My 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.