Breast is Best - Or is it?

Filed under: Breast-Feeding, Expert Advice: Pregnancy

Medical studies about breastfeeding point to moderate health benefits, but also advise mothers who struggle to use a bottle and formula if it becomes too physically -- or psychologically -- taxing. Do breastfeeding advocates put too much pressure on moms?

Hanna Rosin takes on one of modern parenting's most sacred cows in this month's issue of The Atlantic, in an ambivalent piece about breastfeeding. She writes that medical experts cannot demonstrate definitive benefits, and also points the finger at upper-middle class women who pass judgment on those who cannot -- or choose not to -- breastfeed.

The article is prefaced with this provocative statement: "In certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice -- it is a no-exceptions requirement, the ultimate badge of responsible parenting."

Rosin sketches her own encounter with a group of sanctimommies, who immediately cool toward the author after she remarks that she may or may not continue to breastfeed her newborn:

"This time around, I said, I was considering cutting it off after a month or so. At this remark, the air of insta-friendship we had established cooled into an icy politeness, and the mothers shortly wandered away to chase little Emma or Liam onto the slide."


She goes on to ask if breastfeeding is nothing more than today's version of the vacuum cleaner, an anti-feminist tool to "keep women down." Rosin also debunks several popular rationales for breastfeeding, including that your baby will have a higher IQ or be generally more healthy than a bottle-fed baby.

"So how is it that every mother I know has become a breast-feeding fascist?" she asks.

How, indeed?


Issa is a 28-year-old mother of three from Colorado; none of her children were breastfed. Her first baby, a daughter, was premature, and doctors suggested that breastfeeding was particularly important for the baby's health. However, Issa's milk failed to come in, and she was unable to nurse.

Her experience was so upsetting, Issa says, that she decided not to even attempt breastfeeding when her second daughter was born. That decision was met with open disapproval from the nursing staff on the maternity ward.

"One nurse actually pulled my shirt down and shoved her at me. When I said, 'I'm not breastfeeding,' she actually said to me, 'Oh yes you are. There is nothing wrong with you,'" Issa recalls. "It made me feel like I was a child. Like my opinion didn't matter. It's the only time that people would dare to tell you that you are harming your child. But they will tell you that, I've had it happen."

It is difficult to imagine a trained professional, someone who's job description is to care for women recovering from the trauma of childbirth, literally shoving a child at a new mother who was equally traumatized by the experience of failed breastfeeding. But Issa's experience is not not uncommon. So why is this acceptable?

Right after our firstborn was delivered via c-section, the nurses peeled back my hospital gown and attached my baby girl to my breast. I watched as she sucked away, waiting for the Legendary Breastfeeding Nirvana to kick in. Fast forward three days to a frantic new mother, a hysterical, starving newborn with a sideways suck, and a cadre of tongue-clucking nurses dismissing my demands for a bottle. Keep trying, they said. Don't give up, they said.

Finally, a lactation consultant came and determined that the baby couldn't latch. Only then did the disapproving nurse reluctantly bring me a bottle of formula. Once we were through with breastfeeding, they were through with us, demonstrating that their main purpose was make sure I complied with the "breast is best" mandate.

From that moment on, every woman I met felt comfortable questioning me about why I was not breastfeeding. I will never forget standing in my mother's kitchen, being interrogated by her real estate agent, about why I made that "choice."

My peers are adamant about their right to breastfeed, even militant in their stance that breast is best -- and more power to them. Should anyone question their right to do what is best for them and their children? Absolutely not. Should they be prevented from breastfeeding their babies any place or any time, as Bill Maher so famously suggested in 2007? No way.

So why do so many of these women feel entitled to question someone else's personal judgment when it comes to feeding their babies formula? Women whose mantra is "How dare you question my choice?" feel totally justified doing the same thing to other moms who take a different path.

This fetishizing of breastfeeding strikes me as terribly unhealthy. Just look at the furor that broke out recently when high-profile mom blogger Catherine Conners breastfed another woman's baby at a public relations event. The response from other mothers -- on both side of the debate -- was almost irrationally emotional.

Breastfeeding is the cornerstone of the new Cult of Parenthood. Mothers (and fathers) micro-manage every aspect of their child's life -- and feel perfectly justified casting aspirations on those who don't agree with their standards: formula is the devil's invention, vaccinations cause autism, juice will give you diabetes, TV rots your brain, refined sugar causes ADD, and other ridiculous rules and axioms.

When our second baby was born in August, breastfeeding was out of the question for me. It would have tethered me to my son in a way that would have been detrimental to everyone in our household, including me. And I challenge anyone to question our bond -- if my kids were any more bonded to me, I would have to take out a restraining order.

While Hanna Rosin's story ends with her continuing to breastfeed, she expresses a deep ambivalence about it in the Atlantic article. While she may have mixed feelings, she's doing the best she can, and isn't that all any of us can do?

Where do you stand in the breastfeeding debate? Are you a card-carrying member of the Le Leche League, or are you a formula-feeder? And how do you feel about your choice?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.