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.