My issue with “Breast is Best”

First I want to thank everyone for keeping the discourse civil on my last post. I was grateful (and interested) to hear other takes on the study. I’m not surprised that it’s findings are being contested, they always are. I hope they can create a study where the results are more convincing, because I absolutely do believe that children who are given formula in their first year go on to thrive in all the same ways that babies who are breastfed thrive.

What happened as I wrote that post, and then read and responded to comments, as I finally figured out exactly where I stand on the “breast is best” issue. As you know, this issue is VERY close to my heart, one that has occupied my thoughts for many long hours, days weeks and months. I literally think about this EVERY SINGLE DAY, as I decide if I want to keep pumping despite pain and discomfort that gets worse with each passing day (not to mention dietary restrictions). Obviously I believe breast milk is worth fighting for, but I still take issue with “breast is best.” How can that be? I finally figured it out in a comment on another post, and it’s important enough for me to publish it as an actual post on my blog. So here it is (with a few clean-ups here and there):

I think what it comes down to is this (and Jjiraffe stated this really well) is that I believe you can’t understand what it’s like to be on the other side of it, unless you’ve actually been there yourself. Most (not all) women who defend the “breast is best” campaign have been able to breastfeed in the manner, and for the duration, that they had hoped. I think it’s impossible to understand how damaging the “breast is best” rhetoric can be until you’ve been forced to make the choice, especially when you’re forced to make that choice due to circumstances beyond your control. (And I recognize that some women are more secure in using formula, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t struggled under the pressure and guilt of not providing breast milk, no matter what their circumstances.)

I also think it’s unhelpful (and potentially damaging) that the “breast is best” campaign does not address the downsides of breastfeeding, which all affect the mother, who is already struggling the most in the early days of postpartum life. It’s an incredible responsibility, and for many women a burden, to be the only person who can feed the baby. Even if they pump to give a bottle, they are still required to sacrifice their time pumping, time that could be used to get precious sleep or tend to other children. It’s REALLY HARD to be the sole food source for your child, to have limitation put on when you can eat and what medicines you can take, to deal with the physical discomforts (and sometimes unbearable pain) of producing and extracting milk, and that is never (in my experience) a part of the “breast is best” conversation. It’s hardly acknowledged at all. And then when women, who are very likely suffering from “the baby blues,” and maybe even PPD, are struggling, they don’t see their struggles validated, they just see “breast is best,” and the pressure to provide breast milk to their baby. That can be so incredibly damaging, especially if breast feeding is not going well for them. The feelings of failure that you’re not able to do something that is supposed to be “natural,” along with the guilt that you might be offering you child something that could be potentially harmful, can be so, so harmful. I’ve read about a woman who felt so pressured to keep breastfeeding, in her severely PPD state, that she killed herself. These things happen! And it’s not right. And I don’t understand why it can’t be a positive thing that there might be new evidence that babies who are formula fed do fine, so that women who are struggling feel they have positive options to turn to.

So yes, I will concede that breast milk is “better” than formula, but I will not concede that “breast is best” because “breast is best” is about so much more than breast milk. And that needs to be acknowledged.

And that is where the disconnect happens for me. I do believe that breast milk is superior to formula, most naturally occurring substances are preferable to synthesized reproductions. I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue with you on that. But just because breast milk is better than formula does not mean that breast feeding is better than formula feeding. Breast feeding is about SO MUCH MORE than breast milk, and until that is a part of the “breast is best” rhetoric, I just can’t support it.

This topic is obviously very close to my heart. I am exactly the person that lactivists would argue should be breast feeding her child (because clearly I have the milk supply), despite a very real cost to my physical, mental and emotional well being. Being that person, living that experience, I can only try to explain how damaging it can be. I know it’s hard to understand, when coming from the privileged place of a positive breastfeeding experience, but please believe me when I say that it’s not something anyone would wish on herself or any other new mother. I know there are all sorts of reasons that “breast is best” came to be, and I appreciate and support all of them, but right now the conversation is not complete, and it’s creating casualties.

The first weeks and months with our babies are so precious–and many of us will never have those early moments again. Women should be supported through that time, and I don’t believe we should be pushing women to sacrifice those moments with their babies, just so they can provide breast milk. It’s so hard, in those early weeks and months, to see the forest for the trees, and quick, catchy phrases like “breast is best,” can do real damage. I absolutely believe that. Because I am a causality of that phrase, that mentality. And I want to spare others from the emotional anguish that marked the first months of both my children’s lives.

Thank you for helping me figure out how I feel about this with your respectful comments on my last post. I would appreciate the same courtesy here.

6 responses

  1. I enjoyed your previous post and agree. Best is such a tough superlative, especially when those using it think it imparts something about their own superiority. It’s hard not to bristle when “best” is used b/c it automatically sets you up to be less than.

    There’s a lot I could say about breast feeding: my ambivalence, my decision not to go all out and try to make my body produce milk, technology vs natural, etc. But I won’t. I will say this. I think at the end of the day, whether breast milk or formula, the end result likely won’t differ much. I truly think that this issue is a manufactured (ha!) one to divide women and keep us from focusing on issues that are critical to women: healthcare, salary, work/life, insurance, daycare, education etc. Keep the women fighting about breast vs formula, and we can keep them down.

    That’s my conspiracy theory for the day 😉

    • Keanne, when I told B about this recent study, he told me that it’s just a conspiracy to keep moms fighting so that they don’t notice other, bigger things going on around them. I do think you are right… This is a manufactured issue with more at stake than breastfeeding… Much more!

  2. Having been on both sides of this, (bf 2 months and then all formula with Aiden) and now exclusively bfing Callen (5 months and going strongish), I do agree breastmilk is of higher quality. HOWEVER, I always felt judged for switching to formula with Aiden. I felt guilty, like I wasn’t “trying” hard enough. Support for mom’s is crucial in those early months when you don’t know what’s “normal” or not behavior in a baby (esp. first time mom’s) and you don’t understand the 100% self-less act breastfeeding truly is. I am started to just figure out what an unselfish act breastfeeding Callen is. It’s not at all easy getting up every hour to feed him during growth spurts, or being the only person to get him to fall asleep. It’s very hard, I feel making a bottle of formula to be much easier, esp. when hubby helped doing night feedings with Aiden. (FYI LLL is releasing a new book in June on breastfeeding and sleep…I find that interesting b/c I think that’s why so many women stop bfing. They are exhausted) However, that being said, I’m just thankful breastfeeding is going well for Callen and I because dealing with the guilt of it not working, just might have pushed me into PPD. I just keep thinking “one day at a time.” I do enjoy breastfeeding and the closeness it provides. I just wish there was more support for however women decide to feed their children

  3. Like you, I absolutely believe formula fed kids ends up as healthy as breastfed kids, and vice versa. Without a doubt. And I also agree that there is so much more to this than breast milk. I believe what is best for baby starts with what is best for mom, which is why I don’t care how anyone else feeds their kid. It’s not my business, and I know it’s not for everyone. (I swore up and down before kids that I would NEVER breastfeed. Ha!)

    Honestly, I’m way more concerned about the latest study on non-BPA plastics that’s making its way around the internet. THAT is way scarier to me than formula!

  4. Having read through the rest of the comments on your last post, I am starting to see where the cultural differences might 100% contribute to the different experiences we all have had. Clearly, you and Jjiraffe live in a part of the country that is quite different in its attitudes. That SUCKS that the lactation consultants you had were so unsupportive of the option of quitting and formula feeding, despite all the pain you were going through. No one should have to go through that, and I”m sorry you felt so pressured.
    I’m starting to agree with KeAnne that this is more manufactured mommy-war fodder. I think we’re all on the same page here—we think all women should have all the choices and there shouldn’t be any shame or guilt whatever we choose because by and large, YES, all of our kids will likely turn out OK however they were fed as infants.

  5. Thank you so much for this brave and thoughtful post. I have been through this issue and am currently writing about it also. Keep speaking your truth. We need to! My whole family grew immeasurably happier when I started formula feeding my son at 5 1/2 months. I never thought I would, but once I did, I wished I had started sooner.

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