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The Secret War Against Breastfeeding

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Your breasts are in the middle of a battle. An expert tells you why.

woman peacefully breastfeeding

Dr. Wendy Walsh: There is probably no more powerful force than the love between a mother and her newborn. It is a close, symbiotic relationship where the very survival of a tiny bundle of flesh is entirely dependent on another person. And Mommy is hormonally wired to respond to her baby's needs in an intuitive way. Her child's survival is so crucial, she might even die for him or her. Indeed, mothers have sacrificed their own vital organs so their infant could live. If this relationship were left alone -- and Mommy's needs for food and shelter were met -- only the tiniest percentage of sane mothers would fail to breastfeed.

But the mother/infant dyad is far from alone. That precious couple is precariously perched in a sea of cultural messages and pressures telling a woman to be more than a mother. These messages and pressures unknowingly sway mothers to veer from nature's plan, by feeding convenient, manufactured formula to their child, something that pediatricians and countless studies have proven to be less beneficial. Perhaps most injurious, entwined in our subtle cultural programming is the message that women are independent and entirely responsible for their choices. There is a war against breastfeeding in America -- and mothers are being blamed for decisions they aren't actually making.

To understand how we got to this place, let's start at the beginning. From the dawn of human existence (and that point in human evolution is arguable), all babies were breastfed. A newborn without mother's milk -- or milk from an auntie or yes, even Grandma -- was sure to die. And babies received the nutrient-rich fluid for years. Long before electric blenders and Gerber baby food, infants got most of their protein from human breast milk until their 2-year-old molars allowed them to chomp on animal tissue. The village supported this phenomenon. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors knew how to create a comfortable nest for a postpartum mother. She was supported by a circle of women who fed and cared for her until she was ready to return to work. When she did return to gathering food, she wore her baby to the "office," and rarely worked more than 20 hours per week. And there were other breasts available when she was ill or absent. Historically, wet nurses continued to make breast milk long after menopause.

Breastfeeding also evolved as one component in human psychological development. Our complicated social organization is independent of an ability to trust others and form healthy attachments. Attachment behaviors such as skin-to-skin contact, eye contact, and caressing are all part of the breastfeeding experience that help shape an ability to love.

Today, our culture puts a lot of pressure on mothers. We are expected to pop out a baby, get a Victoria's Secret body back in record time, earn our half of the mortgage payment right away, and, oh yes, be in a good mood about it all. Is it surprising that postpartum depression is the darling diagnosis of psychologists these days?

When I wrote my psychological dissertation, I staged a research study that looked at a woman's own attachment organization and her ability to breastfeed. One of the fascinating results of the study was the reliability of a breastfeeding questionnaire that asked about a woman's barriers to nursing. When new mothers were asked to cite the reasons they quit nursing, many factors showed up. Those factors include pressure to return to work, a lack of breastfeeding support in the workplace, media pressure to look sexy quickly, influence by manufacturers of formula, a lack of support from the husband, lack of a breastfeeding community, lack of breastfeeding education, a lack of support from the family, and a mistrust of their body to provide enough milk. How can women who choose to feed formula ever believe that they are making an isolated decision when the deck is so stacked against them?

Kudos to those who manage to do it. It is the lucky American woman who has enough support today to create a breastfed family. I know I would not have succeeded had it not been for a synchronistic collision of factors that are unavailable to most women. A) I had my first child at the age of 36, and with a successful career behind me, I owned two pieces of real estate. I sold one so that I would not have to return to an office quickly; and B) My baby daddy was lactose intolerant and refused to allow one drop of cow product to enter his child's body. In a way, I had the opposite experience of most women. I was pressured to breastfeed. I remember one dramatic evening when I lay exhausted on the sofa with bleeding nipples and a breast infection, while my newborn went on a nursing "marathon" to increase my milk production. I cried and begged her father to go to the store and buy formula. Instead, that vegetarian man bought me a steak, fried it up, and fed it to me forkful by forkful to bring my strength back. I was nursed by him so I could nurse his child. Few women have that gift.

My advice to pregnant women: be aware of the silent war against your body's natural talents. The art of breastfeeding is under assault because of a capitalist society that ranks economic success above relationship success. Be aware of the factors and plan ahead. Talk to your company about their breastfeeding policies before you have your baby. States vary on breastfeeding laws -- but in California, all companies must provide a private room with a locked door that is not a toilet stall, and unpaid breaks to pump or nurse your baby. Find a doula (a woman who mothers the mother) before you give birth. Contact La Leche League International or other breastfeeding support groups and attend local meetings to make friends before the baby comes. Plan for resistance from the world. And above all, never judge a woman who "couldn't" breastfeed until you have walked in her shoes. May the force be with you.

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35 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous August 26, 2009, 7:57 AM

To breastfeed or not…so sick of all these stories. Stop trying to stir us women up!!!!

T August 26, 2009, 8:23 AM

Just watch anonymous. It’ll work. The wolves will come out any moment now…

aninonymous August 26, 2009, 8:49 AM

Basically agree with this.
If you want to nurse your child in a natural way; be prepared to fight to succeed at it. Get a good support system: husband, pediatrician, friends.
All kinds of people and “ideas” will try to make you give up and fail. You have to get a backbone and fight for it.
Better yet, avoid anyone and anything that works against your decision to nurse your own child in a natural way.
(And, don’t even “marry” a guy who does not understand this. He won’t understand a lot of other things either.)

Sara August 26, 2009, 8:50 AM

I agree, let this topic DROP! It’s story after story after story on this website. Enough already!

sick of this subject August 26, 2009, 9:15 AM

Who cares how you feed your baby…just feed your baby. So sick of these stories. It doesn’t make you a great mom if you breastfeed or a bad mom if you don’t. As long as your baby is being provided for who cares how you do it!!!

Gina August 26, 2009, 11:50 AM

It was the support I had that allowed me to breastfeed for 15months. At the time I gave birth about 6 other relatives/friends did as well and very few even tried to breastfeed. I don’t understand why people are against what studies show is best for their babies. I worked full time so I had obstacles but I was determined not to succumb. Formula is expensive! It annoys me to see women who don’t even want to bother trying, like going to the store all the time is so much easier. Why give powder when you have the power to provide food that is tailor made for your child? I wonder how much we spend on goverment assistance providing for formula, I see women using food stamps or WIC to pay for cases of formula when they could focus on eating well for themselves. I see how goverment assistance only keeps people stuck at a certain level and by providing formula they give mothers no incentive to breastfeed which gives a mother an incentive to eat more nutricious meals. It’s part of a cycle that we turn a blind eye to.

michelle August 26, 2009, 12:45 PM

Wendy, I personally am sorry you’re married to such a horrible man. Bleeding and mastitis? Steak as the treatment? He should have run, not walked, to the store for formula. Nothing bad would have happened to your kid, BTW. Also, please get your facts straight. California’s law is toothless: a “reasonable efforts” standard (this is different from a requirement, Ms PhD) and a max $100 fine. In practice, you can get fired for breastfeeding in CA just like you can anywhere else.

Jen August 26, 2009, 1:11 PM

Michelle, you must be kidding! To quit breastfeeding because of getting mastitis and bleeding nipples is like declaring bankruptcy because your credit card bills got lost in the mail and now you have a few late fees. Yeah, the current situation stinks, but it is something that you can work through, and you will be better off if you do work through it.

KateCake August 26, 2009, 3:07 PM

Oh yes. A man who spoon feeds you steak while allowing your body to rest during a difficult time. What a monster. Sheesh people.

Anonymous August 26, 2009, 4:10 PM

Breast feeding is better - sorry- its proven! And if u don’t care enough to breastfeed u should have children!

Dana August 26, 2009, 6:06 PM

Thank you for sharing your experiences. I found it very touching to hear about how your husband supported you when you were having difficulty breastfeeding.

Jill (the other one) August 26, 2009, 7:36 PM

I get that this country isn’t totally breastfeeding-friendly, but formula-feeding isn’t seen as great, either. My body didn’t produce enough milk for my baby - and I spent a month doing everything I could do increase my milk supply. So I supplemented with formula. I’m surprised at the negativity I’ve encountered - people seem to think that because I use formula I don’t love my baby, or that I didn’t try, or that I’m a bad mother.
I think that as long as a baby is well-fed, it’s nobody’s business but the mama’s how the baby’s being fed. Period.

Cara August 26, 2009, 9:08 PM

I am i young mother, & chose to breast feed my son. I figured, i just gave birth, nothing will hurt more than that did! Breast feeding was difficult at first, but i kept at it, & let my body adjust to it. Day after day, it only got easier, it was so natural & it gave me such a strong connection with my son.
It is so sad that some mothers don’t even try, and that many people don’t understand why mothers breast feed. Your job as a mother is to protect and nourish your child. The baby was just in your belly, connected with you for 9 long months, why not keep the connection going by breast feeding. It is the best thing for your child. Breast fed babies are healthier, stronger, even smarter, & that is all proven. The fact that anyone starts motherhood giving their child anything but the best, if they are able to, is just sad. It’s natural, beautiful, and free. I am proud to say that I am still breast feeding my 9 month old son, and plan to continue.

Sarah August 27, 2009, 1:57 AM

Everyone needs to stop worrying what everyone else is doing and just care for their OWN child. As long as a child is being fed, loved and cared for then it is nobody elses business if the feeding is via bottle or breast.

J August 27, 2009, 8:18 AM

I find this in country (at the least the northeast) there is a not-so-secret war against letting women make their own choice and use formula. It’s like the le leche league exploded around here and you’re the devil if you choose not to b.f. How about everyone mind their own business and feed their baby the way they see fit. August 27, 2009, 8:33 AM

BRAVO, Dr. Walsh, and MomLogic, for telling an inconvenient truth: “Moms are being pressured to breastfeed, but prevented from succeeding”, which is the founding premise of the Best for Babes Foundation. I didn’t want to breastfeed, and only stuck with it because a) I hated the smell of formula and b)my best friend would not let me quit. In retrospect, I can’t believe how close I came to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Moms who can not or choose not to breastfeed deserve to have access to donated, pasteurized, screened human milk, and deserve to be RESPECTED, not judged. Moms who decide to breastfeed deserve to be able to achieve their breastfeeding goals, whether that is one week, one month or one year. By the way, Dr. Walsh, if you had been properly supported it is doubtful that you would have ended up with bleeding nipples! Moms are experiencing UNNECESSARY difficulties breastfeeding because they are being “booby-trapped” at every turn! Thank you for this great post!

Camille August 27, 2009, 2:12 PM

It seems like the moms commenting who chose to formula feed are very sensitive about this subject b/c they THINK other moms look down on them. It is a matter of choice and I was SO determined to bf my daughter that nothing was going to stand in my way…not even pain. I think when you start out with that mindset, you do succeed at something that’s so natural.

anIBCLC August 27, 2009, 10:04 PM

It humors me to see those who choose to bottle feed post guilt-driven comments after articles like this. As with any decision that you make in life, it is your decision. Before my oldest was born, I CHOSE to breastfeed. He was supplemented occasionally with formula, and I was okay with that. I nursed him for 10 months and then he weaned. We were both happy. By the time #2 came around, I started studying about breastfeeding and realized that there are documented harms associated with formula feeding. (Some may not like to hear this. I just state the truth.) I chose not to supplement her at all. She nursed for 18 months. We were both happy. When #3 was born, he did not nurse for 19 days. Yes. Really. I pumped and fed for 19 days. And just like the author, I could not have done this without support of family and friends. And on day 19 he finally realized that I was not going to give up, and he is still nursing at 19 months. At 8 months, he developed serious allergies to both milk and soy that I was ingesting. While I removed these products from my system I had to place him on hypoallergenic formula. Either he nursed from me and vomited or got formula. But after about a week, he was able to nurse again as long as I kept a soy free, dairy free diet. We are both happy.
I say all of this because all children are different. All parents are different. But breastmilk is scientifically proven to be superior to formula.
As long as a mom is happy with HER DECISION and her baby is happy, then the mom should not feel guilty. Why be guilty if you are sure that you are making the right decision?
Just please remember that the door swings both ways. Please don’t criticize the media for promoting breastfeeding.
(And Dr. Walsh, tell dad that all breastmilk has lactose in it regardless of a mother’s dietary intake. Removing a cow’s milk product will remove cow’s milk protein from your milk. Kudos for sticking with it!)

Amy August 28, 2009, 12:36 AM

Great entry! I definitely feel like there is anti-breastfeeding sentiment out there, although usually breastfeeding is attacked indirectly. Sure, everyone knows that breastfeeding is best, so offering the breast in the first month to give it a try is practically de rigueur in many circles. However, breastfeeding in public, taking the breaks you need at work to pump, getting help with breastfeeding from a healthcare professional, avoiding long periods of separation from a nursing infant, extended breastfeeding may be pathologized in other circles. The morality and sexual ethics of breastfeeding women may be called into question.

It’s interesting that some of the same people who know that a mother should breastfeed may be the same ones who have other opinions about how and for how long it should be done. I remember being asked if I was going to breastfeed my first, and then told not to do it for more than a certain length of time.

Personally, I don’t ask women how they plan to feed their children, I just assume they will, and will do it how they want. I am all in favor of normalizing breastfeeding, and giving support to women who ask for it, counteracting the commercial forces at work who have a vested interest in women failing at breastfeeding. But I know that there are women who will never be able to breastfeed or who will not even want to try breastfeeding. That is their choice and legal right and I support that. And I also support the legal right of breastfeeding mothers to feed their children.

Vic August 28, 2009, 9:28 AM

I for one am sick of people saying “they’re sick of these stories”. For the record, I am the proud husband of a beautiful woman who breastfed both of our children. These stories need to keep coming out because there is still a very negative view of breastfeeding all over. We experienced this sentiment quite often. Hopefully articles like this will make some people change their view on the subject. It’s perfectly ok to show what amounts to soft core porn on magazine covers and television, but show a photo of a woman breastfeeding and so many take issue with it. The highest level of stupidity I can think of. What we need is for people to to take a stand, otherwise nothing changes. my three cents…..

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