The Case Against Breast Feeding

i-cb812a3f2e5397b14898d2687d79cdda-Hortense-Breast-Feeding-Paul.jpgHanna Rosin paints breast feeding, in a recent item in The Atlantic, as a social requirement for the privileged, a "no-exceptions requirement" and a badge of being a good mother. She also examines the possibility that breast-feeding is " ... an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down."

I dutifully breast-fed each of my first two children for the full year that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. I have experienced what the Babytalk story calls breast-feeding-induced "maternal nirvana." This time around, nirvana did not describe my state of mind; I was launching a new Web site and I had two other children to care for, and a husband I would occasionally like to talk to. Being stuck at home breast-feeding as he walked out the door for work just made me unreasonably furious, at him and everyone else.

Blacktating has a counter argument, as does BlogHer.

Rosin externalizes her own ambivalence about breastfeeding her child, to whom she feeds her milk part-time and enjoys the skin-to-skin contact, by blaming public health campaigns, volunteer organizations like La Leche League and a present day frenzy of parenting perfectionism for making her and other women feel guilty. Public health campaigns promoting breastfeeding seem then to have been designed as a means of making privileged, educated, literate, upper class women like Rosin feel bad about themselves for not mothering properly. Rosin makes them sound like an extension of the eugenics movement from the first half of the 20th century which in part sought to encourage reproduction of desirables by tying women to the hearth through pseudoscientific education and the glorification of all-things-motherly.

(See also the Feminist Breeder Blog)

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It isn't just Rosin "externalising"; there are a significant number of pro-breastfeeding ads (many made, I'm sure, with the best of intentions) and advocates who, on balance, do wind up making mothers feel guilty about not breastfeeding, if they choose not to. The one that springs to mind is the one I documented here, from an article by Rick Perlstein (the original link has since died) where "federal health officials commissioned an attention-grabbing advertising campaign a few years ago to convince mothers that their babies faced real health risks if they did not breast-feed. It featured striking photos of insulin syringes and asthma inhalers topped with rubber nipples."

If making the explicit visual proposition "breastfeed or your baby will get sick in the future" isn't an attempt to make mothers feel guilty for not breastfeeding, I don't know what is. Of course, it's awfully easy to dismiss critics' concerns as "seeing things" when you tacitly or explicitly agree with the thing being endorsed coercively.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 29 Mar 2009 #permalink

Is the argument here with the particular marketing spin in some public health campaigns, or with the medical science behind potential immunological benefits? From this post, I had difficulty understanding which.

If the former, I think reasonable people can certainly agree that some of these ads are offensive to intelligent women, bordering on insulting. If the latter, could we see some links to studies before dismissing the whole idea as male chauvinist oppression?

Melior: I am not outlining a position on this issue in this post. I'm pointing out an emerging debate on the interent. There are actually about a dozen blog posts on this issue out there right now, and this is just a taste.

My position is this: Breastfeeding = good. Alternatives = doable but you need to know what you are doing.

What is more interesting is the discussion itself.

From the excerpt, it appears that Hanna Rosin conflates breastfeeding and staying at home. My wife breastfed both children--the second until well into her third year--while remaining very active. In the UK, the Scottish legislature has been pro-active in supporting breastfeeding, making it an offence to hinder a woman from breastfeeding of make her feel uncomfortable.

The problem isn't whether or not to breast feed. There are certainly good reasons on both sides. I remember when I had my first child, back in the age of the bottle, I was a freak for wanting to breast feed. When I had my last (twins, very premature) I was a freak for NOT.

The problem is that this is now becoming an argument that would limit choice. Women are once again being told by society what to do with their bodies. They're expected to make choices that can, for some women, severely limit their ability to provide for themselves and their children.

Let me tell you, not everyone can express breast milk then head off to work, and express it there... there are plenty of horror stories about what women put up with from other women who are sitting in the stall in the company rest room running the pump. Not to mention leaking and getting the time away from their work station to express in the first place.

The other portion of that of course is that working women who are bottling breast milk aren't benefitting from the skin to skin contact.

The breast feeding argument in the US has always been fraught with contradictions. Women are encouraged to breast feed, as long as it's done behind closed doors and no one knows they're doing it. But whip out a bottle, and you're BAD MOM.

I'm glad to see the UK has been supportive of breast feeding, but here in the US it's still "dirty" in society's mind, something only to be kept behind closed doors... where the uber traditionalist males seem to want to keep women anyway.

Thanks Dorid.

I am all for the breastfeeding, but the social pressure has gotten absolutely ridiculous.

When my second was born, his mom was pumped pretty heavily with drugs. Our first was a c-section and though we were shooting for a vaginal birth with the second, it just didn't work out. Momma happens to be pretty impervious to anesthesia, so they gave her quite a bit - enough that they had an ICU team in and took almost six minutes to get him breathing steady with a regular heartbeat.

They wouldn't allow her to breastfeed for almost 48 hours and she never had much luck with a breastpump - this time or with our first. She tried to get it all flowing, but youngest wasn't interested in working that hard for his milk and the breastpump just didn't cut it. It hurt and wasn't effectively stimulating lactation.

So our second isn't breastfed. Momma felt horribly guilty about this for months, compounded by the occasional critical comment, when other momma's saw her or myself mixing a bottle. She felt compelled initially, to explain - I think it helped when she finally adopted my response, which was to politely tell people who felt compelled to comment, to go fuck themselves.

Yes, breastfeeding is ideal for babies, but there are a number of reasons it doesn't always work out. From work issues, to medications momma might need (such as the tranqu a friend of mine is on) to other prohibitive issues. Demonizing these women is going way too damned far. Making women feel like they're horrible, because they simply cannot do it, is far worse for their babies than formula.

If my mother had continued to breast feed me, I would have been in big trouble. They found out I had a real problem with milk, and I ended up having to drink the soy stuff when I was a baby. I apparently stopped crying after I started on the soy, so I must have been grateful. :)

yes, there's indeed two issues here.

one is that even though women are expected to breastfeed, they're not really given the support for doing so, be it because they don't get maternity leave, or because their jobs don't support this. apparently Scotland is way ahead of the rest of the West in that regard. good for them!

the second issue is pressure. why is it that everything women do is a major moral issue on which everyone gets to have an opinion!?

Exactly, Jadehawk. As long as the baby is getting the nutrition it needs, why is it anyone's business except the parents? Maybe Rosin just needs to lighten up and stop worrying what other people think. Quite a bit of human unhappiness is caused by nosiness and unwarranted self-consciousness.

It is best to breast feed if possible. maybe 3 kids and a husband is more than Rosin can take care of properly. Breast feeding should be the norm. Not breast feeding should seem strange. yes, it doesn't always work. A hungry baby, exhausted parents can make it impossible. We shouldn't tread so softly that we don't encourage breast feeding.

Monson, may I say that your comment is exactly the kind of judgement-laden attitude that Rosin and many of other commenters are so fed up with. Not breastfeeding should NOT seem strange, it is a choice, just as having a child is a choice.

Making moral judgments about strangers' parenting choices, now that's what should seem strange.

Why yes Monson, it is totally reasonable for people to give nasty looks to a women who baseline suffers depression and is suffering additional guilt because she can't fucking breastfeed her baby, so we can be sure that everyone knows that if humanly possible, momma must be a milk machine. I'm convinced now. The next time I see someone mixing a bottle of formula, I'm going to scowl them down and if they ask, by gods I'm gonna tell them why.

Thanks for validating my need for moral superiority over evile women who don't feed their babies the way they should.

I am sorry. I just thought that it was not helpful for someone to publicly advocate against breastfeeding. It is good for the babies, isn't it?

Yea, it sucks if you can't breastfeed and people give you a hard time. My impression from the quote was that she was too busy to bother? Why does she have three kids? Did I get it wrong?

I am sorry if I did. But if I didn't.....

I am sorry if I did. But if I didn't.....

No, no, no. You got it right and you are totally right. I mean how dare this foolish women have children that she can't breastfeed and a husband she can't take care of properly? (I bet she doesn't even sex him every night - horrible thing)

Breastfeeding is good though? right? I mean we shouldn't argue against breastfeeding should we? are you?


You wrote "Can't" Why?

No Monson, as a matter of fact I am not. What I am mocking, is the notion that it's really any of your damned business what another women chooses to do or not to do with her children, outside the parameters of actual abuse.

I am actually very supportive of mothers breastfeeding and have gotten rather nasty with people giving them shit for doing it in public. The first time around, not only did momma breast feed our first child, she ended up feeding other babies here and there and ended up helping another mother who had to go back on her meds and couldn't breastfeed, by being one of the women who contributed her milk to that baby and given her problems with breastpumps, she had to feed him the old fashioned way. Likewise, I was extremely grateful when one of our neighbors would occasionally feed our first, when momma was in school - he would have nothing to do with any sort of bottle, no matter what was in it.

But having dealt with plenty of busy body pains in my and worse, momma's ass, because she doesn't breastfeed - I am sick and damned tired of people thinking it's ok to give people crap for it. My partner was horrified by her inability to breastfeed our second. She finally came around, especially when she realized that he was very fond of his papa feeding him instead of her - especially in the middle of the night - he'd wake up and all he wanted was me and a bottle. And you know something? He's perfectly healthy, all other things in his young life considered.

And I don't care that Rosin probably could have worked it out somehow, whether by taking time out of her career or making it work at work. She (and probably her husband) made a choice for their family. It may not be ideal for the kids, but it certainly is unlikely to actually hurt them, unless they just ignore everything the doctor has to say about it. And while momma's milk is ideal for several reasons, there are certainly advantages to formula feeding - especially in regards to papa involvement and bonding time.

I am all for encouraging breastfeeding and countering stupid myths about it. I am not however, for making out like the women who don't are weird or doing something horrible.

The author, Hanna Rosin, tries to make the case that the numerous studies that have proven that breastfeeding is superior infant nutrition and prevents myriad diseases and conditions like asthma and obesity, are flawed. She sets out to prove that there is very little difference between formula and breast milk and there is no reason for moms to nurse if they don't want to.

The above is a quote from the linked article. I still say Rosin is advocating against breastfeeding because it is a pain in the ass for her. I think that is wrong (I agree that it is a pain in the ass though, at least at times) I don't understand why any of you are supporting her stand. She is not one of those who tried and it didn't work. She just doesn't want to and pretends that there is no reason to breastfeed.

I think that we may well have read a very different article, because Rosin isn't advocating against breast feeding at all - she is advocating against the batshit crazy and non-evidence based assertions that are regularly made about breastfeeding. Yup, breastfeeding is pretty ideal for several reasons, but it is not going to hurt a child to be formula fed.

She is merely saying that the hoopla is far overblown and I absolutely concur. She isn't not breastfeeding her third child because it's a pain in the ass, she quit doing it because it fucking her up in the head - which is not all that rare in women who already have children, especially if their other kids are rather young.

And unlike a lot of mothers, instead of just giving it up, or sucking it up and letting it cause serious damage to their head and their marriage or relationship, she actually started really looking at the evidence out there. And not all that surprisingly, she found that the actual evidence was rather thin. Turns out that while there are probably reasonable benefits to breastfeeding over momma milk, it isn't all it's been advertised to be.

I'll tell you a dirty little secret, if you promise not to tell my fellow hippie friends - "organic" isn't all it's cracked up to be either.

Totally anecdotal, but I wasn't breastfed and happen to have managed to survive rather heroic and extreme abuse of a great many drugs - hallucinogens having been my favorite. Many of the hallucinogens I took, most in rather large quantities have the effect they do because they're neurotoxins. Suffice to say that by any reasonable measure, I'm rather exceptionally bright - even after slaughtering a great many of my brain cells. I also happen to have rather significant neurological problems, but those run rampant in my paternal genetics - both in the paternal sibs that were formula fed like I was, and in the ones who were breast fed, like my younger sibs.

Most babies will have no difficulty switching back and forth between the breast and bottle if you time it right and go slowly at the beginning. You may find though, that baby does show a preference for one or the other. Just like anyone else, babies will have opinions and preferences. In most cases though, this wonât lead to refusal of either the breast or the bottle in the long term.

By Double Glazing (not verified) on 26 Feb 2011 #permalink