Stop Worrying About Who Chooses to Breastfeed

For the first six months of my first pregnancy, I didn’t want to breastfeed. A formula-fed infant, I had always been relatively modest, so the idea of whipping out a boob in front of others was less than appealing.

I was talked into the idea while visiting a friend who had just had her third baby. She was the last person I would have categorized as a breastfeeding mom, far more modest than me, which raised her level of influence in my book. She explained that she breastfed to provide health benefits to her baby and that even a few weeks of early breastfeeding would be beneficial. I decided I would give it a try for the first six weeks.

As I subsequently made my way through baby prep classes, I was surprised by the number of medical professionals implying there was no other “good” way to feed a baby than to breastfeed. At that point, I had made my decision to give it a go, but couldn’t help but feel offended by the closed-minded teaching.

I’m in favor of breast-feeding: I think women should breast-feed as much as they want to. Nursing is excellent nourishment and a lovely way to connect to your baby. – Courtney Jung, New York Times

I ultimately – and unexpectedly – fell in love with breastfeeding. My daughter, however, did not, and it was a fight to keep it together as she fought me that first week. I did prevail despite her best efforts, and we kept our breastfeeding relationship for the first 10 months of her life.

My next two children felt quite differently about the breast, loving it from the moment they left the womb. As a working mother, though, I had to supplement with formula for both – a decision many mothers would criticize themselves for. I didn’t, despite the social pressures that have increased in recent decades for mothers to exclusively breastfeed for the first year of life.

Courtney Jung addressed this shift in her New York Times article, Overselling Breast-Feeding. Society, she says, swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, glorifying formula feeding as an upper-middle-class luxury in the mid–20th century only to chastise bottle feeders over the past 50 years.

“Recently,” writes Jung, “breastfeeding advocacy has begun to generate a backlash as some women, including some feminists, chafe against the message that women who don’t breastfeed are bad mothers.”

How did such a shift take place? Ironically, says Jung, it’s because of big business.

“Counterintuitively, for those of us who identify formula manufacturers with big business, the contemporary obsession with breast milk is also driven in part by big business — including the companies that manufacture breast pumps, the companies that make breast-milk-based nutritional supplements, and the companies that sell breastfeeding accessories,” she writes.

“The A.C.A. regulation requiring insurance to cover the cost of breast pumps hands breast-pump manufacturers a substantial subsidy. Market analysts predicted that this regulation alone would expand the breast-pump market by more than 50 percent, to almost $1 billion a year in the United States alone, by 2020.”

While the middle class is influenced through educational campaigns and a limit of formula in hospitals, says Jung, it’s worse with the lower class. Mothers who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – or WIC – are actually given nutritional incentives to breastfeed.

WOMEN who breast-feed are eligible for WIC for twice as long as women who do not breast-feed, and they get an “enhanced food package,” which includes vouchers for a wider range of more nutritious food. – Jung

What makes these ploys even worse is the research showing that the “above and beyond” nutritional benefits of breastfeeding are actually far less sensational than originally believed. In fact, they may border upon nonexistent.

“Doctors and researchers generally do agree that breastfeeding reduces the risk of infection, at least during the period a baby is actually breastfeeding,” writes Jung.

“That is certainly nothing, but here, too, we shouldn’t get carried away. As the director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality explained in 2009, if six babies are breastfed exclusively for six months, one of them will not get an ear infection she otherwise would have had. That’s about 5,400 hours of breastfeeding to prevent one ear infection. If 26 women breastfeed exclusively for six months, they can collectively prevent one hospitalization for a respiratory tract infection.”

We now have to wonder why we are placing such emphasis on these so-called “Milk Wars.”

Just as the court of public opinion has swung from one camp to the other, I have moved from completely backing the bottle-feeders to supporting the breastfeeders. Yes, much of that stems from my emotional tie to breastfeeding, but a lot of it has been born from the stigma that using formula equates to mothers not trying hard enough.

Jung’s article is almost like a bucket of ice water being dumped over my head, reminding me that we need to be advocating for much more important issues.

“Breastfeeding activists who argue for paid maternity leave are on the mark,” she says. “But the milk war is sapping attention from crucial parenting issues. We shouldn’t be fighting over individual choices about nursing or dictating them: We should be organizing for paid parental leave, subsidized day care, and public preschool. When it comes to children’s emotional and physical health, these all matter as much as mother’s milk.

Looking to use formula while breastfeeding? Read our article “The Best Formula to Supplement a Breastfed Baby

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