Let's Lower Stakes in Breastfeeding Debate

Screenshot via Youtube

In her recent post “Similac’s Failed Formula to End the Mommy Wars,” Sybil Sanchez implies that breast vs. formula is a topic on which we cannot agree to disagree, because she views the public health ramifications as dire. Like Sanchez, Mayim Bialik, and millions of other middle-class moms, I watched the popular Similac video. The ad responds to the fact that as new mothers, our parenting choices — breast vs. formula, stroller vs. babywearing — become central to our identities, and pit us against other mothers who choose differently. The tear-jerking (and cringe-inducing, with all its suburban status symbols) video urges us to look past our differences and focus on what unites us.

Sanchez dismisses the “breast is best” mantra as hurtful (which it is), but suggests that we replace it with the even more alienating #normalizebreastfeeding. (I used to just be less-than-best. Now I’m abnormal. My preferred infant-feeding hashtag is #isupportyou.) Like the moms in the Similac ad — and like so many of the women I encountered during my first rocky weeks as a mother — Sanchez sees the question of breast vs. formula as extremely high stakes. Even while they claimed to support everyone and judge no one, the lactation consultants who tried to help me produce more breastmilk made it clear that it was crucially important that I make this work. Under their guidance, I hooked myself to a pump eight times a day, took prescription pills not approved by the FDA, ate all the magical foods, and listened to their promises that this would ensure a secure bond with my baby (while other people cuddled him because I didn’t have the time). The lactation professionals tell us that the benefits of breastmilk are wondrous, and the dangers of “artificial baby milk” (thank you Mayim) are potentially disastrous.

For the sake of mothers, babies, and families, I think we desperately need to lower the stakes. My take on the science is different than Sybil’s. The studies showing the benefits of breastmilk on preterm infants are convincing. Beyond that, the data gets murky. The studies that seem to imply benefits of breastfeeding are riddled with confounding factors. Mothers who breastfeed tend to provide all kinds of other great things for their kids too, like vegetables and safe places to sleep and play. Studies comparing formula-fed children to their breastfed siblings — the closest thing we have to a control group — showed no discernible difference in their health outcomes.

We need to give women permission to let themselves off the hook when breastfeeding doesn’t work for them, or when they choose not to breastfeed. After I “came out” as a formula-feeding mom, I started receiving Facebook messages and phone calls from long-lost acquaintances and friends-of-friends who were struggling to feed their newborns. Most of them were dealing with breastfeeding challenges that are common in the first days and weeks — painful latch, low supply, blinding exhaustion. I tried to let them off the hook. I assured them that the most important thing is that we feed our babies with love. I said that yes, breast milk is good for babies, but having a mother who slept through night while someone else handled the bottle feeding is also good for babies, and it’s ok to choose the latter. I pointed out that breast milk comes from breasts that are attached to women, and when a family is deciding how to feed an infant, they must also consider the woman’s wants and needs. For many of the friends who reached out to me, breastfeeding — either exclusive or supplemented — ultimately worked. I’m happy for them that they were able to achieve their infant feeding goals, and I humbly wonder if hearing me say “just feed your baby with love” was comforting to these mothers in a way that “I don’t judge you, but remember that this is a public health issue” never will be.

In the hospital room where my second son and I spent the first two blissful days of his life, where I held him and stared into his beautiful eyes while feeding him formula — and where my husband and our nurses did the same so I could sleep and heal — there was a sign, similar to ones I’ve seen in many doctors offices, listing Ten Benefits of Breastfeeding. A few of the touted benefits seemed reasonable: Breast milk has a modest impact on early immunity, and — unlike bottles — breasts don’t need to be sterilized. But many of the items on the list just seemed so unkind to the vulnerable mothers who pass through that room. Breastfeeding is free! (as long as you are in the small minority of women in this country who can afford to stay with their babies 24/7, and as long as you don’t need any expensive interventions to make it work). Breastfeeding leads to better bonding! This one seems particularly unfair to the freshly postpartum women who read it. Babies bond to loving mothers, and that bond is not so tenuous as to be threatened if the baby is fed through a silicone nipple instead of a human one. Receiving messages like these from every direction just reinforces the idea that this is a high-stakes choice, that the benefits of doing it right and the dangers of doing it wrong are all tremendous.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Similac ad urges us to look past our differences and remember that we’re all in this together. Sybil Sanchez thinks the difference between breast milk and formula is too dire to look past. But both reinforce the idea that so many of us have worried is true: the parenting choices you make, especially around infant feeding (it is, after all, a formula ad) are of critical, make-or-break importance, and sometimes we can look past them and love each other, and sometimes we can’t. But for the sake of mothers, babies, and families, I think it is all of our job to lower the stakes, to tell all parents that #isupportyou, and that the most important thing is to feed our children with love.

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