Twenty-three years later the guilt and shame are still with me. When I gave birth to my first daughter I had every intention to breastfeed. All the baby books said it had tremendous health benefits – it even gave babies higher IQs! Culturally, it was understood that this is what all intelligent mothers did, because they understood the science behind it, and were savvy enough not to be manipulated by the formula companies. And of course, the emotional bonds created by nursing your child were supposed to be like nothing else in the world. But for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t do it.
What a relief it was to read Courtney Jung’s op-ed in the Sunday NY Times, Overselling Breastfeeding. She describes a recent study that followed 14,000 mothers and babies for 16 years, which showed that breastfeeding over formula feeding brings “modest” health benefits. Breastfeeding did confer some cognitive benefits and slightly reduced the risk of getting an infection, but it didn’t reduce the risk of allergies, asthma, cavities, ADHD, or obesity. These findings were also supported by a 2007 review of the breastfeeding studies to date.
When I had my first daughter, I tried to nurse, but no one was around to show me how. I was surprised to find out that it’s a bit more complicated than just giving your breast to the baby and saying “dive in!” My mother hadn’t done it, and I was the first of my friends to have a baby, so no help there. The pain became excruciating and my daughter starting crying every time I put her to my breast. My husband tried to be as helpful as possible, but we just didn’t know what we were doing. When I called La Leche League, they just told me to stick with it and never give a bottle, that it would be the worst thing I could do.
I had been physically and emotionally traumatized by an unplanned cesarean, and had few resources to face this battle. After a week I just couldn’t do it anymore and started bottle feeding. It was such an enormous relief to feed my baby every three hours without pain on her end or mine. But I still felt awful – as if I had failed at motherhood. Were my kids going to get severe allergies and end up in remedial classes because I couldn’t stick it out? The guilt was at times, overwhelming.
And it seemed like everyone I ran into wanted to know why I wasn’t breastfeeding. Waiting with my daughter on line at the post office, a man congratulated me on my baby and then said “of course you’re breastfeeding.” A stranger at the post office! I felt the bad mother dunce cap landing on my head.
I’m happy to say that both my girls are quite healthy young adults now, secure in my love, with smarts to spare. And I’m certainly not saying that breastfeeding isn’t wonderful for those who can do it. I’m sorry I missed that opportunity to give my babies nourishment from my own body.
But Jung really put her finger on the moral superiority that continues to cling to breastfeeding. It has come to reflect being right and being better in so many ways:
Breast-feeding has become an important marker of who we are and what we believe in. For some it signals a commitment to attachment parenting, for others it is an environmental issue, and for still others it is a protest against the predatory marketing practices of the big formula companies. Some parents on the Christian right see breast-feeding as a sign of the rightness of heterosexual marriage, with different roles for men and women, and some feminists believe it is an emblem of female empowerment and the life-sustaining force of female bodies.
This part of raising a child has become so freighted with judgment. And it turns out, there isn’t that much evidence to support it. The advantages of breastfeeding over bottle-feeding are small. So as with so many other questions about raising children, do what works for you. When babies are raised with loving intention, you can’t really go wrong. I’m going to let myself off the hook. And I hope other women who struggled with this can do the same.