The Cult of Breastfeeding
I’m all for breastfeeding. Breast milk rocks for babies, and breastfeeding can be a divinely feminine experience for moms. But lately I’ve begun to wonder if maybe, just maybe, we’ve gone a smidgen too far with the breastfeeding cheerleading. Maybe when we’ve come to the point of coining a term for radical breastfeeding activist–lactivist–we’ve tipped the balance and wandered into dangerous territory.
I don’t so much care whether a group of woman want to pound their collective nursing chests and proclaim the power of breast feeding. Heck, I might even join them. But I do care when this cult of breastfeeding makes adoptive parents say:
I tried [breastfeeding], but it didn’t work for me. For those of us who have had a bodies fail us so many times, this was just another disappointment for me. I know others who have had it work, and I think that’s great, but I just don’t want others to think they are the only ones whose bodies have failed them yet again. [Posted in response to a link to Creating a Family’s Top Ten Tips for Breastfeeding Your Adopted Child]
Or makes moms of premature IVF twins say:
My twins were born 14 weeks premature and spent 1.5 and 2 months in the NICU and one has many more surgeries to go in her life. I tried to pump enough to supply the girls with milk, but eventually had to give up. I was so mad at my body for failing to get pregnant without IVF, failing to be able to carry the twins closer to term, and then for failing to make milk. I feel like a complete failure.
Yeah, I care very much.
It is possible that I’m feeling a wee bit guilty. Creating a Family has the largest collection of resources for those who want to try to breastfeed an adopted child or a child born through surrogacy. By providing these resources it is entirely possible that we are adding to the pressure to breastfeed. That wasn’t our intent, but that might still be the effect, at least for some people.
So, here’s the truth. Yes, it is possible to breast feed your adopted baby, but few women, especially those who have not breast fed in the past, are able to supply enough milk to fully support their child, and end up supplementing with formula or donated breast milk. And that is just fine. It’s also just fine to focus on parenting, and not try to force your body through drugs to produce milk without a pregnancy. It is just fine if you can’t pump enough milk for your premature twins and give them formula. It’s just fine if you stop breastfeeding when you go back to work because you can’t or don’t want to pump at work. It is just fine to want a full night’s sleep and let dad give an occasional bottle of formula. The truth is plenty of children have thrived on formula and yours will too.
While it makes inherent good sense that human breast milk is best for human babies, medical research has not consistently been able to support the advantages.
[T]he medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that [Dr. William] Sears describes. More like tiny, unsure baby steps: two forward, two back, with much meandering and bumping into walls. A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design. [from The Atlantic article “The Case Against Breast Feeding“
Although I find this somewhat interesting, for me the lack of research is beside the point. I believe that breastfeeding is best if possible, but if not possible, then don’t sweat it. Formula fed babies aren’t doomed for a life of poor health and subpar intelligence. I may be defensive because I was bottle fed, but almost everyone in my generation was bottle fed, and we seem relatively fine, and we should have the longest life expectancy of any generation of Americans in history.
It is interesting that the emphasis, and perhaps over-emphasis, on breastfeeding is in no way universal and breaks out along racial and socio-economic lines. (OK, you know me, as I started to write this I just had to do a tiny bit of research, which I know you want me to share.) College educated, older, wealthier, white and Latina moms are more likely to breastfeed and more likely to continue breastfeeding for the first 12 months. As luck would have it, this is the same demographics that are more likely to go through infertility treatment and adoption, and the same demographics that are more likely to feel guilty for not being able to breastfeed. I feel torn; I want moms to breastfeed, but I don’t think it is necessary or healthy to beat yourself up if you can’t or don’t.
I am a mom of four through birth and adoption. With my birth children I breast fed for a year and loved it; when I adopted I bottle fed, and truthfully, I loved that too. My husband especially loved bottle feeding. With our children by birth, he always felt second best when it came to feeding, but with adoption, he was on even footing. I loved that he and the grandparents could be more involved as well.
I know you all really really want me to share more of the research on breastfeeding rates in the US. So, as cherry on top of the sundae I present breastfeeding rates in the US. I find it fascinating to see the regional differences. (Honestly, I can’t help myself.)