What is ‘Best’?

‘Best’ is probably the most misused and misunderstood word in the English language. We often hear people refer to various things as being ‘best’ with people taking them to mean ‘only’, when really it means, all things being equal, it is superior; things, of course, are not always equal. Thus, it is true that two parents, a mother and a father, are best for a child, but not every child will have that and having one parent or two same-sex parents or being raised by a grandparent or a sibling who loves them is better than dumping them in an orphanage: Best doesn’t invalidate better and neither does the necessity of opting for better mean we should cease striving for best where possible.

The biggest offender, today, is the campaign reminding us that “Breast is best.” A worthy campaign, but one that too often neglects the necessity of better. We’ve seen women abused online for bottle-feeding their babies (ridiculously extreme even when the mother ought to be breastfeeding, and indefensible when she cannot), and the way in which supermarkets treat formula milk buyers as second-class customers: The most recent example was the refusal to validate a woman’s parking ticket because she only purchased formula. Not only was she inconvenienced, but she was embarrassed at the till, being treated as if she were a pariah, being equated with someone buying cigarettes or alcohol. (As has been pointed out, this supposed promotion of healthy living doesn’t extend to refusing to validate the tickets of people only stocking up on chocolate cake or crisps.)

Apparently, an EU law is to blame, although whether it is the law itself, the way it has been adopted into UK law, the interpretation of civil servants offering guidance to the supermarkets, or the supermarkets playing it safe, is unclear. I suspect jobsworths. The law, as part of the drive to expand breastfeeding, bans shops from running promotions for formula – and free parking is treated as a promotion, so formula cannot count towards any minimum spend. Of course, most people would disagree with this interpretation as the free parking, while promoting the store isn’t promoting the formula, and most people wouldn’t even regard it as a promotion at all.

Unfortunately, the woman in this recent case had no choice but to use formula milk as her child’s illness had left it unable to tolerate rich breast milk. Once again, ‘best’ had been misinterpreted as ‘only’, ignoring the fact that it is unequivocally better for a baby to be fed than to be left to starve!

Yes, there are women, too many women, it seems, who, for various silly or selfish reasons, either do not breastfeed at all or stop early, for whom the message “Breast is best” is intended, but there are many cases where breast milk is unavailable or unfeasible and parents in those cases shouldn’t be penalised for their circumstances.

As in this particular case, some babies are unable to tolerate the high-fat content of breast milk and there will be mothers who cannot express milk or who cannot feed their baby their milk due to illness or medication. And, of course, the mother may not be available to feed their baby: In all these cases, formula is the necessary alternative. It’s not best, but, in the absence of best, it is definitely better than nothing.

We need to recall that ‘best’ isn’t ‘only’ and stop disadvantaging those who cannot meet our ideals, no matter how good those ideals might be.

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