with celebrities are well sort after by large corporations.

by Maureen Jansen on February 09, 2012
Maureen Jansen

Well said Niu Zila. And Tim, congratulations. A new baby!

I would have liked to see Piri reading a baby book with his daughter. They enjoy the pictures and the sing song voice even from 6 months. That would be a far more postive subliminal message: an All Black valuing books and language and giving his child a start. Or maybe singing a nursery rhyme to her. 

You could argue that the 2 second shot would undo some of the pro-breastfeeding messages you see in the corridors of the maternity ward. It has taken decades to get to this positive point with breastfeeding and then wham one our national heroes implicitly encouraging bottle feeding. And thinking that a dairy allergy means that breast feeding is impossible. 


by Tim Watkin on February 09, 2012
Tim Watkin

Thanks Maureen. I think we're going to disagree on this one though.

One other thought... and that's how poorly these organisations handled their communication. Sure, it may be their job to have a quiet word about changing the image used. But why make the strident comments, why refuse to go on Close Up, why miss the rare opportunity to actually talk about their concerns?

The message should have been: "It's our responsibility to ask the question because 'breast is best'. The importance of breastfeeding for health, obesity, bonding and the like is proven and can't be under-stated. Of course we're delighted to see a nurturing father on screen given the social problems we have in this country and good luck to the campaign. We just don't want parents to forget how vital breastfeeding is for baby."

 "Mark, you think we over-reacted? Weepu's a top bloke and lots of parents can't breastfeed for all sorts of reasons. We don't judge. We just remind people that 'breast is best' and breastfeeding can cut obesity rates by X% and make a huge difference..."

You get my point. See how many times they could have said 'breast is best' on primetime TV and radio and on the front page of the papers?

Instead, the talk is of 'breastfeeding nazis'. It's just dumb.

And no, it is just a two second shot. The takeaway of the vast majority of viewers would have been "nice All Black with baby" or perhaps "Maori man nurturing child". It's only people looking for the breastfeeding problem that would have seen it.

by Beth Jones on February 11, 2012
Beth Jones

Hi all,

it's always interesting to think how others might see things but behind the advertising incident/ PR missed opportunity the important point is that breast is best. Substitutes are available if circumstances dictate but breast is best. 

Bigger fish to fry? To paraphrase the Talmud : She who feeds one babe feeds the whole world.

by John Stroup on February 11, 2012
John Stroup

Bigger fish, yes. And this a debate on HOW to feed not IF to feed. With all due respect to the Talmud, that point is somewhat irrelevant.

It really comes down to personal choice. I would say that breast feeding is best, as that is the original design. Bottle feeding may be more practical for some.

Neither should be pilloried.

by danniel on October 17, 2013

That's an interesting debate. However I don't think the argument of breastfeeding is enough to convince someone to quit smoking. There are so many methods to stop smoking; all you need is your good will for that. I fact I read an interesting article about it on this Rochester chiropractor source.

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