Wednesday 13 February 2013

Why I wish we could stop saying that Breast is Best.

There's a mommy blogger post that's getting a lot of attention right now. The title is 5 Reasons NOT to Breastfeed.   Stephanie over at writes that she finds the act of breastfeeding disturbing. She doesn't want her children to think that their mouths were on their mother's breasts and she is glad that her mother's breasts were never in her own mouth. I can't fault her on that one. She's welcome to her own opinion. But her other arguments against breastfeeding include the claim that it's unsanitary and that breastfeeding in public is gross. As you can imagine, these arguments have mommy bloggers around the world up in arms. And while I don't agree with Stephanie, I think that it would serve us to take a moment to understand where her motivation might be coming from and what we, as a community, have done to breed her resentment.

Before I get too deep into this discussion maybe you'd like to know a little bit about my experience and my position. I breastfed my son for 14 wonderful months. I was never in any pain, never experienced any blocked ducts or mastitis, and never had supply or latch issues. I loved breastfeeding my son. I loved how after 9 months of pregnancy-induced insomnia I could easily drift off to sleep after nursing. And I loved lying on my side with my baby cuddled up next to me so that my limbs enveloped him. I loved that it was cheap and that I always had food with me. I fed my son in the mall, in grocery stores, and on the street. And I didn't use a cover-up. I had a wonderful breastfeeding experience.

But I do not think breast is best. Or, rather, I think that the discourse surrounding breast-is-best propaganda is at best misleading and at worst very damaging. Clearly, I am not against breastfeeding but I am against the enormous pressure being put on women to breastfeed or face the scorn of being called a selfish, inadequate, mother. As a woman, a mother, and a feminist, I am far more interested in supporting and empowering women in the choices they make. The culture that we have created that allows a bottle-feeding mother to be scolded by a well meaning breast-is-best lactivist while she feeds her child at the mall is extremely problematic.

Lactivists tend to push the idea that breastfed babies are, in general, healthier than their formula fed counterparts. I'm no scientist. And I certainly have not studied the benefits of breast milk in any structured manner. But I am probably willing to concede this point. What I'm not willing to concede is that the link is unquestionably causal. Let's say there's a statistic that says that breastfed babies get 50% less ear infections than formula fed babies. I'm totally making that up by the way because it's 11 PM and I'm too lazy to go and look but I'm sure a similar statistic exists out there somewhere.

At first glance that seems to prove that breast is, indeed, best. However, what that statistic doesn't convey is the many other factors influencing the choice to breastfeed. Let's also say that women with high paying jobs and good benefit plans, or moms whose partners have high paying jobs, are more likely to breastfeed. Again, a totally made-up statistic but it makes sense because these women are more likely to be able to take paid maternity leave or to be stay-at-home moms. They also have greater access to regular medical care and fresh fruits and vegetables. These babies are able to be at home and shielded from bacteria and viruses. And I think it's fair to suggest that these reasons may contribute to the lack of ear infections in breastfed infants at least as much as the ingestion of breast milk.

My biggest concern is with the enormous amount of pressure being put on mothers. Women are expected to hold down lucrative careers while also managing to feed their children Pinterest-ed organic cucumber sandwiches carved into statues of woodland creatures. They are expected to never loose their tempers, to find every aspect of motherhood a joy and a privilege, and to be selfless and self-sacrificing.

So I can imagine that when a woman formula feeds (whether by choice or necessity) and is met with contempt and judgement it can be damaging to her sense of self and self-worth. Women who hear breast-is-best ad nauseum while feeding their children what is then, deductively, an inferior meal, are bound to become resentful.

And I think that is what has happened with Stephanie over at Of course I do not agree with all of her points. Breastfeeding certainly isn't unsanitary. And she may just have to accept that women are going to breastfeed their children when they are hungry whether or not she is in their presence. But I can understand her frustration. One can't swing a digital cat in mommy-blog land without arriving at a post that tells women that if they truly care about their children, and want them to grow to be healthy, bonded, and happy, then they MUST breastfeed. Which just isn't true. And can be incredibly hurtful.

So this is my shout out to Stephanie and all of the other formula feeding moms who have felt judged. I'm sorry that you have felt slighted. It's time that we put aside this breast-is-best obsession and instead try to come together to support one another through this amazing, fulfilling, boring, scary, joyous, and lonely experience of motherhood.

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