Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Dr Miriam Stoppard in the Mirror: first, do no harm

I woke up this morning and read this article by Dr Miriam Stoppard in the Mirror. Not good. Not even remotely good. In fact, I can't think of one single thing in the entire piece that could be classified as good. (In contrast, this article from earlier in the year, also in the Mirror, was really very, very good).

I'm not going to go through the article and correct all the errors of fact about breastfeeding, even though, as an editor, it's very tempting to get the red pen out. I'm not sure there would be anything left at the end. Except, perhaps, the opening line: "There’s no keener fan of ­breast-feeding than me. I always advocate breast milk as the perfect food for babies from birth to weaning." I can't help thinking that if Dr Stoppard had left it at that, no harm would have been done. Sadly, she goes on to make a mockery of her opening line by going on to talk a lot of nonsense about breastfeeding that actually undermines it, rather than demonstrating her commitment to it.

And I'm left fuming, once again, about the insidious harm this sort of article does, to everything that breastfeeding supporters (peer supporters, IBCLCs, breastfeeding counsellors, health care professionals) are working towards. We're all actively engaged in trying to create a culture that is more supportive of women and their decisions about feeding their babies, and when yet another 'celebrity' doctor weighs in with an inaccurate opinion piece it feels like a kick in the teeth.

I spend a good proportion of my time trying to bust breastfeeding myths - as a peer supporter I work with women face-to-face at baby clinic, and take my turn answering calls to our helpline, I've published my own book on the subject (Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform) and work with other authors on Lonely Scribe's list of parenting titles, which includes the wonderful Fit to Bust by Alison Blenkinsop. I hear recycled breastfeeding myths - plenty of which crop up in Dr Stoppard's article (such as the comment "my guide is the appearance of teeth"*) - all the time, and try, gently and with accurate information, to encourage mothers to get past these cultural stumbling-blocks to breastfeeding. So when articles like this appear in the popular press it feels like all my hard work, and the hours of my time given to volunteering to support women, is being undermined.

Dr Stoppard, casually and with an utterly infuriating lack of knowledge and research (even the most cursory review of the current literature would surely have corrected some of her errors - for example, her representation of the World Health Organisation's recommendations on infant feeding, which are clearly stated on their website, is completely flawed), uses her position, as a doctor and author, to peddle unhelpful myths, spread misinformation and undermine the work of those who are trying to support women to feed their babies in the way that they want to, for as long as they want to. Along with other doctors in the public eye (those of us who support breastfeeding have also recently taken issue with comments made by Dr Ellie Cannon and Dr Christian Jessen), Dr Stoppard would do well to undertake some additional, up to date training in breastfeeding, and supporting breastfeeding, before putting pen to paper.

I've reserved some of my anger for the editors that commission, or agree to publish, this type of article - they are by no means blameless. As a commissioning editor of books, I have to acquaint myself with the subject matter before agreeing to publish an author's material - I need to know if their views are mainstream, out on a limb or plumb crazy, and I need to know whether the material will be well-researched and properly referenced, and where it sits in relation to other writers on the same topic, in order to decide whether it will find a market, both in terms of its content and its commercial appeal. In the past I would have been weighing these decisions based on the aims of the company I worked for; these days, as one half of Lonely Scribe, I'm fortunate in being able to commission work that fits with my personal philosophy: high-quality, well-researched material that really will both inspire and inform readers.

* on the subject of teeth: my third daughter, still breastfeeding at 22 months, got her first teeth at 13 weeks old. All three of my children have breastfed long past the time when their teeth came through. Breastfeeding can be an ideal help with soothing teething pain. Babies rarely bite - many try it once or twice but they can be discouraged from doing so and there are plenty of suggestions online about how to handle this. (An alternative reading of the situation would be to suggest continuing to breastfeed until the 'milk teeth' are replaced by adult teeth, which causes children to outgrow the ability to latch, at the age of 6 or 7.)


  1. I think you credit the woman with far too much... erm... well credit! I don't for one second think it's ignorance and if she isn't receiving back handed payments from Nestle/Cow & Gate/Milupa or the like, I'll eat my hat!

    Other than that, I completely agree with everything you've said!

  2. Awesome response to an outrageous article.

  3. If only this response could be read as much as the offending article. I agree that The Mirror should accept some responsibility for having published this crap. Here is a link to the PCC http://www.pcc.org.uk/complaints/makingacomplaint.html

  4. OMG, I am fuming too. I cannot believe that a so called Dr. would write this. Something obviously happened to her when she breastfed, or didn't breastfeed.

    Mr Dear Dr. Cow's milk is good for little cows, not humans.

    You are completely misinformed and should do some reading first, but I guess you must be busy cashing those cheques from the formula companies.....lol

  5. I heard about this article so investigated further... and found you :o)

    1. did Dr Miriam run out of funds and needs a career push for more income?
    2. The Mirror, as you say, needs to be held to account for this... it's anecdotal nonsense, not scientifically based, and it's inconsistent with evidenced based information.

    Grrrr As a mother, a BF Peer Supporter and student NCT BF counsellor, this grates.

    Misinformed nonsense, editor needs a reality check.

    Do your best to have your notes published as a return.


  6. A well-measured response. I think her article must have been published to be controversial.It's so badly written that I can't even see a formula feeding mum reading it and feeling affirmed. The Mirror should be called to account.

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    Medical Scribe