What if breast isn't best?

8 years ago

Done exclusively, breastfeeding is a full time job. But has anyone ever presented it to you in such terms? In her new article for the Atlantic, “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” Hanna Rosin brings up a little discussed downside of the pro-breast movement:

“The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing."

As a new mother currently not earning a paycheck, I do wonder what my time is worth: value of my time to my new baby, priceless (I hope). Value of my time according to the IRS, my family budget, etc: zero. Right now I’m in a transition phase: looking for work and both at home and out and about. I’m mostly at home with the baby, breastfeeding, but working very hard to get out there. To aid this process, I'm a supplementer and I love being able to use formula here and there. I love breastfeeding too, but I welcome a bottle! I feel guilty saying that. Like many of you, it’s been inculcated into my brain that not only is breast best, breast is a must and if you choose not to breastfeed, you are failing in a major way. Sound familiar? It's boring already, no?

The highlight of Rosin’s excellent article is this shocker: there is no conclusive evidence that breast is that much better than formula feeding. Rosin writes upon comprehensively reviewing the medical literature,

 "....After a couple of hours, the basic pattern became obvious: the medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that Sears describes. More like tiny, unsure baby steps: two forward, two back, with much meandering and bumping into walls. A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design. “The studies do not demonstrate a universal phenomenon, in which one method is superior to another in all instances,” concluded one of the first, and still one of the broadest, meta studies, in a 1984 issue of Pediatrics, “and they do not support making a mother feel that she is doing psychological harm to her child if she is unable or unwilling to breastfeed.” Twenty-five years later, the picture hasn’t changed all that much. So how is it that every mother I know has become a breast-feeding fascist?

And all that breast feeding leaves little time for other pursuits. As Lisa Belkin noted on the Motherlode, "Rosin... wonders if “it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound.”

"It is impossible," Rosin writes, “to do meaningful, full-time, wage-earning work while feeding a baby only breast milk for the first six months (which is the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics).”

It's a sad fact, but true unless you're able to work at home. I put Rosin’s question to the BlogHer community and got some passionate responses and links to their writings on the topic of how and when they decided to stop breastfeeding.

Renee, who blogs at Cutie Bootie Cakes responded to me:   

“I returned to working full time when my son was about 4 months old. He was exclusively breastfeed, which meant I was a walking zombie. To say it was difficult to feed him and manage a department of 35 and a $65M budget is an understatement. Needless to say, I resigned after being back on the job for 3 months.

Even though her boss was supportive and supplied a pumping room, she left. Now she works part time.

Liz Gumbinner pointed me to her writing on her decision to wean as she began traveling for work. She had six great months of breastfeeding, and then she stopped, and it was still great. What a wonderful, affirming thing to read. No guilt or regrets. How rare in motherhood lit.

Rita Arens wanted her boobs back, and writes, “I see the breastfeeding choice the same as any other choice about a woman's body: her choice to use her body the way she sees fit. I felt the judgment when I declared I was so done with breastfeeding, but it was my body, and I wasn't comfortable with it. I don't apologize for making the best choices I can for my body and my mental health.” I love that she frames breastfeeding as a choice issue!

Leslie Madsen Brooks pointed me to Our Stolen Future, with this chilling quote: “In just six months of breast feeding, a baby in the United States and Europe gets the maximum recommended lifetime dose of dioxin, which rides through the food web like PCBs and DDT.  The same breast feeding baby gets five times the allowable daily level of PCBs set by international health standards for a 150-pound adult.”

Oh god, is breastfeeding bad for my baby? How would I explain that choice? High fructose corn syrup in the formula pales in comparison to Dioxin.

Like so many things with parenting, there is no clear and easy choice. But I think if more women could know that not breastfeeding (especially if it’s a choice, not a necessity) is NOT bad for their child, how wonderful it would be. How freeing. And then you could worry about something else.

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