Since the 1990s, there has been a marked rise in advocacy for breastfeeding around the world. The World Health Organization leads an annual breastfeeding week, and cosmopolitan cities like New York City are adopting initiatives like “Latch On NYC,” which encourages hospitals to offer new mothers more education on breastfeeding, and to stop offering samples of formula. While doctors agree that both feeding options are safe and healthy for newborns and infants, the public has a decided bias in favor of breast feeding. Should parents swear by the breast, or keep on with bottle feedings?
Bottle it, baby.
The benefits of breastfeeding are overstated.
Breastfeeding has been credited with feats large and small – from lowering chances of obesity to raising IQs. Such findings can be misleading, as they are unable to account for confounding variables, factors that might influence the study’s outcome, like socioeconomic status or genetic predispositions. And pro-lactation sites remove important context that helps readers to understand a study’s results. For example, on NYC’s Latch On website, the program boasts breastfeeding’s ability to stave off infections like pneumonia, ear infections, and diarrhea. It neglects to mention that these data are from studies conducted mainly in developing countries, where lack of clean water and other sanitation issues pose a real problem to safe bottle-feeding. Is it really fair to compare bottle-feeding in New York City to bottle-feeding in Ghana?
Bottle-feeding is a viable and safe feeding method, period.
If you were born in America between 1950 – 1980, chances are, you received plenty of formula, and are none the worse for it. While the prevailing rhetoric of today’s breastfeeding camp would have you believe that bottle-fed children are disadvantaged, the fact is, millions of healthy humans have been raised on formula. It’s important to remember that just as today’s seeming preference for breastfeeding is rooted in culture as well as science, so was the mid-twentieth century’s preference for bottle-feeding. Bottle-feeding was a symbol of scientific parenting and modernity, and parents were eager to embrace it. As formula is becoming even more scientifically advanced, there is no real reason to preference one method over the other.
Pushing breastfeeding means pushing women back into conventional roles.
Breastfeeding is a 24/7 job – it confines mother to baby and, in areas where public breastfeeding is taboo, it also confines her to the house. Ergo, pushing women to breastfeed is tantamount to pushing her into the home. The seriousness with which a mother is to approach her occupation as food source is echoed in lactivist Dr. Sear’s sentiment that through the breastfeeding process, mothers (not parents, mind you) must learn to be “child-centered.” Pressure to breastfeed sends a clear message: mothers are secondary to their children, and being a woman (with dreams and ambitions and all that good stuff) is secondary to being a mother. Just as women resist external parties limiting their career prospects or birth control options, women should also resist initiatives to discourage choice in feeding their children.
Breast is best.
Breastmilk is, in a word, groovy.
Breastmilk is a testament to the artful design of the human body. It has helpful antibacterial properties, it adapts over time to accommodate the growing child’s nutritional needs, and the body can generally generate it as long as there is a demand. For those with the time, resources, and wherewithal to breastfeed, its efficiency makes it an obvious recommendation for health practitioners.
Industrial formula isn’t always safe.
Industry is plagued by human error, and the powdered formula industry is no exception. The CDC reports 4-6 cases of infant cronobacter (a bacteria associated with meningitis) infection each year which stem from contaminated formula. Beyond contamination, formula makers do not always ensure consumer safety. One extreme case of the failure of powdered formula to properly nourish infants comes from Israel, where vitamin B-1 deficient Remedia formula led to 3 infant deaths and severe damage to 23 other infants. These risk factors, though slight, are valid reasons to encourage breastfeeding in hospitals and in general.
Pushing more mothers to breastfeed could produce better public policy for parents.
A main factor that prevents mothers from breastfeeding is the need to quickly return to work, sometimes in jobs that make no accommodation for lactating mothers. Increasing the number of women who breastfeed increases the urgency to set policy on matters like paid maternity leave, availability of lactation rooms and time to pump, and access to services that support breastfeeding.
Bottom lines: Happy news for humans of the twenty-first century: there are two perfectly safe, healthy options for feeding newborns and infants. With the science of the presumed advantages of breastfeeding still at the jury, it seems more sensible to educate parents on all available options rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach to infant feeding. Where do you stand on this debate?