Breast Feeding Scolds UPDATE

June 15, 2006

Something I was going to post on, but Rachel beat me to it! I knew this would be a hot topic.. -Erika

The New York Times has jumped on the bandwagon of scaring the bejesus out of mothers (or future mothers) who don’t breast feed their children.

They don’t waste time piling it on, either – in the article, “Breast Feed Or Else,” dated June 13, the lead lays it all out there:

Warning: Public health officials have determined that not breast-feeding may be hazardous to your baby’s health.

There is no black-box label like that affixed to cans of infant formula or tucked into the corner of magazine advertisements, at least not yet. But that is the unambiguous message of a controversial government public health campaign encouraging new mothers to breast-feed for six months to protect their babies from colds, flu, ear infections, diarrhea and even obesity. In April, the World Health Organization, setting new international bench marks for children’s growth, for the first time referred to breast-feeding as the biological norm.

Most MotherTalker regulars already know that I just finished breast feeding my daughter after 11 and a half months (her choice, not mine) and that I loved almost every minute of it. I’m also a firm believer that breastfeeding is “the gold standard” when it comes to infant nutrition. I would heartily encourage any future mother to at least try breastfeeding if they’re not sure.

But articles like this one sadden and infuriate me. Why? First of all, they go for the cheap emotion, appealing to mother guilt and fear in those mothers who formula feed, and smugness for those who breast feed. It raises questions too – my daughter had supplemental formula (due to a comedy of errors). Does that mean I partially abused my daughter or that I’m only half a good mother? While medical science may have proven that breast is best, not breast feeding is not tantamount to child abuse. There are so many reasons why a woman may not choose to breastfeed, and it’s a decision that she should be allowed to make without any additional pressure from the rest of us!

Second of all, this article doesn’t address the fundamental weakness of the Department of Health and Human Services’ campaign – the current system for maternity leave is wholly inadequate to promoting the goal of getting working mothers to breast feed their children for the full first year. As Lori Leibovich of Salon’s Broadsheet points out:

Yes, it would be great if more women breast-fed their babies. And I guess it’s nice that the government is reminding women of the benefits of breast milk. But in their heavy-handed, bullying approach, these ads are like the lactation equivalent of the this-is-your-brain-on-drugs ads of the 1980s. The difference is that nobody has to smoke dope, but many women do have to work. The campaign willfully ignores the reality of most women’s lives. The fact is, real barriers, both physical and financial, stand between many mothers and breast-feeding — a fact the Times quickly glided over.

(BTW, Leibovich gets my vote for the Golden Breast Award, if there is such a thing – read about her dedication to making sure her child got breastmilk! You go, woman!)

Sadly, this is just another example of the reality-deprived Bush Administration – talk the talk on “family values”, but do nothing to actually implement programs that would, you know, help mothers who do want to breastfeed, or who do want to stay home with their children achieve their goals. Like, say, longer, paid parental leave, rules forcing employers to consider flexible working arrangements, affordable daycare, or daycare on-site at corporate headquarters. The list goes on and on. A shame Halliburton doesn’t extract breast milk, eh? Then maybe we’d see some breast-friendly policies.

UPDATE:
Interesting Stats.org article that debunks some of the sloppy work in the NYT article. This article analyzes the statistical evidence presented in the NYT, and actually comes to the conclusion that yes, breastfeeding is best, but it is hard to quantify *how* specifically, and reads the NYT the riot act for the “not-breast-feeding-is-tantamount-to-smoking-while-pregnant” conclusion.