Is there a dark side to the breast feeding movement?

Aug 23 2011 Published by under [Et Al], [Science in Society], Uncategorized

This will be my last baby-related post for a while, but I wanted to talk about breast feeding. Yes, I know, a dude talking about breast feeding is about as popular as a hunk of raw meat at a vegan tea party, but I'm actually more interested in the culture of breast feeding than the act itself.

With our first child we did the typical first-timer thing where we read all sorts of stuff ahead of time. We developed a birth plan that was focused on doing everything with drugs and we were ready... and then shit happened. There were complications, things came out of left field and we had to roll with it. In the end, things worked out well. We had a healthy mom and baby, a decent birth experience and not much to complain about given the circumstances.

But if there was one things that we were gonna do, it was breast feeding. I mean, if you don't breast feed, your child is basically going to grow up a moron with slurred speech who is sick all the time, right? I mean, these are facts*! Except maybe when you actually look at the science (see "Problematic Science" section). Nevertheless, there is no doubt that breast feeding is beneficial to both Mom and the baby, so away we went.

Except sometimes the body doesn't cooperate. Sure, it can take some time for a mother's milk to come in, but did you know that some women's milk never comes in? Or when it does, the level never comes close to reaching the child's needs? We didn't. But we found out the hard way. Five days of a screaming hungry child and little sleep. When the visiting nurse came to our house our baby was dehydrated, had lost almost 15% of her birth weight** (and she was already small) and had jaundice. We were told that if we went another day of weight loss that we would have to bring the baby back to the hospital. We decided we had to get this kid some food, no matter how we did it. Turned out that despite continued effort, my wife's milk never really came in and it would have been a huge mistake to stubbornly continue down the breastfeeding only path.

But why did it take us so long to reach this rather obvious conclusion? Because of the 1950s. Starting in the 50s there was a move away from breastfeeding in the US (A solid summary of historical trends can be found here) and in the 1970s there began a push back that has resulted in the resurgence in breastfeeding rates. But like any issue where strong opinions are involved, sometimes numbers get a little skewed, arguments become more extreme and "common knowledge" spreads unchecked. If you look around at many pro-breastfeeding websites and take them as The Truth, you would come away thinking that not breastfeeding your child ought to earn you jail time and if you give your child anything but a breast, it will forever spurn you and your nipples. And so new parents will put themselves and their babies through a lot to avoid being Those People.

And as one of Those People, let me tell you that the reaction from many people when you reveal that you are not breastfeeding is full of subtle assumption that you are a bad parent. There are two types of typical reactions:

1) You are selfish and don't care enough about your child to put the work*** into making breastfeeding happen.

2) You don't know what you are doing and let The Man force you into making a bad decision for your child****.

Combine these reactions from many people you talk to with the emotions of a new mother who already feels like she has failed and it is easy to get to a bad place very quickly. Nothing like having judgment heaped all over you as a new parent for something you can't control.

But the thing is, our first child is not a toothless sloth. I know, I'm as shocked as you are. And with the second we have managed to use formula to supplement through an extended period of slower milk production to get things going a little bit this time around, and neither the bottle nor formula turn out to be baby crack. In fact, we seamlessly go back and forth!

When we started talking round after our first child, we were surprised at how many women mentioned that they had milk supply issues with at least one of their children. For some, it works out after some struggle, for others it doesn't. But in the end, the point should be having a happy child and parents, not adhering to some doctrine. While breast milk has been clearly shown to provide benefits for your child that a formula diet cannot, it is not always an option for all mothers. However, the alternative is not sentencing our child to a lifetime of playing catch up, despite the ads.

*As an aside, people love to throw around random stats during the entire process of child rearing, most of which are total bullshit and completely self-serving to the internal narrative of the Stats Provider.

**In the US, 10% is the threshold where they bring the baby back in.

***And it is work in the beginning.

****It only took four comments on a post where I mentioned milk supply issues, in passing, to get one of these.

27 responses so far

  • tideliar says:

    ...in three...two...one....

    Anyway, my first is on the way and we're eager for breast milk to be the choice du jour. however, clearly "we" have little say in this. Boobie 1 and Boobie 2 either do their biz or they don't. The Tiddlet either works them norks for a nutritious snack, or it doesn't.

    Bollocks to starving the damn thing to get it to suckle. Several of my friends (..actually, all my IRL who have had kids in the last year or two) had some issues and a couple never got the child to breast feed. In a perfect world we wouldn't worry, but the world isn't perfect (except for me). Let's celebrate mothers and fathers trying to use the breast, and rejoice in a modern scientific society where we can still raise our children healthy and well nourished even if things don't go as planned.

  • CoR says:

    Well said. First priority should always be to have the baby gain weight and thrive. And to not be a dumbass in making that happen.

  • missmse says:

    Healthy babies are the ultimate goal: unfortunately, there's a lot of people who seem to think that they know the "one true way" to get there. Some mothers can't produce milk. Others are on medications that are absolutely necessary, but are expressed in milk and would be very, very bad for the baby. I'm glad to hear other voices of moderate reason on the internet.

  • Nurse maid, wet maid. Ever heard of them? they've been around for millenia and they were women like me who produce breast milk by the truck load. Back when we all lived in tribes and villages, I would be the person nursing the babies of women like PLSWife. Or when the mom died in childbirth, it would be women like me who stepped in to nurse the babe. Which is why formula was developed in the first place, because some women could not produce sufficient supply. Formula is not evil or poison, the majority of were raised on it and we're doing pretty damn well.
    I nursed for well over a year because I could and am damn happy about it because only shit is formula expensive. As far I can tell the only proven benefit to nursing is (1) less GI problems for the baby (2) its cheaper.

    Do you bond with your child while nursing? sure, but again I don't any of us are any less bonded to our parents.

    I feel like motherhood is the one last place where both men and women feel they have a right to dictate what a mom should do. Really it comes down to happy healthy mommy and happy healthy baby. If using formula (regardless of the reason why) makes mommy happy then that is what is best for a the baby. The last thing a new, hormonal and tired mom needs is guilt over HER choices.

    All the best to you both and I hope this is that last post about babies as I for enjoy reading about the adventures of WeeOne and am looking foward to the ways WeeerOne is going to wreak havoc :))

  • oops meant to say i hope this is not the last post

  • El Picador says:

    Dude you just LOVE those meat pants of yours, don't you?

  • Alyssa says:

    For someone who had HUGE difficulties breastfeeding, thank you so much for sharing your story and for the information in this post. My son was born 5 weeks early and had a hell of a time with his sucking/swallowing technique. So, even though I had the supply, he couldn't eat it. I ended up pumping exclusively for 6 months because of this notion that he MUST get breastmilk. I was miserable for a lot of that time --- first because I was a failure because I wasn't getting the bonding experience you (apparently) get when breastfeeding, and then because I was attached to the pump all damn day.

    When we switched over to formula, it was like a giant weight was off my shoulders! If something like that ever happens again, you're damn right that I'm going to switch over a hell of a lot earlier.

    I agree with tideliar - let's celebrate the moms who attempt breast feeding, and let's not berate them if it doesn't work out for whatever reason.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Dude you just LOVE those meat pants of yours, don't you?

    If you just leave them hung in the closet they start to smell.

    SM, I'm sure I will be writing about the kids on and off, but more sparingly than I have in the last two weeks.

  • Polytrope says:

    Establishing breastfeeding can be incredibly difficult, and no one is a failure for going to formula! In the Netherlands, where we were fortunate enough to have our little one, the difficulties are well-recognized, and helping you get sorted out here is part of the role of the Kraamzorg. This is the trained nurse who comes into your house 9-5 for 8 days after you give birth to look after little one, mother, and indeed rest of family. I would never have persevered with breastfeeding if it hadn't been for the help that she gave me, tricks, tips, use of pumps, nipple shields and so on. And I didn't even have milk supply issues! How anyone manages to get established breastfeeding without this support is a mystery to me, and there's no way I would have stuck with it otherwise.

  • Well said. My milk took 2 weeks to come in with #1. Unfortunately, #1 was very uncooperative and HATED the bottle (they never tell you that can happen either). So that the little bugger wouldn't starve, we would spend 1+ hours getting 4 oz of formula in.

    I agree that the most important thing is a happy and healthy baby and mommy. It is unfortunate that public health people think that every message must be greatly exaggerated in order to sink in. I know it made me feel worse about things when my baby wasn't getting enough breastmilk and continued to refuse any bottle system we tried.

  • Ooops--I left out the part that we mixed formula feeds and breastfeeds for 6 months (hence the 4 oz of formula!). We didn't try to give our newborn 4 oz!

  • hematophage says:

    So I did 23andMe not long ago and discovered I have some allele that is apparently correlated with 6-10 extra IQ points if you're breastfed. Thanks mom!

    Anyway, I don't have anything productive to say because there is no breastfeeding in my immediate (or even distant!) future, but I like reading about babies anyway. In a biologist sort of way.

  • thehermitage says:

    I always find the mini-hysteria over BREASTMILK or ELSE so interesting, because you are basically calling your grandparents and great-grandparents mentally deficient, because most of them (especially in middle class and up households) were subsisting almost entirely on the dreaded FORMULAE.

    Our foremothers smoke, drank, formulae-fed, and thought really hard during their pregnancies and babies (generally) turned out all right. It is really not that big a deal.

  • Jessica says:

    Hi all! I'm a breastfeeding mum (ok don't spit on me yet) and I have actually found that people give me grief for this. Despite me having the weight of (generally good) science behind my feeding decision. Posts like this - and I've come across a lot of them lately - saying that breastfeeding "people" judge you for your feeding choices leave me a little confused. Who are these hordes of people doing the judging? Breastfeeding rates are so low that the by far most likely response you get when revealing the ghastly secret that you are using formula is "us too".

  • Laura says:

    As a breastfeeding mother, I've encountered both BF and FF families and I've been supportive to BOTH choices.

    If anything, what I noticed was as I was nearing the birth of my DD that I got nothing but grief from alot of people I encountered. None of whom were in the least bit supportive of my decision to BF. All I heard was "i guess you're planning on starving your child" and "your chld will never receive the necessary nutrients from breastmilk." My favorite was..."You keep insisting you are going to BF, but what if it doesn't work? You need to have formula at home as a backup."

    The support was never there from the get-go, yet none of the families I know who chose to FF have had any complaints about people treating them as if they were about to submit their child to any sort of neglect.

    I've had people stare at me, family who wouldn't sit in the same room bc it was "disgusting" and people who asked me when my daughter was still an infant "how long" I was planning to keep going, bc bf'ing beyond a year is detrimental. I've been subjected to comments about how "sick it is for you to bf once your child is talking and is able to ask for the boob" Her own father called it "devil-juice" jokingly.

    So you tell me...who's on the dark side?

  • Elle says:

    I don't think pointed posts like this really help the cause of those who genuinely were unable to breastfeed. Somewhere in this, you make a good point but it really is lost in all the remarks about exaggerated statistics, bitter prose and your general tone.

    Formula serves a purpose, a great one at that. It saves the lives of those who would otherwise have died without it. It is, in these instances, a wonderful thing. It would be ridiculous to continue to breastfeed exclusively in the face of a medical emergency and I can think of very few who actually have done, but I can think of countless who have made uninformed decisions to formula feed their low birth weight babies, their premature babies and so the "dark side" of the breastfeeding movement, as tragic as it may be, is a drop in the ocean in the darkness that is the normality of infant formula.

    Whether or not you believe health issues assosciated with formula feeding to be minimal, or even non existent, is largely irrelevant. Breastfeeding is more than just food, and everyone can use an SNS. Not anyone should be ignorant to the potential differences, however small, in losing out on this crucial bonding experience. There isn't really any reason to leave it to chance, either.

  • Nina says:

    **** I think you are being unfair on the person who commented on the previous milk-supply thread - who said she thought 'they were pushing formula on you a bit soon'.

    She was talking about the hospital - not you the husband.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    No one here is claiming that there is anything wrong with breastfeeding. In fact, quite the opposite.

    That being said, what many people don't realize is that not everyone can do it. In some cases (our own, in fact) that varies from one child to the next. However, the sensationalization of formula feeding = stupid unhealthy children is just as destructive as people being sickened by breast feeding.

  • lisa says:

    yes, some women can't make milk, but ALL women have difficulties breastfeeding without learning what is needed to be successful, hopefully this will change sooner than later, and is something i and most breastfeeding advocates strive for every day to change.

    i am sorry you and your wife were not supported in your decisions to breastfeed. it must have been (and apparently still is) a painful experience to not be able to find the help new parents desperately need.

    i hope, if you choose to have more children, that there will be more breastfeeding support available.

  • Jude says:

    At the risk of sounding like option #2 on your list I really do think it's the system that sets mums up to fail. HPs tell mums they should breastfeed but their actions during labour and post birth are often counter productive to initiate successful breastfeeding and when mums almost inevitably run into trouble the vast majority of HPs do not have adequate skills or training to help them overcome them. I count myself incredibly lucky that I stumbled across some decent support in the nick of time. I would never judge another mum on their feeding choice but I do feel quite politicised about the issue of support because I feel that women and children are being let down. We campaigned for (and got) more support groups for our local area. It is a shame that the anger of FFers is directed towards breastfeeders and not to the people who let them down.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It is a shame that the anger of FFers is directed towards breastfeeders and not to the people who let them down.

    Reading comprehension seems to be an issue today, so I'll take it slow.

    No one is angry at breastfeeding women. Period.

    What I think is a shame is that women who don't breastfeed, for whatever reason, are likened to late-stage pregnancy bull riders in a large-scale ad campaign. If you combine that with your lack of support concern, now you have women who weren't given the proper tools being painted as reckless and irresponsible with their new children, right at a time when they are already feeling like failures.

    The anger is directed at those who feel it is within their rights to shame others for not being able to do what they have been able to accomplish.

  • Jude says:

    What I think is a shame is that women who don't breastfeed, for whatever reason, are likened to late-stage pregnancy bull riders in a large-scale ad campaign. If you combine that with your lack of support concern, now you have women who weren't given the proper tools being painted as reckless and irresponsible with their new children, right at a time when they are already feeling like failures.

    Erm, no actually my point was that a lot of the time it comes down to the luck of who is looking after you. As a new mother I trusted the HPs whose care i was under. Was that reckless or irresponsible? Sounds pretty reasonable, right? I didn't know any better and was struggling with the enormity of being a mum. and taking care of a baby. Under those circs why would anyone feel ashamed if it doesn't work out?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Oh sorry, I didn't realize that you point was "I don't see why people would feel any sense of public shaming, despite a social undercurrent that equates not breastfeeding with being a bad parent, so they shouldn't".

  • Jude says:

    I can understand why they might feel ashamed but I wish they'd get angry (at the system that failed them)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Hematophage- I know right? I coulda been even smarter, dammit!!

  • I think people are just bad at not getting involved when there are babies/kids in front of them. If you haven't yet, I'm sure you'll hear about how you are causing your children brain damage when you get them vaccinated... or because you aren't feeding them organic coconut water.

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