Breast-Feeding v2

My short post on breast-feeding from a few days ago (inspired by this article by Hanna Rosin) has inspired a lot of dissenting email. Since comments are still disabled - I hope to have them back soon, though - I want to post a selection of the criticism. Just to reiterate and clarify: I don't want to minimize the slight but statistically significant benefits of breast-feeding. My simple point is that if breast-feeding is a burden to the mother, then those health benefits should be weighed against other variables, such as the psychological well-being of the mother. After all, the well-being of the mother is far more important a variable for the child than the health benefits that come from ingesting breast milk instead of formula. Finally, as a carrier of the Y-chromosome, I don't really think it's my place to comment on whether or not breast-feeding can be a burden. It strikes me as one of the inevitable asymmetries of childcare, as I know the baby won't want to suckle my nipple at 3:30 in the morning. Anyways, on to the dissents:

One reader writes:

Maybe some studies are inconclusive, but we all know some of these studies are funded by the formula industry. More importantly, baby formula was invented during the Victorian era and has been continuously adding ingredients over the past century to try to keep pace with breast milk. They recently added omega-3 fatty acids; was it just as good as breast milk before they added it, or only now? What will they find to be lacking next? Million of years of mammalian evolution has created a perfect food source for newborns, that also happens to improve emotional well-being as well, and is probably good for the mother to boot. Only in America could people complain this much about the time and effort of the most important thing adults can do -- helping the next generation survive and thrive. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk exclusively for 6 months, and mixed with other food for a full year. The World Health Organization (which, admittedly, has to address hunger in the developing world) recommends breast-feeding for two years. Two. Years.

Here's another:

You say: "However, as Rosin notes, these relatively minor correlations are often considered in a vacuum, and not weighed against the burden of breast-feeding."

What "burden of breast-feeding"? As has been pointed out in many and various circles in response to Rosin's article, it takes time to feed a baby no matter what method one chooses. Breast feeding is no more time intensive than any other method. And for many mothers I know, it is quite to the contrary - far more convenient.

One last critique:

My wife is a breast cancer survivor. Her type of breast cancer is known as the Triple-Negative. That means that it is not treatable by any known hormone therapies. It is an aggressive type but luckily she had regular mammograms and it was caught earlier than is typical for this form of breast cancer.

Our children were born in 1968 and 1974 and the doctors at that time promoted the use of formulas over breast-feeding so they were not breast-fed. There are studies that now indicate that breast-feeding reduces the incidence of Triple-Negative breast cancer.

Thanks, as always, for taking the time to disagree.

More like this

In the latest Atlantic, Hanna Rosin has a very interesting article/manifesto that rails against the "cult of breast-feeding": The medical literature [on breast-feeding] shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that Sears describes.…
There's an interesting article in the New York Times about efforts by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to promote breast-feeding. Proponents of breast-feeding point to quite a lot of science that supports advantages -- for child and mother -- of breast-milk over formula. But there…
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For a normal, healthy mother it is not only cheaper but easier to avoid formula. Plus there's the physical pleasure coming from the breastfeeding itself and from the necessity to eat a bit more than usual (I remember fondly my 6-meals-a-day months). The ensuing asymmetry can be easily corrected by delegating to the non-nursing parent the rest of the care: diapers, nailcutting, bedtime routine etc.

And yes, it is healthy for the mother. Both my mother and my mother in law were prevented from breastfeeding for nonmedical reasons, and they both got breast cancer. The statistics are quite impressive. I support all women's freedom to make their own choices, but they have to be informed choices.

Let me add that for many of us, whose mothers have not enough experience to help, having appropriate support makes the difference between burden and pleasure in breastfeeding.

PS: I'm lucky to live in a country where mothers don't need to cover up. I wouldn't have managed to nurse the twins in public otherwise.

Human milk, compared to certain other mammal's milk, is not particularly rich or nourishing. It has much less protein and requires much more regular feedings. Proponents of formula cite the richness of their product and its protein content; it takes the child much longer to digest it and the mother has more free time to pursue the 'demands' or modern life.

However, if other mammals evolved richer milk and fewer feedings, why didn't we? The process of breastfeeding involves much more than the mammary glands of the mother and the digestive system of the infant-- almost every system of the body of both parties is especially active for reasons we do not yet entirely understand.

I do not intend to suggest that there is some 'conscious plan' to nature, but it is the tendency of evolution to seize every opportunity. Breastfeeding evolved to be a time-consuming process, but that time may not be entirely devoted to furnishing the infant's body with protein. Until we more fully understand what is at stake, why risk our infant's health with a process that it's body did not evolve to expect?