Breastfeeding Bullies Debunked

Is breast best? Maybe not — at least not in the long run.

A study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine followed children, some breast fed, some bottle fed — and found that there is not much difference in how the kids turned out after babyhood. According to Slate, breastfed and bottle fed kids were measured for “11 outcomes, including BMI, obesity, asthma, different measures of intelligence, hyperactivity, and parental attachment.

And there just wasn’t much difference.

Huh? That’s not what we’re used to hearing.  We’ve been told that a child who was breastfed as a baby is practically guaranteed to edge out his bottle fed peers in almost every area. So why does this study tell a different story?

Here’s why this study is different:  it didn’t compare breastfed children with bottle fed children; it compared breastfed children with their bottle fed siblings.  The way they were raised — the education level of their parents, their economic status — was the same in every way. The only difference was how they were fed.

In previous studies, bottle fed children scored lower than breastfed children because bottle fed children tend to be less advantaged in many other ways, which accounts for things like poorer health, lower scores in school, behavior problems, etc.  Slate explains:

When children from different families were compared, the kids who were breast-fed did better on those 11 measures than kids who were not breast-fed. But, as Colen points out, mothers who breast-feed their kids are disproportionately advantaged—they tend to be wealthier and better educated. When children fed differently within the same family were compared—those discordant sibling pairs—there was no statistically significant difference in any of the measures, except for asthma. Children who were breast-fed were at a higher risk for asthma than children who drank formula.

Why is this important?  Because, in some circles, there is enormous pressure put upon women in difficult situations to breastfeed no matter what the physical or emotional cost to baby, mother, or family.  I’ve written about breastfeeding bullies before, andI’m reprinting that post here.

Breastfeeding is lovely, breastfeeding is a gift, breastfeeding is practically a miracle. I have breastfed for something like 150 months of my life, and my 26-month-old toddler isn’t weaned yet. I know why women breastfeed, and I believe that, in general, it’s good for women and for families, as well as for babies. I know why it’s important. But I also know a good many mothers, excellent, dedicated, generous, tenderhearted mothers, who feed their babies with bottles.

It’s wrong to tell women that the only way to be a good mother is to breastfeed.  It isn’t right. It isn’t compassionate. And now, we discover, it probably isn’t even medically sound.


Breastfeeding Bullies

[This post originally ran on the National Catholic Register in December of 2011.]


At my last prenatal visit, I saw a new midwife.  Her exam room had all the usual distracting mobiles and soothing photos of crocuses and placid water birds.  It also had, right on eye level as I leaned back on the paper-covered table, this photo  (WARNING:  not for sensitive viewers).

I was stunned—first, from the incredible insensitivity of displaying the image.  At 38.5 weeks, I am barely keeping my head above the flood of a thousand anxieties about my baby, myself, my family.  Maybe I’m a pampered American brat, but when I recline to hear my baby’s heartbeat, I don’t expect to be confronted with horrors.  But there was a suffering child, one who was not saved, and the image of her suffering was six inches away from my head.

Even worse was the message the image implied:  that formula kills.

Now, I am the breastfeedingest mother ever.  I’ve spent nearly a third of my life doing little else besides producing milk.  Sometimes it’s easy (people tend to give my babies nicknames like “pork chop”) and sometimes it’s very hard; but I am thoroughly convinced that breastfeeding is physically healthier for babies and mothers alike, and that the little ones are drinking in more than nutrition when they spend hours and hours folded in their mothers’ arms, fading in and out of sleep as they are fed.

So why would I object to the pro-nursing message of the photo?  Because—yes, this particular child probably died because she was given formula.  But she also died because because the water was likely contaminated; because formula is expensive and was probably diluted to save money; because if she had other medical needs beyond basic nutrition, these were likely ignored, because she was just a girl.  The third world is flooded with medical technology that promotes sex-selective abortions, perpetuating a disastrous societal preference for baby boys.

Formula didn’t save this baby girl’s life; but it was ignorance, extreme poverty, and cruel sexism that caused her death.

So in rural, impoverished countries, formula can kill, and in most cases, breastfeeding can save lives.  But showing this picture to an American woman who is already receiving prenatal care, the picture is a lie, and a cruel, manipulative one.  The hand-lettered caption explained only that the mother was told she could not breastfeed both twins, and that the bottle-fed baby died.  The message is clear:  don’t want a skeleton for a baby?  Then you had better breastfeed.

This is simply not true in most of modern America.  Mothers have a moral obligation to take good care of their children, and good care very often takes the form of offering them the best possible nutrition, which very often takes the form of breast milk.  But not always.  It is shameful and irresponsible to tell attentive mothers who use formula that they are slowly killing their babies.

There are mothers who want desperately to nurse, but have horrible difficulties, either physically, emotionally, or logistically.  There are moms who were sexually abused, and cannot see their bodies as nourishing.  There are moms who get no joy or peace in the first several months of their babies’ lives, because they struggle so long and fruitlessly with trying to breastfeed.

For me, breastfeeding is easy and pleasant.  But there are lots and lots of moms who are just different from me—they have different lives, different attitudes, different needs, different priorities.  They love their babies as much as I do; they simply take care of them in a different way, which makes more sense for them, for where they are in their lives right now.

I remember vividly the crushing guilt and pain I felt when, four years ago, I brought my newborn preemie in to be weighed, and the nurse gently told me that, once again, the little one had lost ground.  She was losing weight on my milk, not gaining.  Despite all the care and sympathy and support I was given, I felt worthless, useless.  I COULDN’T EVEN FEED MY OWN BABY.

I’m glad I persisted with breastfeeding (aided by pumping and finger feeding and a round-the-clock nightmare of written schedules, trips to the hospital, and a thousand tiny silicone bits of machinery to sterilize).  But if, in the midst of this ordeal, I had seen that picture of that poor skeletal baby girl whose mother COULDN’T EVEN FEED HER OWN BABY, I think I would have thrown myself in front of a truck.

Breastfeeding should be encouraged and promoted, and mothers should be given generous support by family, doctors and employers when they are trying to nurse their children.  Breast is best.  But there is a difference between educating women and bullying them, and many well-intentioned breastfeeding activists cross the line, in their eagerness to promote good health.

Bottle-feeding moms deserve encouragement and support, too.  Caring well for our babies is a moral issue; breastfeeding is not.


Try this one weird trick for ending the war on women

You know what would cut through 99% of this crap, where we find ourselves arguing about whether or not saying, “Yes, I want to have sex with you” counts as sufficient consent, and whether or not “bystander intervention training” is sexist, and who’s waging a war on whom, and who’s winning?  Try following this simple rule:

If you are not married, assume there is never consent; and if you are married, treat your spouse like a person, not a thing.

I know I know I know. I know all the things, about marital rape and patriarchy and women’s sexual autonomy and the microaggression inherent in chivalry and bias against dads in family court and alllllll the things.

I also know there will be a neverending fountain of confusion and recrimination as long as we treat sex like something that can just happen between anyone at any time, and if we just figure out the right new rules, then no one gets hurt.

We already have figured out the rules. It’s called abstaining before marriage, getting married, having children if you can, and working hard at staying married.   Trying to figure out sex in any other context besides heterosexual marriage is like trying to grow tomatoes in a post-tomato cage era.  Congratulations, you’re free! And now you’re going to fall over and die.


Advice for mom who is unexpectedly expecting?

A reader writes:

Dear Simcha, do you have any reading material suggestions (in print or online) for me?  I have an adorable 8 month old and just found out I am unexpectedly expecting another one!  I intellectually know this is a blessing but yet could use some encouragement about how to overcome the panic?

My answer:

First of all, congratulations on your pregnancy, AND don’t feel like you have to Feel the Right Thing right away. I always figure it takes nine months to get used to the idea of being pregnant; and it’s possible, even normal, to be welcoming of a new baby and horrified at being pregnant, all at the same time.

I just got a book called Tiny Blue Lines: Reclaiming Your Life, Preparing for Your Baby, and Moving Foward with Faith in an Unplanned Pregnancy. I haven’t read it yet – not even the first page – but it’s getting good reviews, and sounds kinda like exactly what you are looking for, so I’m taking a chance and passing the name along.
It’s a really, really good idea to find other people who will understand what you are going through. I used to belong to this message board for people who use NFP. It’s grown a lot since my day, but there are many, many women (and a few men!) there who will understand exactly what you are dealing with, and will be your real (online) friend.
Other than that, make sure you are praying with your husband every day – even just a quick thing. There is no substitute for being united and at peace with your spouse with the help of the Holy Spirit.  If at all possible, an hour a week at adoration can make a huge difference.
Hang in there! I know it’s to feel at peace about it, especially as you look forward and wonder what the next few decades might hold. I had my first two kids fourteen months apart, and the second and third kids fifteen months apart.  It’s hard, but definitely not impossible, and very often a joyful life, especially when you’re young.  And remember that you are giving your child a magnificent, irreplaceable gift in a sibling.
Readers, any other suggestions?