When breast isn’t best

Two of my children were predominantly breast feed the first year and two were not so I’m very open to arguments in all sides here, but one thing is very clear is that far too many breast feeding advocates are wayway overzealous.  Due to a letter in Dear Prudence today, I came across this great column from a journalist who cannot breastfeed due to a cancer-related double mastectomy.  First Dear Prudence:

Dear Prudie,
My husband and I had a baby girl five months ago. Before she was born, we had a long conversation about breast-feeding versus formula and decided that breast-feeding was best and that I would try to do it for a year. The problem is that I’m completely miserable. I work full-time and it’s really stressful to fit pumping into my schedule. My breasts are constantly sore and I am always exhausted. Our daughter is beautiful and healthy and I want to do the right thing, but I don’t know how much longer I can bear this. My husband doesn’t want me to stop. Every time I mention formula, he gives me all the reasons why breast-feeding is best. He suggests I talk to our doctor or La Leche League. I don’t want to pump her full of chemicals or have her immune system suffer either, but I’m desperate. What can I do? I feel so guilty about all of it.

—Running Dry

Dear Running,
Mom, return the pump, toss the lactation bra, and get an economy-size container of formula. At great personal cost, you have breast-fed your daughter, she has gotten plenty of benefit, and now she would benefit even more from a happy, rested mother. Read Hanna Rosin’s article, “The Case Against Breast-Feeding,” which shows that the popular literature on breast-feeding overstates the scientific certainty of its superiority. In any case, you are doing no harm to your child by weaning her. To show how unhinged breast-feeding pressure has become, also read this story byWashington Post reporter Emily Wax-Thibodeaux about what happened after she recently gave birth. Several years ago, Wax-Thibodeaux was treated for breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Of course, she couldn’t breast-feed, but even explaining her lack of mammary glands to the lactivists at the hospital couldn’t stop them from harassing her about trying! Breast-feeding is making you miserable, and that’s all your husband needs to know. He has no skin in this game, so don’t let him bully you. You both want what’s best for your daughter, and that means switching to formula.

Amen.  And here’s some excerpts from the aforementioned column (well worth a read in its entirety):

The mothers in my “Baby & Me Yoga Fit,” class looked down from their tree poses, surprised as I poured some instant formula into a bottle.

Feeding our babies whenever they were in need was one of the most nurturing parts of the class. But with my evil formula, I was disrupting the fellow yogis in a way I never could have predicted.

“You know,” one mother said as I fed my little Lincoln, then 3 months old, “breast-feeding is optimal.”

I encountered this “breast is best” reaction at cafes, parks, even in some friends’ houses. One male friend even noticed that my husband was giving Lincoln a bottle in a Facebook posting and commented, “So you’re not breast-feeding? It’s better you know?”

The truth is, I’m a breast cancer survivor, and after a double mastectomy with reconstruction, which probably saved my life, I simply wasn’t able to breast-feed…

“You never gave up,” my husband said, laughing as he watched Lincoln gulp down his first two-ounce serving of formula, which my husband fed to him.

As the two of them cuddled afterward, I was in a mood that I can describe only as postpartum elation.

That is, until those I jokingly call the “breast-feeding nazis” came marching in to my room.

“You really should breast-feed,” the hospital’s lactation consultants, a.k.a. “lactivists,” said.

When I simply said, “I’m going to do formula,” they didn’t want to leave it at that.

So holding my day-old newborn on what was one of the most blissful days of my life, I had to tell the aggressive band of well-intentioned strangers my whole cancer saga…

“I can’t. I had breast cancer,” I said, looking down at Lincoln and stating proudly: “But I’m just so happy to be alive and be a mother after cancer.”

Silence.

“Just try,” they advised. “Let’s hope you get some milk.”

“It may come out anyway, or through your armpits,” another advised later when I was doing the usual post-labor, slow-recovery walk through the hospital halls…

Around that time, a long-term study came out that compared pairs of siblings — one breast-fed, the other formula-fed. It debunked the “breast is better” mantra that I kept hearing: “Breast-feeding might be no more beneficial than bottle-feeding for 10 of 11 long-term health and well-being outcomes in children age 4 to 14,” the study found; those outcomes included body mass index, obesity, hyperactivity, reading comprehension, math ability and memory-based intelligence.

If you can breast feed, great, more power to you.  But to have our culture essentially trying to bully women into it is ridiculous.  Especially when much of the prior research on breast feeding was based on the fact that breast feeding mothers were higher SES.  The sibling study is pretty compelling.  Women need to do what’s best for them and what’s best for their baby.  And in many cases that is formula feeding.  And that’s okay.

Advertisements

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: