Friday, January 11, 2013

get out of my face about breastfeeding

Vader geeft baby de fles / Father feeding the baby

First of all, the inevitable disclaimer: I intend to breastfeed my child. It's cheap, it's handy and convenient, it's good for babies. It also seems like a nice thing to do, and I hope I can do it without too many problems.

However, as any currently/recently pregnant woman can tell you, there is currently a huge pressure on women to breastfeed, and it's really starting to piss me off.

Yes, it's great that hospitals and doctors and more supportive of breastfeeding these days. It's great that they acknowledge that breastfeeding isn't always easy, and that women should have access to support them. However, the rhetoric of breastfeeding often makes me feel uncomfortable.

"It's natural!" Meaning, of course, it's good. (And, by extension, formula feeding is "unnatural" and therefore bad.) I have to say, as soon as I hear the word "natural", my hackles rise and my skepticism goes on alert. Here are some other things that are unnatural:
  • wearing spectacles to correct your sight
  • eating with a knife and fork
  • taking drugs to prevent epileptic seizures
  • reading
Also, the word "natural" has been used a lot to justify ideologies which most of us would agree are highly problematic: sexism, racism, homophobia. So let's stop using that one as an argument, OK?

"It's best for baby!" Yes, if all other elements are equal, breast milk is better for a baby than formula. (Except that it doesn't have enough iron.) However, all elements are never equal.

If a mother is in agony trying to breastfeed, that might not be best for baby.

If a mother has to take drugs to breastfeed, that might not be best for baby.

If a mother is traumatised and made to feel inadequate by her difficulty breastfeeding, that might not be best for baby.

And how about this for a radical argument: the baby is not the only person involved here, and women have a right to choose what is best for them.

I am frankly amazed at some of the comments I have seen on the Internet regarding formula feeding. Women who opt for this method are called selfish. They are told that if they didn't want to fully devote their body and their life to their child, they shouldn't have one. They are told that they are damaging their children. It's very reminiscent of the arguments against mothers working outside the home.

It's not just on the Internet, either. One woman I know of was looking at formula on the shelves of a supermarket, trying to decide between brands in case she had to supplement in the future. A complete stranger walked past and chirped brightly, "Breast is best!" Thanks, judgmental stranger! I spent pregnancy and birth alone in a cave and this is my first outing; I appreciate your advice! Also, let me punch you in your stupid FACE.

Women have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. If you do not agree with this, or you want to add caveats, then brother, we have a more fundamental disagreement than I can address here.

"Your baby will have a higher IQ!" This is a very common and very powerful argument, except it's based on shitty science.
A large study recently co-conducted by the University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s Medical Research Council found that breastfed babies do indeed tend to be smarter than formula-fed babies. But it also found that mothers who breastfeed also tend to have higher IQs and more education, and tend to provide more stimulating home environments than formula-feeding mothers. Once the numbers were corrected to account for the mom’s IQ, the relationship between breastfeeding and intelligence disappeared. (And there was no statistical difference between siblings when one was breastfed and one wasn’t.) The study, analyzing data on nearly 5,500 American children, was published in the British Medical Journal in October 2006. Previous studies, for the most part, hadn’t factored in the mom’s IQ when declaring that breastfeeding made babies smarter.
(The same article also debunks the rather more superficial but probably equally powerful argument that breastfeeding helps you lose weight. It doesn't.)

"You'll have a stronger bond with your baby!" Well, that's a nice big fuck-you to adoptive parents, people medically unable to breastfeed, and mothers whose babies fail to thrive on their milk. This is sentimental and anecdotal; there is no evidence to support it.

"Formula is no substitute for breast milk." Actually, it's a damn good substitute. It doesn't have the antibodies provided in breast milk, but it's carefully designed to meet a child's nutritional needs. No-one should feel that they are depriving their child, or harming its health, by formula feeding. And the studies on breast milk are severely limited by the lack of attention paid to other factors such as wealth and socioecomonic class:
It is true that breastfed babies are healthier in many ways than formula-fed ones. But does that in and of itself prove a causal relationship between health and breast milk? Women who breastfeed tend to be wealthier and better educated than women who don’t, so it’s hard to tease apart how much of the benefit to their children comes from breastfeeding and how much comes from other factors correlated with money and education. (For instance, women who breastfeed are less likely to smoke.)
Finally, let's address a fact that very few breastfeeding advocates seem to acknowledge. While women get the blame for not breastfeeding, our society makes it difficult to breastfeed. Most women in Australia and other Western countries do not get much maternity leave; certainly not the minimum of a year which is recommended by breastfeeding advocates. When they return to work, they may choose to pump; however, many women do not work in jobs where they can take breaks to do this, where an appropriate space is provided, or where their workmates and supervisors are sympathetic to their needs. This is both a women's issue and a class issue, and there's no point throwing money at public education campaigns if it is not addressed.

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