Breast Feeding Conspiracy

Sarah Waldeck has an interesting essay on the topic of nursing, a subject that became of sudden interest to me with the birth of our first child seven weeks ago.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think that some breastfeeding advocates would like to keep mothers at least partially in the dark about the primary benefit of formula: its ease. Most women who choose breastmilk have at least read about the convenience of formula, but that’s different than actually experiencing the delight of having an infant sleep for five hours because formula has made her feel full, or the freedom of leaving for work without the breast pump. Some of the recommendations in parenting books— like having hospital nurses wake a mother whenever her newborn is hungry—strike me as partly about preventing mothers from getting a taste of how convenient formula can be, lest they begin the slippery slide towards the Gerber Baby.

For mothers who do eschew formula or at least resist the slippery slope, breastfeeding is sometimes about more than “just” infant and maternal health. We (rightly) hail the benefits of equal parenting. But once society has tumbled to the conclusion that a baby is fine so long as its caregiver is providing loving attention, some women may feel the value of “mother” erode. For some, breast-feeding is a means of staking out a special place. The difficulty, as Lepore observes, is that a woman can make her unique contribution by hooking herself up to a contraption that is reminiscent of a dairy farm or my favorite scene from Witness. To compound matters, it’s much easier to talk about the benefits of breast-milk (which is so indisputably scientifically good) than about touchy-feeling topics like mother-child relationships. So we laud policies that are aimed at getting milk to babies, even when those policies sometimes distract us from the issues that many mothers care about most: getting more of themselves to the child.

Our experience has been that the hospital went out of their way to impress upon us the value of nursing vice formula feeding, which was the way we were headed anyway.  But — granting that we travel in atypical circles, surrounded by a professional circle where first-time parenting in middle age is perfectly normal — it’s certainly not as if we’re not profoundly aware of how much easier it would be to feed formula.  Indeed, almost everyone we know either didn’t even try the natural route or quickly gave up on nursing and switched to feeding formula.   It’s so obvious that pumping is less convenient that mixing formula that I can’t imagine anyone hasn’t clued in to that.

I do think there’s something to the notion that the psychological issue of mother-child bonding from nursing is powerful and is a major contributing factor in those cases where moms return to work and continue to endure the indignities and inconvenience of pumping, storing, and transporting their milk.  Not to mention pressures to give up alcohol and otherwise modify their dietary intake.

Given that nursing is an almost unalloyed good compared to formula feeding, though, it’s hard to see that as a bad thing.

Photo by Flickr user Skinnyde, used under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    a subject that became of sudden interest to me with the birth of our first child seven weeks ago.

    (Chuckle)

    I can remember having a simuilar conversation with my wife on the matter a few years ago. And recently I had showed her the pics you posted and at the time she wondered to me if we’d hear about breastfeeding in the blog.

    Let’s just say I lost the bet.

  2. just me says:

    I breastfed all four of my kids, although I did pump and give bottles. I found bottles rather inconvienient myself. With breastfeeding milk was always ready and fully warmed, and there was no mess to clean up.

    I think convenience of breastfeeding verses bottle feeding is really a matter of opinion than fact. I’ll take the convenience of breastfeeding any day over that of bottle feeding.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Let’s just say I lost the bet.

    Heh. I’ll only post on public policy aspects of the issue, I promise.

    I think convenience of breastfeeding verses bottle feeding is really a matter of opinion than fact. I’ll take the convenience of breastfeeding any day over that of bottle feeding.

    I think the question is with career moms who leave the kids with a nanny all day and thus have to pump to ensure there’s milk available. Also, as noted in the excerpt, formula-fed kids tend to sleep longer at night since formula is more filling.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I imagine that in some respects the circle has turned; formula was more common I believe when I was growing up. So modern. And I get the author’s point about the one-sidedness of the information, but I think it comes from a certain defensiveness to some of the points she raises: breast-feeding is like being a dairy cow. The advocates want to make the mother comfortable with doing it and knowledgeable about how it can be done even if you go back to work.

    As a male, I’ll simply say it’s convient not to have to go to the store at 3AM in search of formula or worry that we packed enough in case a simple trip to the store became something more. Have wife, will travel.

  5. tom p says:

    I was all for, and much convinced of, the convenience of breast feeding… especially at 3 am.

  6. Franklin says:

    People of a certain age still believe the propaganda that the formula companies were putting out 30-40 years ago, which was basically that formula was just as good as breastmilk.

    There’s actual pressure applied to some new mothers these days, by THEIR mothers, to use formula.

    As James mentions, the convenience of formula is perfectly obvious. And I have ZERO problem with society applying a bit of pressure to “do the right thing,” in this case, breastfeed.

    Note, however, that some women for medical or other reasons CANNOT breastfeed or cannot do so sufficiently, and we should be aware of that before implying that women who feed formula are bad. Because some women have tried hard, failed, and feel really bad and inadequate because of it.

    You want more controversy? My sister breastfed her kids until they were around 4 years old. Now it turns out this has been done for millions of years and in many other current cultures, but everytime I mention it, people freak out and say “that’s wrong!” It isn’t.

  7. Brian J. says:

    The dangerous flipside of the constant you’re not a good mother if you don’t breastfeed browbeating is that mothers who cannot successfully breastfeed can put their children at risk by trying too long:
    Breastfed baby risk investigated.

    So it’s not only an aesthetic or a choice of convenience, and portraying the decision only on that spectrum can hurt newborns.

  8. Monica says:

    I have a 14 week old baby girl and I am breast feeding her. Having to pump at work is definitely a hassle but the milk is FREE. My little one is sleeping thru the night now and has been for several weeks, so if you can make it thru the first 8 to 10 weeks of getting up every night (sometimes several times) to feed her – you’ll make it. You’re almost there.

    Oh, and congratulations 🙂

  9. jpe says:

    There’s actual pressure applied to some new mothers these days, by THEIR mothers, to use formula.

    What? I found the pressure on the mrs. to breastfeed simply unbearable. As did she: it was so stressful she just said the hell with it and went to the bottle. (no, not that bottle)

    The dangerous flipside of the constant you’re not a good mother if you don’t breastfeed browbeating

    No kidding.

  10. Skinnyde says:

    Interesting article. This is my photo of Samuel being bottle feed, and for the record I have no problem with you using it 🙂

    Samuel, the baby in the photo, never really took to breast feeding. He was a small baby and found it difficult to latch on. This caused stress to him and his mother. From day one my wife wanted to breastfeed, we went to several breastfeeding clinics to try to resolve the problems. Occasionally he would latch on, but it was a long drawn out process. In the end my wife resulted in using a pump, I remember after Samuel’s night-feed my wife would get the pump out whilst the rest of the family was sleeping. She would use the pump several times a day, it was a long drawn out process but she was determined to give Samuel breast milk for as long as she could. She managed until just past the recommended six months.

    In conclusion, I am proud of my wife’s determination to provide Samuel with breast milk by any means for as long as possible. There is a great stress on mothers to provide breast milk for their babies, but alas sometimes life is not that easy. If Samuel had breastfed naturally and easily from day one it would of been so much easier for everyone.

  11. Mark says:

    Great post, James.

    Glad to hear Kim is willing and able. You’ll all sleep soon enough!

  12. Bithead says:

    Heh. I’ll only post on public policy aspects of the issue, I promise.

    Hmmm. I don’t mean to jump on your reply, james, but let’s just call it using it as a springboard.

    Public policy issues? Are we conflating public policy issues with health issues? I would think, absent government exerting it’s power into the realm of healthcare, that public policy issues as related to breast feeding would be limited to breast feeding in public, wherever that conversation would lead. But is the choice to breast feed or not, rightly labeled a public (Government) policy issue?