Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Boob Question

Lately there has been a lot of chatter on the mommy blogs and in the media about breastfeeding and whether or not it really is best for our babies. I'm a little late to this party since I am just getting around to posting about this issue now, but I wanted to throw my two cents out there, just for giggles. And, since I have a newborn at home, this issue is particularly close to my heart right now...

For those of you who haven't read the article that seems to have started this most recent conversation about breastfeeding, check it out here. It's a long article and parts of it irritated the crap out of me, but the thing that caught my attention was the author's assertion that there is no conclusive evidence that breastfeeding is better than formula feeding. According to the article,

"....After a couple of hours, the basic pattern became obvious: the medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that Sears describes. More like tiny, unsure baby steps: two forward, two back, with much meandering and bumping into walls. A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design. “The studies do not demonstrate a universal phenomenon, in which one method is superior to another in all instances,” concluded one of the first, and still one of the broadest, meta studies, in a 1984 issue of Pediatrics, “and they do not support making a mother feel that she is doing psychological harm to her child if she is unable or unwilling to breastfeed.”

So, given all of this, I find it interesting that many, many mothers, fathers, health care providers, and others go to such lengths to convince us all that breastfeeding is so much better than feeding our babies formula. In fact, I was hard pressed to find any good information and advice on formula feeding in any of my baby books or on the baby care websites I frequent, and in Aaron's favorite baby book, The Expectant Father, the author assumes that moms will nurse their babies and doesn't offer any wisdom on formula feeding at all to expectant dads. It's almost like society is making the decision for us, and I don't like that one bit. Isn't it up to my husband and me to decide what is best for our baby?

Now, I understand the benefits of breastfeeding. I understand that it is way, way more convenient than bottle feeding. I know that it provides an opportunity for precious, wonderful bonding time for moms and their children. I also recognize that there is a lot of evidence out there that shows that breast milk is superior to formula. For a lot of women, the decision to breastfeed their babies is a no-brainer. But what about the rest of us??

I nursed Gracie for less than two weeks before I quit. I didn't quit nursing because we couldn't do it...on the contrary, Grace was an eager eater and I had no trouble at all nursing her from the get-go. She had latched on successfully mere hours after she was born and had I decided to keep on nursing her, I have no doubts at all that we would have nursed successfully for as long as I wanted her to. However, my life situation was vastly different at that time. I didn't have the spousal support that I have now and there was so much other crap happening in my life at that time that nursing Grace was way too mentally taxing for me. I needed for someone else to be able to help me out with her feedings, and I wasn't educated enough about pumping and giving breast milk through a bottle at that time for that to be a feasible option for me. So, Grace started on formula at about two weeks of age and she never went back to breast milk. And I think she turned out just fine--she is a healthy, smart, happy, well-adjusted kid. In fact, she is sick way, way less than other kids her that were fed exclusively breast milk. There's my anecdotal evidence that maybe, just maybe, breast milk isn't SO much better at building kids' immune systems than formula is.

When I found out that I was pregnant with Harrison, Aaron and I had some serious heart-to-heart talks about nursing. Aaron wanted me to nurse our baby, but I was still harboring some negative feelings about the experience from the short time I nursed Grace and I wasn't sold on the idea. I promised Aaron that I would make a concerted effort to nurse our new baby but made no promises. So, after Harrison was born and we discovered that he is tongue-tied and physically cannot achieve a good latch-on (well, he might be able to if we clipped his frenulum, but we're not going there yet), the decision was not about whether or not I should nurse, but rather about whether or not I should pump and offer Harry breast milk through the bottle. We decided to go ahead with the pumping, but even with me pumping every three hours or so, Harrison's appetite is way ahead of my supply so we started supplementing with formula for a few feedings each day. Do I feel bad that my baby isn't receiving exclusively breast milk? Not at all. On the contrary, I am thrilled that our little guy has such an awesome appetite and I am happy to feed him breast milk when we have enough available, but I am just as happy to be able to provide him with formula when the breast milk stores are running low.

There's another facet to this as well. One downside of nursing exclusively is that it leaves dads out of the feeding process. Sure, there are lots and lots of other ways for dads to bond with their children apart from feeding them, but there is just something about watching Aaron feeding Harrison that makes me so happy that both of them have that opportunity. And, our parents and siblings are able to feed Harry, too, when they are visiting us, and I know they cherish that time with our little guy since they don't get to see him that often. Yes, mother/child bonding is extremely important, but so is father/child bonding, and grandparent/child bonding, etc. Even Harrison's pediatrician has told me on more than one occasion that he agrees with our decision to pump and supplement because of the opportunity it gives Aaron to feed Harrison.

And then there's the question of going back to work full time while nursing and/or pumping. I would agree that nursing would be more convenient for stay at home moms, but for those of us that work outside the home, there are definite and real obstacles to nursing/pumping. I have to go back to work at twelve weeks postpartum and my employer does not have a room exclusively for pumping. Sure, we have a "women's lounge" that some of my coworkers have utilized for pumping in the past, but how comfortable am I going to feel pumping twice or three times a day while whomever strolls through the lounge on their way to the restroom? Should I go out to my car to pump instead? And will my supervisor allow me a few fifteen-minute breaks each day to go and pump? I'm not saying that these things will absolutely keep me from pumping--in fact, I plan to keep right on pumping once I go back to work--but these obstacles will make things more difficult for me. (Side note...Canada offers new moms one year of maternity leave. One year. We get twelve stinking weeks, and that's only if we've been employed with our employers full-time for more than a year and our employers employ more than 50 employees. Maybe it's time we take a queue from our neighbors to the north.)

I guess what I am saying is that the decision to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, like all decisions when it comes to parenting, is a personal decision. For many parents, it's not an easy choice or one that is clear-cut, but at least let's get the facts out there so that the decision can maybe be a little easier for those that are on the fence. Let's remind everyone that if parents decide not to breastfeed their children, they are not causing their children any harm. Let's remember that there are so many facets to parenting in addition to feeding, and succeeding in all of those areas together make a happy and healthy child.


Carrie said...

Great post. The thing about that breastfeeding article that has really stuck with me, past my irritation, is that you can't pick the breastfed or non-breastfed kids out of a lineup in elementary school. It's almost identical to a line I read in that big day-care study -- there are differences when you look at big numbers of kids, but when you go to an elementary classroom, you can't say, oh, these 3 kids obviously went to daycare and these ones didn't.
Then again, most of the time when we have big health problems later in life, we just don't KNOW why. One might say, we never ate organic food and we're fine, we chewed on tons of pthalate-laden plastic toys, ate lead chips and many people our age weren't breastfed. And yet, we're not exactly fine -- we do have all kinds of health ailments, we just don't KNOW if they are connected to any of those things.
Then again, there was a study in today's paper that said eating red meat daily increased study subjects chance of death w/in 10 years by THIRTY PERCENT. I guess if we all quit worrying about breastmilk and fed our kids less red meat, it'd be way more effective.

Angie said...

well, since i'm not a mom and have no opinion on breastfeeding (other than the fact that i like breasts...) i'll just say, i'm proud to have such a smart friend like you who i can ask all kinds of questions of WHEN i get knocked up.