Thursday, February 3, 2011

Is breastfeeding overrated?

Today a friend shared an interview with the author of a new book about breastfeeding. The author, Joan B. Wolf, is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

I have not read the book, but the interview brings up some interesting points. I know a lot of breastfeeding advocates will be up in arms about this, but I think it is worth thinking about what she says.

Ms. Wolf states that studies linking breastfeeding to an amazing number of health benefits are misleading. I'm not going to try to rephrase her response (read the interview linked above). I have to say, she has a point about causal relationships. Without studying the data from the studies in question, if her assertion is true about the way research has been done, then questioning the results is valid. That is the point of science.

Breastfeeding is tough. Yes, it is natural. But that doesn't make it easy or instinctual. I've had experience with both a child who refused to nurse and one who was a natural.( For the record, my formula fed child weighs less and has fewer health problems than my breastfed child, who has asthma. So much for that bit of the benefits of breastfeeding.) Sometimes breastfeeding works beautifully and sometimes nothing will make it happen. And we mothers put guilt on ourselves and each other if we have problems.

We've been so brainwashed that we must breastfeed that we leave ourselves little choice if it doesn't work. It's very emotional to be a new mother. Not enough sleep, hormones running amok, sleep deprivation induced psychosis.... and then we have to be the sole food source for this tiny life.

It's rather like some of the phenomena noted in "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan. Mothers so need to be the 'perfect' mother, sacrificing everything for their child, that they can't admit there are other ways.

It's wonderful if someone can breastfeed, and enjoys it. But sometimes it doesn't work out, for whatever reason, and those mothers who can't or don't breastfeed are made to feel that they are bad mothers. They aren't. Formula these days is much better than it was when I was a child. Babies survive and thrive just fine on formula.

I just wish the guilt and judgement could end. We all do the best we can, choosing what is best for our families. Making women feel guilty is unproductive. We all want what is best for our children. Sometimes we can't give them the best so we give the best we can. And I think that's a big part of what this is about.

Maybe the best isn't what we have been told and maybe it is. But do we need untested claims? What purpose does it serve to make breast milk into the wonder food it is being described as? If the benefits of breastfeeding do turn out to be marginal, I think it would be healthier for society. My reasoning is this:

A lot of mothers will still choose to breastfeed because it is a free source of quality food for their babies. A lot of mothers will want to breastfeed because there is a trend toward natural products, etc (midwifery and cloth diapers are experiencing a resurgence). But those mothers who can't or don't want to breastfeed will feel less pressure and stress about their decisions and may have fewer mental health issues.

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