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February 14, 2011

Breastfeeding, part I

Filed under: Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 5:00 pm

Last week I got together with some friends who have also become mothers in the last year or two.  Not surprisingly, the topic turned to how hard that first stretch of motherhood is.  How much unsolicited advice you get, how many times people criticize your parenting either implicitly or explicitly, how freaking tired you are!

We also talked about that sometimes contentious and emotionally-charged issue in the “mommy wars” — breastfeeding.  We’re four women who made different choices about breastfeeding: yea or nay, how long, how often, etc.  But I think, I hope no one felt judged for the choices they made.  Instead of bagging on each other, we bagged on all the dumb/insensitive/cruel things other people have said to us.  That’s better, right?

Later this week, perhaps tomorrow if the babe cooperates, I plan to record some of my thoughts about my breastfeeding experience.  As I get close to weaning, I want to remember how I’m feeling as I conclude this chapter of motherhood.  There’s no question that I am very pro-breastfeeding; I felt strongly enough about it that I even became a milk donor for other babies.  But it made me very sad to hear some of the comments that my friends who chose not to breastfeed received.  Indeed, some of the comments are based on distortions of the breastfeeding research that I want to, in my own small way, try to dispel.

So here goes, in brief.  When you look at physical issues, there definitely appears to be one group that breastmilk can be critical for: preemies and “fragile” infants.  They are often facing an uphill battle as it is, and formula tends to be harder to digest and lead to more gastrointestinal problems.  This is exactly why human milk banks are so important because these babies really need it.

But perhaps one of the more difficult things to be told is that breastfed babies are smarter than formula-fed babies, and thus a formula-fed baby will not be as smart as s/he could have been.  Do people really say things like this to a new mom who is in a fragile emotional state as it is?  Sadly, yes.  But here’s the thing about that: it is not actually supported by the research.  At this point, it seems to be a classic case of confusing correlation with causation (if you have found a random-assignment study that could get at causation, I’d be very interested).  This article I found from a quick google search sums up nicely what I have found from my own review of the literature: moms who breastfeed are different than moms who don’t.  On average, they have more education and higher IQs.  On average, they spend more time interacting with their babies, thus stimulating their development.  So breastfeeding is confounded with a number of other factors that we know are highly correlated with intelligence.

I think that this distortion is perpetuated by at least two things: media oversimplification and breastfeeding zealots.  In every research article, there is a discussion of limitations where an author will in some manner caution, correlation does not prove causation.  But does that caveat make for an exciting headline?  No; so if it’s mentioned at all, it’s usually buried somewhere at the end of the article.  As for the breastfeeding zealots, most people have probably met one.  Breastfed babies never get sick!  They’ll live to be 100!  Someday, breastfeeding will lead to world peace!

Now like I said, I’m a huge proponent of breastfeeding and I better be since my world has revolved around it for the past year.  But let’s be realistic about its benefits and costs — because it sure as heck is not easy — and for heaven’s sake, let’s not use it as a way to make new mothers feel like less than they are.

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15 Comments »

  1. Well put, my friend!

    Comment by vblanchard — February 14, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

  2. I’m pretty sure that I was not breastfed since, hello, foster home infant. But just look how well I turned out! *crickets* Ok, well moving past that anecdotal evidence, there is an excellent Child Dev. article that addresses all facets of breastfeeding. Actually Cortney showed it to me when I began teaching. I will see if I can scan it and send it to you as well! There are other confounding issues with the IQ/breastfeeding piece. On the other hand, there are lots of issues with formula, esp. with low SES parents. It’s very interesting reading.

    Comment by Emily T — February 14, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  3. The nurse at our breastfeeding class told us, among other things, that we wouldn’t be in the health care crises that are are in now, if only mothers had breastfed their babies. Thanks for posting this, and the link to the article.

    Comment by Sabrina — February 14, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    • If ALL mothers had.

      Comment by Sabrina — February 14, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

  4. breastfeeding is definitely an interesting topic.

    I had a girl scoff at me because I stopped breastfeeding Kasia at 9 months. She was the type that would keep breastfeeding until her kid graduated from high school, but hey, to each their own.

    I would have kept going if only Kasia was interested in it. She just got so distracted and didn’t seem to care so I figured I might as well stop wasting my time.

    I’m definitely pro though. It’s a neat a experience that comes with it’s own challenges like mastitis….ew. I hope that never happens to me again.

    Comment by kjell — February 14, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

  5. I think you put things very well. I am def pro breast feeding but John was fed formula from day one and he’s an okay guy 🙂 I think it is smart to educate people on the benefits of certain choices but it’s also smart to be realistic about outcomes. Everybody makes their choices based off of different reasons an different priorities. It’s okay if everyone is not the same.

    Comment by Lindsey — February 14, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

  6. What I think is ridiculus is the emphasis on being smart. Now, I’m all for being smart and doing all one can to help one’s child develop in every way possible, including their brain, but I don’t believe smarts are an end in of themselves. The way some of these researchers discuss these issues, you’d think there was nothing more important in the world.

    Comment by Rachel C. — February 15, 2011 @ 12:10 am

  7. I hear that breastfed babies can levitate. And they have telepathic capabilities.

    =) Coincidentally, this article showed up on my Facebook feed about a nano-second after I read your thoughts here: http://www.mamamia.com.au/weblog/2011/02/she-chose-to-bottle-feed-her-baby-this-is-why.html – Go and read!

    I just never cease to be floored at how indelicate people can be, how tactless and intrusive. I get territorial when people touch my stuff on the conveyor belt at the grocery store – I can’t imagine getting in someone’s face about her childcare choices (abusive behavior being an obvious exception)! All this judgment about breastfeeding vs. formula is so unfair and uncalled-for. Thank goodness that we live in an age where nutritious formula is available, where parents have multiple options for their children.

    Comment by Sara K.S. Hanks — February 15, 2011 @ 12:45 am

  8. I found myself struggling to know what was theory and what was practical. After reading so many books on breastfeeding, I was sure I knew how it would be and I thought I knew what were wives tales and what was truth. Well then I had my period when Eliza was only 4months. wha what? And i was exclusively breastfeeding. Then someone told me it was cause indidnt produce enough milk. I am sure that everyone is so different we need to just pick what works best for us. Most women can breastfeed but just because they can doesn’t mean it’s the best scenario for them. Take my friend who tried with #1 and didn’t have milk come in until almost 2 weeks and had to use a feeding tube and feeding was such a chore she just pumped and resented it…now with #2 she bottle feeds and loves that she can just focus on baby. Ok well that’s my spiel

    Comment by Carissa — February 15, 2011 @ 5:31 am

  9. Word. I am pro-breastfeeding, and I hope I am able to do it longer than 5 months for our next baby. But it was hard to realize that Eliza Lane would be just fine in the midst of all the emotions and people’s comments.

    Comment by Rachel — February 15, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

  10. I don’t have any kids, so it’s a little strange commenting on this. I am very much PRO breast feeding. My brother-in-law had the gall to tell me that in order for my kids to be smart, I had to stop breast feeding after 3 weeks, if I did it at all, simply because of his niece being breast fed for only 3 weeks, and if I didn’t stop, then our kids would be stupid. I don’t think that ANYONE has the RIGHT to say what you should or should not do regarding your own baby, except for trained professionals, and even then, they should give you information (i.e. books, studies, articles, etc (whatever you want/need)) and then let you decide for yourself. I know that people have different opinions, and that’s fine, but don’t force it on me. (No worries about you Lindsey, or anyone else on this blog. You are all very respectful, and I have enjoyed reading your comments).

    Comment by Andie Miller — February 16, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

  11. Having had close friends who couldn’t breastfeed, I said during my pregnancy that I would breastfeed as long as I am physically able to. Now we’re well into the fifth month and headed toward my personal goal, a year. It really has not been easy. Elizabeth is allergic to dairy, eggs, fish, peanuts and chocolate, all of which I’ve had to eliminate from my diet in order to have a healthy and happy child. I’ve had mothers who have breastfed and those who have formula fed tell me that they wouldn’t do it. I was very surprised at how many people urged me to switch to formula, how many people were unsupportive of my dietary choices. My husband’s grandma pointed out that since she couldn’t breastfeed, she gave his father Carnation MILK from a CAN and he turned out fine. I’ve cried at restaurants because they put butter in everything and I’m stuck having a tough chicken breast and a salad, AGAIN. I cried at Thanksgiving because my Grandmother “forgot” and put butter in everything but the turkey and cranberry sauce. I travel with oatmeal packets and granola bars because fast food is not an option. I dream of cheese. But I am also the girl that did a Master Cleanse in her 20s, drinking maple lemonade for 10 days. If I can do something like that to reduce the size of my butt, why wouldn’t I do it for the health of my child? So, I’ve learned to make vegan cookies and (bonus!)my butt is actually smaller than when I met my husband. There are a lot of drawbacks to nursing, it’s hard when you have to leave the house. My daughter will not take a bottle from me, so I’ve flashed men on a plane when she threw off the cover, sat on a dirty public toilet to feed her while at a convention with my husband. I take time out from lunches and shopping to go sit in the car, pumped in the ladies room at work and forced my husband to leave a college football game (his college, that he played football for, a BOWL game) because I thought my breasts would explode. If I have a single glass of wine or a beer, she throws up the entire next day. But even as I list all these things, I have such a closeness with my baby now that I wouldn’t give up for the world. She’s so active that breastfeeding is like a forced snuggling for her, I get my baby cuddle fix. It’s a reward I don’t have the words to describe. And if there is even one iota of a chance that my kid might be better prepared for life because of something I am designed to and am capable of doing, you can bet my starving butt I’m gonna do it. But after she decides to wean herself, I’m going to eat cheese for a week.

    Comment by Sarah — February 17, 2011 @ 4:12 am

  12. I thought I was going to end up stopping after a week, just from the pain, sheer exhaustion, and did I mention the pain? that I felt like a failure in the mommy department…and it was only week 1! Somehow I managed to make my way through one week, then two, three, four…and then I went back to work, which was a whole other behemoth in itself. I made it to 7 months, and I’m so happy I was able to go that long. Now I only have the utmost respect for moms who go the full year…amazing~.

    Comment by Soo — February 19, 2011 @ 4:40 am

  13. Interesting to read your thoughts on our discussion and everyone else’s thoughts. I always worry that I may hurt someone’s feelings when talking about breastfeeding because as mothers we want to give our children the best and it hurts to think that we may not have. However, as good as our intentions are breastfeeding is not easy and complications do happen. I do think it is sad that we judge so easily, myself included, when we don’t know what someone is going through. I am surprised/proud I made it 9 months. I felt like quitting 2 wks into it! I can’t help but wonder though, if I had been able to keep my milk and pump more if it would have helped my son. I don’t know, he has gotten worse in the months following me losing my milk. Well, my point is it is so easy for mothers to beat themselves up on their own, they don’t need others to do it too.

    Comment by Shannie — February 27, 2011 @ 7:55 am

  14. just read my response to this post and laugh at my last thought. HA! I got mastits AGAIN this time around. IN both boobs!! Breastfeeding sucks. But breastfeeding also ROCKS. Wish I could have kept going with Ryu, but it just wasn’t working out this time. 😦 😦 😦 Had to stop at 4 months because of low, low milk supply after fighting for two months to increase it. Nothing worked and he would NOT nurse on my left side.

    Comment by kjell — February 11, 2012 @ 4:19 pm


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