I was going to write a follow-up post to my last one, detailing some of the perks that have come from weaning, but I got too distracted by this article by Hanna Rosin. Now obviously, just calling something "The Case Against Breastfeeding" is designed to raise both hackles and cheers from respective ends of the breastfeeding-support continuum (let's put La Leche League on one side of that and Nestle on the other). The author's actual intent, however, is to discuss the pressure put on mothers to breastfeed, the sense of guilt they can receive if they don't, and the, in her opinion, overstated benefits of breastmilk.
As the mother of three children (all breastfed, she happens to mention), Rosin is fully entitled to discuss the first two things, but after following the links to her cited sources, I think her refuting of the benefits of breastfeeding is its own overstatement. The fact that breastmilk is inherently better than formula is so obvious that I can't wrap my head around any arguments to the contrary. It takes a lab to prove that a naturally occurring substance, the one that kept the human race alive for our entire existence on the planet up to the last century or so, is superior to something made in a factory from the dried compounds of who-knows-what? Are there ongoing studies comparing orange juice with Tang?
Why do we only buy this argument when it comes to baby food? I don't know anyone who chooses to drink reconstituted dried milk, even though it would be much more "convenient" to keep milk in non-perishable cans in the pantry rather than constantly having to buy it, refrigerate it, worry about the expiration date, stock up on it before looming weather disasters, etc. The fact is, the inconvenience of breastfeeding is what has been overstated. It has been framed as the high-maintenance alternative to formula, instead of the biologically-implicated norm.
So let's just be honest about it, without judging anyone for their choices. Science can't duplicate nature. Not perfectly. Can it come close enough to grow happy, healthy babies? Why yes, yes it certainly can. Especially when they have an entire arsenal of other environmental advantages.
Which brings me to my biggest annoyance with this piece. The author talks about the guilt and even shame that is directed at mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. She references the skinny-jeaned mom-iosos who huddle together at toddler parks and look askance at anyone pulling a powder-filled bottle from their designer diaper bag. Now, I wish nothing but solidarity among all mothers, and I don't discount the isolation that comes from feeling unsupported in your parenting decisions, but when I read about these milk-cliques, I couldn't help thinking, "If this is what breastfeeding propaganda has wrought, so be it."
While the trendy Brooklyn moms are discussing which baby monitors have the smallest carbon footprint, the moms in my neck of the woods are being told by their pediatricians that their 1-day-old babies are starving and need formula because their milk hasn't come in yet. And those are the tiny fraction who even bother to try breastfeeding. The percentage of Memphis mothers exclusively breastfeeding at six months is 9%, half of the national average. And, in what seems hardly coincidental, Memphis has the worst infant mortality rate in the country (which, as a nation, isn't so hot itself). I'm sorry if the PSA with the bull-riding pregnant woman makes a formula-feeding mother feel bad, I really am. I have issues with the execution of that campaign. But if it encourages the overarching public feeling that breastfeeding is worth the hassle every contrary force has declared it to be, and some babies end up healthier for it, then I can live with that.
The one point Rosin makes, maybe accidentally, that I did agree with is that nursing can be presented as the be-all, end-all of parenting, that the decision to nurse overrides all others and takes precedence over every other aspect of the parent-child bond. I think that's true, and it's not always a good thing. I've known mothers who probably would have benefited from some education in ways to balance breastfeeding with the rest of their lives, including the right ways to occasionally alternate with formula that wouldn't be detrimental to their milk supply and nursing relationship. The all-or-nothing ideal can be very overwhelming, and a more realistic approach may have broader appeal and efficacy. Of course, so could giving moms a $35 manual breastpump at the hospital instead of a bag full of formula samples.
The lead-in to this article is, "In certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice—it’s a no-exceptions requirement ..." Well, most of us don't live in those overachieving circles. In my work, I constantly met women who were the only ones in their family or social group who were nursing. And I told them all, just wait, the trends eventually drift down here from the coasts (including the northern one), and you'll be just like everyone else. It's disheartening to learn that the trend-setters are already chafing under the mammary mantle, and I fear the pendulum will be pointed toward backlash before those of us here in the barely-achieving circles have even seen an upswing.