Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Don't Glorify My Breast Milk

by Danielle Magnuson

 


Tags: Joan Wolf, motherhood, breastfeeding, nursing, mind and body, University of Chicago Magazine, Danielle Magnuson,

Bottle feedingMy female colleagues have dealt with wacky spaces in the quest to pump breast milk at work: a conference room with a trick doorknob under which they jammed a chair, just in case; a senior staffer’s private office; a unisex shower stall that tended, by nature, to be very wet; and, strangest of all, a party room complete with foosball table that had displaced players milling outside asking, “Why is this door closed? Who’s in there? We want to foos.” The new mothers have good-naturedly endured the bizarre spaces, I was telling a friend. Her response: “That’s good that they’re pumping. If they didn’t, they would be selfish, bad mothers.” My friend spoke earnestly, confident that feeding formula genuinely compromises a baby’s well-being.

Whoa. Back up. With postpartum depression affecting many mothers, especially those who struggle with breastfeeding, uncritical devotion to nursing can do more harm than good. And the science isn’t there to back it up, argues women’s studies assistant professor Joan Wolf. While a wealth of research suggests a correlation between breastfeeding and better health, Wolf says “much of that research is flawed,” reports the University of Chicago Magazine. Her stance has earned her heated criticism, but Wolf has also received support “from lactation consultants and advocates who believe that the national conversation about breast-feeding has become ‘completely irrational.’”

Author of Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood, Wolf found that more controlled studies show breast milk and formula run nearly neck-and-neck when it comes to benefits. Nursing is an excellent option, but so is formula—just like green tea is considered marginally healthier than black tea, but in the end both are superfoods rich in nutrients and antioxidants. Yet the high rhetoric of breastfeeding advocacy vilifies what is already an emotional decision for many mothers:

[N]ot all women are able to nurse, whether it’s because the baby doesn’t latch, it’s painful for the mother, she doesn’t have time, or she simply doesn’t like it. In those cases, says Wolf, the pro-breast-feeding studies, without appropriate scientific evidence, make the mother feel inadequate.

Wolf makes a simple yet radical claim: It’s time to end the glorification of breast milk and the shaming of mothers who choose formula. For many women, nursing works; for many others, it doesn’t. But accusations of selfishness and bad mothering won’t contribute to anyone’s good health.

Source: University of Chicago Magazine 

Image by nerissa’s ring, licensed under Creative Commons. 

r a skophammer
9/7/2011 2:04:13 PM

The hyperbole from some of the breast-milk advocates has created an environment where women that do not breastfeed are considered poor mothers. Yet millions of people were fed formula and are perfectly health. The lack of respect for the right and ability of a woman to make a choice about what is best for her and her child is nothing less than misogyny.


czarevna
8/23/2011 2:26:02 PM

odds & ends: Bill, sorry to hear that your wife had that experience. Steve, either that is ironic trollery, or you have neatly encapsulated the pro-breastfeeding mafia mentality. Really, if you oh, have to work a job that makes no accommodation for pumping to keep your family from falling into destitution, then you do not deserve to have children? Really? Basically you are arguing eugenics against poor people, which may be okay with you based on your stated commitments to negative population growth, but I think is not a stance that most of us would endorse due to its obvious racism, classism and general moral corruptness. Generally women want to do what is best for their children. Unfortunately in a culture and economic environment that is largely hostile to motherhood, this means trade-offs, such as no breast-feeding b/c of no paid maternity leave; and no pumping due to the lack of accommodations (e.g. breaks long enough, safe and clean space). Stress is unquestionably a top factor for post-partum depression -- are women best served by a medical establishment that offers no alternatives to breast-feeding, and a society that feels entitled to share their uninvited judgments on parenting? Clearly a whole baby-boom generation was raised on formula and turned out just fine. Maybe breast milk is better, but lets not pretend that formula is rat poison.


boston33
8/8/2011 5:01:40 PM

A women’s studies assistant professor is probably qualified to speak about the issue facing women about the pressures of breast feeding, and judgment they face when they are unable to breast feed, but I question her qualifications to speak about medical research. She said she had read a years worth of studies and found many are based on correlation (she says studies have undeniably shown that breast-fed babies ingest certain antibodies that fight bacteria in the GI tract, but this is her only concession)... However, all this shows is that we need betters studies, she has not proven the hypothesis wrong. The exact make up of breast milk is still unknown, and there are over 100 ingredients in human milk not found in formula (http://pregnancy.about.com/cs/breastfeedinginfo/l/blbreastorbottl.htm) More research is needed but its too soon to say breast milk and formula are equal.


tia leschke
8/5/2011 9:33:23 PM

There is no comparison between breast milk and formula. How could there be when the composition of breast milk changes as the baby gets older, when mother or baby is sick, and even from the beginning of a feeding to the end of that feeding. Breast milk is anything but a static thing that can be measured.


summer
8/5/2011 7:31:43 PM

I agree with all of these comments. Breastmilk is better and this article is whacky. However, in response to Bill - there are real issues that some women have and they should never be scorned. Your wife deserved more support than she received. And formula is perfect for a family like yours where the breastfeeding issues are real and overwhelming. However, your family is not the norm. The norm is using formula for convenience and not even trying to do what is best. The norm is buying into a profit making enterprise (Formula companies). I hope we can find a balance where breastfeeding is the norm, is promoted in education of new mothers, and that new moms are given much more support than they do currently. I hope no mom feels like the breatmilk mafia is after them. But I do hope that more and more moms realize that they CAN breastfeed and leave formula as a back up plan for those few moms who have a medical condition or a severe issue.


summer
8/5/2011 7:25:19 PM

I agree with all of these comments. Breastmilk is better and this article is whacky. However, in response to Bill - there are real issues that some women have and they should never be scorned. Your wife deserved more support than she received. And formula is perfect for a family like yours where the breastfeeding issues are real and overwhelming. However, your family is not the norm. The norm is using formula for convenience and not even trying to do what is best. The norm is buying into a profit making enterprise (Formula companies). I hope we can find a balance where breastfeeding is the norm, is promoted in education of new mothers, and that new moms are given much more support than they do currently. I hope no mom feels like the breatmilk mafia is after them. But I do hope that more and more moms realize that they CAN breastfeed and leave formula as a back up plan for those few moms who have a medical condition or a severe issue.


judith kingsbury
8/5/2011 11:58:30 AM

Without having read the book, I suspect that Joan Wolf may be out of her mind, or that she must have been funded by some formula manufacturer. I disagree with the following statement by article writer Danielle Magnuson: "With postpartum depression affecting many mothers, especially those who struggle with breastfeeding, uncritical devotion to nursing can do more harm than good. And the science isn’t there to back it up, argues women’s studies assistant professor Joan Wolf." What?? Failure to breastfeed isn't a major cause of postpartum depression - there are many possible interelated causes: fatigue, thyroid problems, insulin levels, nutritional deficiencies, isolation, lack of social support are just a few. High levels of prolactin in nursing mothers makes them less likely to experience post partum depression. Baby formula isn't evil, but it's not a match for breast feeding on any level. One of the main reasons for breastfeeding failure is that new mothers don't get the support they need to establish breastfeeding. New mothers stay in hospital for 2 days max after giving birth, which isn't enough time to establish breastfeeding. Hospital lactation specialists often are ignorant about breastfeeding, encouraging Moms to give up & use formula. I recommend LaLeche League, midwives & breastfeeding.about.com as breastfeeding resources. As for science, authors should look at all the studies, not cherry pick those that support their agenda.


steve eatenson
8/5/2011 10:32:32 AM

Reactive attachment disorder comes from a child not properly bonding with thier primary care giver at infancy and leads to all sorts of learning disabilities, ADHD, addiction problems, relationship problems later in life. Nutrition deficit is just the tip of the iceburg. If a woman has a baby and finds she can't breast feed due to physical problems, then go for the formula and don't have anymore children. If a woman just doesn't have time or want the inconvenience, do the kid and the rest of us a favor and don't have children... you'd probably be a lousy mother anyway. The over population problem is real, getting worse, and destroying the world. Let's adopt those kids that don't have a chance and are already here. I see plenty of starving babies on TV these days. Having another baby isn't going to make the world a better place.... even if they're super wonderful, just like you.


kellynaturally
8/5/2011 8:41:00 AM

I'm dubious of the validity of any study showing the benefits of breastmilk & formula as "neck and neck". At the very basic, chemistry level, the ingredients don't even begin to match up. http://www.bcbabyfriendly.ca/whatsinbreastmilkposter.pdf Not to mention the proven benefits of skin to skin in newborns and of jaw development from the increased muscles needed to suck at the breast vs. from a bottle. Sorry, science hasn't matched nature yet on this one.


bill whitney
8/4/2011 10:56:47 AM

Amen to this. My wife had terrible difficulties breast-feeding when our daughter was born three years ago, and due to a raft of poor and non-existent advice based upon the notion that any option other than breast-feeding was simply not an option, we spent the first three months of our first child's life painfully pumping out an inadequate supply of breast milk and supplementing with formula, all the while subjected to the cadre that we dubbed the "breastfeeding mafia." For my wife, it wasn't an issue of time, or convenience, or outside-the-home employment, or putting up with some pain, or "not wanting to"...all of the reasons that the breastfeeding mafia concocts to make new mothers feel inadequate, just as this article says. After an agonizing three-month period (during which time we should have been better bonding with our child), we finally got a lactation consultant to take a long look, sigh, and say that it might just be better if my wife gave up pumping and we just resigned ourselves to formula. Our daughter is now an incredibly smart, sharp, imaginative and energetic three-year-old, the kind of child that I imagine most any parents would want. And she was brought up almost entirely with formula. I will never forgive the mafioso and the way that they have changed the culture on this...we are good-hearted people with the best of intentions, and did not deserve the sort of implied scorn that we received through this ordeal.