Thursday, March 12, 2009

The case against breastfeeding?

Just reading the title, The Case Against Breastfeeding, raised my hackles. But the more I read, the more I found myself nodding along with Hanna Rosin's article in the most recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Like me, the author nursed all her kids for a year, so hers isn't a defensive stance. What she's raising are a couple of interesting counterpoints to the breast-is-best-formula-is-poison blitz. She starts off as a heretic, saying that a close reading of various scientific studies doesn't support most claims that breastmilk is better than formula in terms of a child's IQ, BMI or general health.

Then she says that we're doing mothers a disservice by pressuring them to breastfeed at all costs. If nursing interferes with a woman's ability to work or makes her miserable, is a small potential benefit to her child's health worth making her suffer? Should we make women who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed feel like unfit mothers?

And she highlights a unexpected feminist argument too: if nothing can replace breastfeeding and only women can breastfeed, are we setting up an unequal balance of duties between mothers and fathers? Who's going to wake up at night to feed the baby? Who should stay home to raise the child? Are the answers to these questions going to be colored by one gender's mandate to breastfeed?

Obviously I made breastfeeding work for my kids while maintaining my status as the family breadwinner. But I was able to do so precisely because I didn't view formula as the enemy. There's no way I could have pumped enough milk to feed my children without seriously jeopardizing my career and my sanity so I supplemented. Also, I didn't nurse my kids to make them into superbabies--I did it because it was convenient, cheap and natural. A price and eco-conscious choice to be sure, but one that gave me and my girls enormous pleasure.

I want more women to breastfeed because it's wonderful, it's natural and it's priced just right. But it's apparent our culture needs find a way to support and normalize nursing without equating bottle-feeding with child abuse.