The following was written in response to an article published in the Chicago Tribune on November 26, 2012, entitled “Has breastfeeding been oversold?” Though we are fairly certain that the Tribune will never print our response, we did want get our two cents in.
I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of hate mail since publishing your article “Has breastfeeding been oversold.” This is not hate mail. You talk about what a difficult time you had breastfeeding your twin sons at the beginning. That sucks. Big time. No one has a right to make you feel like you are doing something wrong, especially when you are working so hard at it, and it is what you want to do. You were anything but spineless, and the fact that you breastfed twins for 10 months is truly amazing – something to be proud of, not regretful.
That being said, to discredit the breadth of research (strong, sound research) that supports breastfeeding just because a political scientist doesn’t like what breastfeeding mothers have to endure feels a bit like throwing the breastfed baby out with the bathwater. I agree with Ms. Wolf that breastfeeding is difficult, and it’s especially difficult for mothers who work outside the home. I don’t doubt for a minute that breastfeeding mothers have a hard time keeping up with the pay of their contemporaries. You know who else has that problem? Women. To make the argument that mothers shouldn’t breastfeed because of pay inequity is like making the argument that women shouldn’t work at all because they don’t make as much as their male counterparts. This is an equity issue; not an issue of whether or not something is “worth it.” Why aren’t employers acknowledging the importance of breastfeeding to their bottom line? Mothers who breastfeed take fewer sick days because of child illness, they stay loyal to their employer longer, and they lower the health care costs to the company. In fact, if 80-90% of mothers breastfeed, like you did, for the first 6 months of life, over 900 lives would be saved and $10-13 billion annually would be saved in health care expenses (Pediatrics, 2010). To me, the lives of 900 babies and billions of dollars in savings is not even close to an “insignificant difference.”
Who cares that breastfed babies have about the same number of GI infections in the first year, about the same IQ, and breastfeeding moms don’t lose weight faster (according to Ms. Wolf’s claims)!?! Where is the discussion of the long-term benefits of breastfeeding, such as a reduction in cancer in BOTH mom and baby? Where is the discussion that breastmilk contains live, custom-designed antibodies to help babies fight infections, more ingredients than scientists have been able to identify, and even stem cells? What about the bonding and secure attachment that happens with breastfeeding, the normal oral facial formation from breastfeeding, and the visual development from breastfeeding? Like so many parenting decisions, breastfeeding is so much more than about making sure your kid isn’t hungry; it’s about setting their bodies, brains, and emotions up for a lifetime of health.
More importantly, do you really believe that there is no significant difference between something that was formulated by scientists half a century ago and something that has evolved along with humans for millions of years? Don’t you suppose that the “evidence” that you are so intent in finding might be available if studies on breastmilk were funded adequately? Unfortunately, there is a lack commercial interest in extolling the benefits of breastfeeding – not a whole lot of money to be made from women who make something with their bodies without the need for medical intervention. Again, if a political scientist were really interested in the equity of women, she may want to look into ways to support, rather than discount, one of the most amazing things a woman’s body can do. To me, this whole argument sounds like one of those sit-down-and-shut-up-so-we-can-tell-you-what-to-think shticks that women have been enduring for ages.
You and others talk about the innumerable external pressures that moms now face from breastfeeding advocates. Those darn guilt trips that assault women at every turn. Guilt trips are not OK, but there is a distinct difference between advocating for something and against something else, and very few seem to understand the difference. From my perspective, breastfeeding advocates are simply trying to stem the tidal wave of the billions of dollars spent on advertising annually by formula companies. Personally, I don’t have the kind of cash that would begin to compete for attention, but I guess that’s what I would need if I didn’t want to be called a “breastfeeding Nazi” or any other lovely term given to advocates attempting to provide evidence-based information on breastfeeding. I find it very interesting that no one is complaining that formula samples are being handed to women by their DOCTORS at prenatal appointments, not to mention the formula forced upon mothers in the hospitals, whether or not it is medically necessary. Not a word is said when maternity clothing stores sell information to formula companies so that moms get “free” formula in the mail suspiciously close to the time when babies go through growth spurts and demand more of their mothers’ time. I have never advertised my own breasts in a magazine, but I imagine that if I did, I would be seen as extreme, crazy, and judgmental. Women who wore pants before pants were the norm were called worse, and that issue, like breastfeeding, is about controlling something that society is uncomfortable with.
The argument that women have no choice but to breastfeed because of the groundswell of breastfeeding advocacy is crap. I can’t come into your home and stuff a boob in your baby’s mouth any more than I can stop you from smoking or not wearing your seatbelt. The wonderful thing about life is that you still have a choice, and once women stop feeling guilty about their choices and start feeling supported and empowered, this whole discussion will be null and void. Some women may not breastfeed, and some will. The question beyond the undisputable value of breastfeeding is, “How can we as a culture support mothers that choose to breastfeed their children?”
Once again, kudos to you for all your hard work in breastfeeding your sons. Never doubt that every drop of breastmilk you gave them was worth it.
Breastfeed Chicago, an organization established to support mothers in breastfeeding, is working to build a cohesive and sustainable support network for breastfeeding mothers through the connection of resources, cultural normalization, and institutional advocacy.