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Breast Is Not Best, Breast Is Normal

Formula feeding carries risks for the baby and the mother

If breastfeeding has health benefits, does that mean not breastfeeding has health risks? And if so, why isn’t this made more clear?

One argument against focusing on the downsides of formula is that it will just make a lot of formula-feeding moms feel anxious and guilty. Formula is also a zillion-dollar business with its own interests at heart (and promoting breastfeeding isn’t one of them.)

It’s hard to say whether thinking in terms of formula’s risks rather than breast milk’s “perks” would change how we all feel about our various feeding options.

On the one hand, it’s great to think positively. We’re all so stressed out when we have babies, isn’t it nice to just focus on possible benefits? Well, maybe not though. Maybe the  “liquid gold,” and “breast is best” language puts too much pressure on us. I rolled my eyes at suggestions that I play Mozart to my fetus and start flash cards at 6 months, why should I be gunning for enriched feeding?

When I hear of women tirelessly pumping to get those few extra IQ points for their kids, I always think, How did breastfeeding turn into the first step towards college admissions? When did this competitive edge come in? And why are breastfeeding mothers so quickly viewed as sanctimonious just for doing what their bodies are meant to do?

Maybe we’d be better off with “breast is normal”?

In her thought-provoking article, Watch Your Language, Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC writes,

“When we (and the artificial milk manufacturers) say that breastfeeding is the best possible way to feed babies because it provides their ideal food, perfectly balanced for optimal infant nutrition, the logical response is, ‘So what?’ Our own experience tells us that optimal is not necessary. Normal is fine, and implied in this language is the absolute normalcy–and thus safety and adequacy–of artificial feeding. The truth is, breastfeeding is nothing more than normal.

Artificial feeding, which is neither the same nor superior, is therefore deficient, incomplete, and inferior. Those are difficult words, but they have an appropriate place in our vocabulary. Advantages. When we talk about the advantages of breastfeeding–the ‘lower rates’ of cancer, the ‘reduced risk’ of allergies, the ‘enhanced’ bonding, the ‘stronger’ immune system–we reinforce bottle-feeding yet again as the accepted, acceptable norm…. Breastfed babies do not ‘smell better;’ artificial feeding results in an abnormal and unpleasant odor that reflects problems in an infant’s gut. We cannot expect to create a breastfeeding culture if we do not insist on a breastfeeding model of health in both our language and our literature.”

Formula companies seem very happy to splash”breast is best” all over their promotional materials and websites.  Clearly this particular breastfeeding campaign is not making a dent in their sales. However, when a breastfeeding ad campaign was introduced in 2004 suggesting that formula carried risks, formula companies fought it and breastfeeding advocates were forced to water down the “negative” language.

It’s clear is that mothers should have all the facts before deciding which feeding method to pursue, and then feel supported once they’ve made their choice. But what’s not so clear is whether the language we use to describe breastfeeding “benefits” is telling the whole story.

It’s kind of like the way we describe other kinds of food. Grass-fed meat can be seen as such a luxury and a perk. But the fact is, that is the normal meat. Corn-fed, antibiotic drenched meat is not. But it’s now come to be seen as the standard fare. Do we need to adjust what we consider normal?

Let’s look at how the language changes things:

Breastfed babies have fewer infections in middle-ear, upper respiratory system, and gastrointestinal tract, less diarrhea and constipation, faster recovery from sickness, a boosted immune system, improved response to vaccinations, lowered risk of SIDS, less colic, reduced risk of allergies, asthma and eczema, need for tonsils out, strengthened facial muscles may reduce need for orthodontic treatment; for premature babies: reduced NICU time, increased protection from illness reduced chance of diabetes later in life. Some more suspected benefits include increased bonding, reduced chance of obesity and a higher IQ. For moms: decreased postpartum bleeding, more rapid uterine involution, reduced chance of postpartum hemorrhage, earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight, decreased risk of pre-menopausal breast, ovarian and uterine cancer, lower risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis later on and relaxation/stress relief while breastfeeding.

OR

Formula-fed babies have more infections in middle-ear, upper respiratory system, and gastrointestinal tract, more diarrhea and constipation, slower recovery from sickness, early impairment to the immune system, impaired response to vaccinations, increased risk of SIDS, increased colic, increased risk of allergies, asthma and eczema, increased risk for needing tonsils out, weakened facial muscles that may increase the need for orthodontic treatment; for premature babies: increased NICU time, reduced protection from illness increased chance of diabetes later in life. More suspected risks of formula include reduced bonding, greater chance of obesity and a lower IQ. For moms: increased risk of postpartum bleeding, slower uterine involution, increased chance of postpartum hemorrhage, delayed return to pre-pregnancy weight, increased risk of pre-menopausal breast, ovarian and uterine cancer, higher risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis later on and no relaxation/stress relief from lactation hormones.
How do you feel reading these paragraphs?

Would changing our language make a positive difference?

Would more focus on the risks of artificial milk paint a more accurate picture?

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