“At the end of the day, everyone just wants what’s best”

Fern & Rose meets: Michaela Harris

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Michaela Harris and her daughter, Hazel. Photo: Anna Munro.

Michaela Harris is mum to two-year-old Hazel and a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research focuses on breast and formula feeding, an often-controversial topic. She talks about the challenges of applying global recommendations to a local context and what parents and medical professionals are telling her about feeding babies in New Zealand.


Fern & Rose (F&R): Hi Michaela! What do you do?

Michaela Harris (MH): I’m a student at Victoria University of Wellington. After my daughter Hazel was born, I went back to uni to do my Masters, which has now become a PhD. I’m travelling around New Zealand, interviewing parents, midwives, Plunket nurses and doctors about their experiences of working within the current health system, specifically around breast and formula feeding. I’m putting those interviews alongside meta-analysis of medical research.

Our statistics show that New Zealand has almost 100 percent compliance with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative. WHO has what they call the Baby Friendly Hospital’s ten steps to successful breastfeeding. So what they’re saying is if everyone does these 10 things, you’re going to have really high rates of breastfeeding.

But my hypothesis is that a global policy can’t work in a local context. The WHO recommendations are global. They miss out the nuances of what it’s like to live in a culture like New Zealand, where we have clean water, formula is relatively inexpensive compared to other countries and we can sterilise bottles. The negative health outcomes to formula feeding that are very real in other countries are not the same in a country like New Zealand.

I got more than 600 responses from parents, doctors and nurses wanting to be involved, and Plunket gave me ethics approval to interview its nurses. I’m looking at the issue through a feminist and gender lens; how it affects both men and women and how it effects things like economics and day-to-day interactions.

F&R: What have you learnt from the interviews you’ve done so far?

MH: Before I started talking to people, I assumed the parents who formula fed their children were going to have had issues and the parents that had breastfed their children were going to be fine. I heard positive stories from both, but I also heard stories about people feeling like they couldn’t go out in public or were having to make hard decisions between going to work and staying at home.

Because WHO promotes breastfeeding – rather than breast milk – a lot of midwives, nurses and doctors I spoke to think they’re not allowed to talk about bottles at all, even for expressed breast milk. That’s technically true for the WHO recommendations. It’s not true for the [New Zealand] Ministry of Health’s recommendations. But that’s the issue; no one’s really sure what they can and can’t say. People are scared to be seen to be suggesting that you should take formula, even if they’re just talking about bottles. So, for example, parents going back to work told me they weren’t sure what to do when it came to expressing breast milk.

F&R: What are medical professionals sharing with you?

MH: A lot of them are sharing stories of being frustrated because they’re kind of hamstrung a little bit, in terms of how much they can say. I interviewed a mother who told me she’d lied to her midwife and said that she had been breastfeeding when she’d been formula feeding. I ended up interviewing the midwife, who knew. I didn’t say anything, but I figured out we were talking about the same person. The fact that they both felt they had to be in that situation is just a bit crazy. And I think it’s just because at the end of the day, everyone just wants what’s best. No-one’s trying to take the easy way out. It’s parenting; there isn’t really an easy way out.

F&R: What about the social side of things? What have people said about feeding in public, for example?

MH: Just under half of the people I’ve spoken to have had a positive experience. They’ve maybe been worried about feeding in public but then they do and it’s fine. And then you get the other half of people who have bad experiences in public. I formula fed my daughter. Once, I was making a bottle for her; she was crying and someone came up to me and said ‘if you breastfed, your baby wouldn’t cry like that’. A lot of my research participants had stories like that; either ‘why are you exposing yourself in public’ or ‘why are you feeding your baby poison’.

F&R: Are you interviewing dads?

MH: I am. I’m interviewing heterosexual and homosexual dads. It’s interesting to interview the dads where I’ve also interviewed the mum. Their opinions and memories are usually different because they’re not being pressured in the same way. It’s a bit universal with all the dads I’ve interviewed – they don’t experience the same judgement. Often, it seems it takes a lot less to be a really good dad! I wouldn’t want to take that away from the dads; I’d just like some of the mums to have that same recognition.

F&R: What was it like going back to uni after Hazel was born?

MH: It’s certainly easier now than back when Hazel was first born. I had a terrible pregnancy. I was really sick my whole pregnancy. Hazel was induced at exactly 38 weeks because I was so sick. My husband Dave took time off from his job as a computer programmer. He was always going to take leave, but he probably took a little bit more time off because I needed to get better. He was home for the first couple of months. That was really good, spending that time together.

Hazel went to daycare when she was eight months old. Vic Uni has a daycare on site. She does two and a half days there, half a day with her grandparents and I’m at home with her for the other two days. I’m a full-time student but I basically cram all of my study into three days, plus a couple of evenings.

At the start, Dave was working full time and working on his own business so he was also working at night. He’s now working for himself. I work three days a week, Dave works three days a week and then we have one day a week as a family day. To make it work, there’s a lot of scheduling. We schedule everything! We have a joint calendar and use it to schedule the nights we can have dinner together. We schedule family time and we schedule time together just the two of us as well. Our calendar always looks ridiculously full, but if we didn’t do it that way, it wouldn’t get done.

F&R: How have the university supported you to return to study?

MH: I did my postgraduate diploma when I first went back, which was most of last year and then started my Masters at the end of it. When I was doing the postgraduate diploma and having classes at university, there wasn’t really much they could do to support me. You’ve just got to be there for the classes. But it did mean a couple of times that Hazel came with me to things if it was scheduled outside of my normal hours. I don’t think it would’ve worked so well at undergraduate level but there are lots of parents at postgraduate level, or people wanting to become parents, so it’s a very different environment.

My relationship with my PhD supervisor is more of a colleague rather than a student-teacher relationship. I can be a lot more honest about what I’m doing, when I’m doing it and why I might need to move deadlines. There’s more flexibility, and it helps that she’s a mother, too.

F&R: What’s your key advice for new parents?

MH: You are the only person who is an expert on your child. Doctors, nurses and other parents have a lot of experience about children in general. But no one else is your child’s parent. So you can take advice and listen to it but really you’re the only person that’s qualified to make decisions about your child. You’re the one who decides. Because you’re the only one who really knows.

Michaela is looking for research participants across New Zealand now. If you’d like to share your experiences of feeding infants, email Michaela.harris@vuw.ac.nz for more information.

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