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Are The Benefits of Breastfeeding Babies Exaggerated?

“I mean, COME ON. It’s not like you can look at an adult and know that, yep, they were definitely breastfed.” That’s what a co-worker mentioned to me after I wrote In Which I Admit I’m Not Keen On Breastfeeding.

“Right?” I agreed with her. “But, oh my gosh, look at all the negativity surrounding the discussion. Women making other women feel like total crap at such a crucial juncture of their lives.”

I’ve never understood the breastfeeding debate. After posting the article here on Babble, I watched the comments roll in. They actually weren’t as bad as I was expecting. Then I found out someone had copied the article onto another mothering message board. Those weren’t exactly the nicest comments either.  Point is, write about breastfeeding and a lot of folks get really worked up.

That’s why I’m so thrilled about a new article on Babble today.

Joan Wolf is assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas A&M University. Wolf wrote Is Breast Really Best, she says, because “I wanted to understand how breastfeeding has come to be perceived as the holy grail of health and formula-feeding as the equivalent of giving a baby nicotine. I wanted to have a better sense of why parents have come to believe that how they feed their baby might be the most important decision they’ll ever make and why our public conversations about baby feeding have become so toxic.”

While you should definitely read the article for yourself, here are some highlights. Wolf says the mantra “breast is best” far exceeds what the evidence tells us. That misguided confidence stems from our poor understanding of science. She writes that thousands of studies find that the average breastfed baby is healthier than the average formula-fed baby. What they haven’t found is compelling evidence that breastfeeding is the cause of that better health. While writing a book on the subject Wolf says she discovered the vitriolic baby feeding debates are so hostile because it’s about more than just what’s best for babies. As a result, Wolf says we’ve developed a culture in which mothers who don’t breastfeed for whatever reason are cast as harming their children.

EXACTLY!

From Is Breast Really Best: “I don’t claim that there are no differences between children who have been breast or bottle-fed. Thousands of studies find that the average breastfed baby is healthier than the average formula-fed baby. What they haven’t found is compelling evidence that breastfeeding causes better health. As the old saying goes, correlation does not equal causation. The better health of breastfed babies could well be due, in part or completely, to other things that breastfeeding moms are doing, not to the breast milk itself”. Wolf outlines several analogies in support of this. However, as Wolf reports, “breastfeeding advocates argue that the sheer number of studies connecting breastfeeding with healthier babies makes the benefits of breastfeeding irrefutable. What they don’t mention is that lots of studies, including many published in top research journals, find that breastfeeding has little or no medical benefit.”

As I can attest to when one commenter called me a “reptile” and another called me “less maternal” when I admitted I don’t want to breastfeed, Wolf says another way some advocates push the superiority of breastfeeding is by promoting the idea that breastfeeding is “natural” and obviously superior to formula. “Yet humans do all sorts of things that other mammals don’t, and many of them are “unnatural,” if by that you mean that they manipulate or circumvent nature. Birth control is unnatural, but so are refrigeration, pasteurization, automobiles, and air conditioning. Unnatural does not necessarily mean unhealthy.”

Wolf outlines several other compelling arguments with supporting facts and studies that poke holes in the theory that breast is best. I’m sure she’ll get pounded by breastfeeding supporters when, in fact, she’s not impugning breastfeeding at all. In short, Wolf says that although she’s portrayed as being against breastfeeding, she’s actually just calling attention to the toxic debate surrounding baby feeding and those who use breastfeeding to make mothers feel bad about themselves.

As an example, here are just a few of the comments I received after admitting I’m not thrilled about breastfeeding:

“…you should see a counsellor. If you feel so uncomfortable doing the 2 of the most basic and primal things a human women can do (sex and breastfeeding) you really should get help…The truth is that if you were any other mammal on earth and you felt uncomfortable feeding your baby it would die.”

“It is less maternal not to breastfeed. Denying your baby what is natural and scientifically proven to be healthiest is not what any woman in her right mind would call maternal. Fine if someone wants to forgo the bonding that breastfeeding provides but the health?? The blog post seems to be nothing more than a self absorbed mother who has so much baggage she doesn’t know what is truly best for her child. Rationalize all you want… bottle is not best for baby, any scientist can show you the factual data to support that statement. Kudos to the mothers that commit to giving their babies the best start in this world… THE BREAST!”

“It always strikes me as strange to hear non-breastfeeding moms complain about feeling pressured by breastfeeding moms, because statistically, so few women breastfeed. I mean, a real significant minority. Not to mention, I get all kinds of grief for breastfeeding. The other day my 8-year-old amateur biologist said, “Women who don’t want to breastfeed their babies are more like reptiles than mammals.” I have to agree with her. It’s not something I understand. I’m totally in touch with my mammalian nature.”

Can someone explain what that’s all about? If someone chose to breastfeed, or even wrote an article explaining the issues that led them to feel so strongly about breastfeeding, I can’t imagine leaving a negative comment. But mention that you aren’t that into breastfeeding and outline the very personal reasons why and oh my God. This is what you get from other women.

Deciding to formula feed your baby should not be fighting words that, when said, lead to a conversation where the mother is cast as being against breastfeeding.

Wolf says, “Some women find breastfeeding deeply rewarding, and for them, breastfeeding is the right choice. Others find that formula-feeding works much better, and for them, breastfeeding is the wrong choice… Science has not demonstrated that breastfeeding has serious health advantages, and we need to stop making claims that breastfeeding is the only choice for mothers who care about their children. ”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Joan Wolf. Thank you for your hard work and insight.

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