Thursday, July 28, 2011

Breast-feeding Optional

Despite being a member of the nulliparous set, I know it's a heck of a lot of work to produce and raise children. Props to you parents out there. Thanks for, you know, contributing to the continued existence of the human species. I appreciate it.

Most sane people know that child-rearing takes time, money, and sometimes personal sacrifice. Also, gestating and birthing babies is certainly hard on the body. And yet, we as a society feel perfectly free to step in and say, "That herculean task you're undertaking? You must do it exactly as we prescribe. Else you're a bad person."

One example is the way we completely proscribe alcohol for pregnant people. Though light to moderate drinking has not been connected to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (this site summarizes the topic pretty well), our disapproval is so severe that even informed pregnant folk don't feel comfortable having a glass of wine in public. And that's just one of a long, long list of things that are forbidden to eat, drink, or do during pregnancy.

It's not over once you give birth, of course; your choices remain highly scrutinized. In particular, parents are highly pressured to breast feed. Now, I am not anti breast-feeding. I know it has demonstrated health benefits for the child, can function as a form of contraception, and is deemed highly rewarding by some parents. But at the same time, it is highly constraining for the breast-feeding parent. I've written about this before, but just take a look at the World Health Organization's recommendations: exclusive breastfeeding, breastfeeding on demand, and no use of bottles, teats or pacifiers for six months. You weren't planning on doing anything for those six months, right? Like, I don't know, working? Shame on you.

They also recommend that breast-feeding continue for at least two years. Okay, let me get real here and remind everyone that women (and otherwise identified folk who birth children) are, in fact, people. It is a bit much to expect people to curtail basically all activities for six months per child, and then not to travel without their kid for two years per child. These blanket requirements tie women down and constrain their lives. Some may be able to deal with these constraints, but others cannot or will not. And, as the Crunk Feminist Collective points out, some women just may not want to. (The idea of breast-feeding a toothed, talking toddler weirds me out, and I bet I'm not the only one.)

Like I said, I'm childless and not planning to change that, but the WHO recommendations get my dander up on behalf of parents everywhere. There are a lot of beneficial things you can do for your kid, but I bet you can't do all of them. Choices have to be made. And it pisses me off that parents' (especially womens') quality of life is expected not to factor into those choices.


  1. I actually feel exactly the opposite about the WHO recommendations, and I am 100% sure that it's based on my personal experience with breastfeeding. I feel these recommendations are actually *empowering* for those women who are constantly hit with a barrage of lovely judging barbs like, "Breastmilk has no value for your baby past six months," "Breastfeeding a toddler is disgusting," and "Go feed your child in the bathroom!" I feel the WHO recommendations give women something they can point to in order to validate their own personal choices to continue to breastfeed their child(ren), especially in a society where breasts are valued more for their sexual function than their actual physiological function. (Read this if you want to be disgusted)

    Of course, if a woman wants to formula-feed her child, or not continue to breastfeed past 1 month, 6 months, 9 months, or a year, that's absolutely her perogative. I have friends who have breastfed, formula-fed, or both, and their children are happy and healthy.

    The crux of your argument, which I totally agree with, is this - make your own choices and be proud of them. Don't let anyone tear your down or judge you for them. And for Goddess' sake, enjoy your baby!! :)

  2. Thanks for this, Jess (not that you wrote it on my behalf). I haven't had to deal with too much bullshit (yet), but I can honestly say that I find myself less concerned with what I am doing (and eating and drinking) while pregnant than I am about what people will think about what I am doing.

    While we're talking pregnancy, allow me to post a small list of things you should not ask a pregnant woman lest you want to get the snarky corresponding response:

    1. Were you trying to get pregnant? (Trying? Shit, I don't even know who the father is!)

    2. Are you having a boy or a girl? (Are those my only options? Anyways, beats me. I just hope it's not a Republican)

    3. Are you going to get an epidural? (None of your business. But F%@# yeah!)

    4. Are you going to breastfeed? (None of your business. Seriously.)

    5. Did your boobs get bigger? (How dare you...for not noticing.)

  3. I did not realize that parents also got flack for making the decision to breast-feed :\ You just can't win, huh?

    I still have trouble viewing the recommendation to breast-feed on demand without bottles for six months as empowering. If you can't use bottles, you can't pump, and that generally means you can't work (or leave your baby's side for long for any reason.) That will be very limiting for most people.

  4. @Emma: Actually, I threw this up without consulting Jess. I have no reason to think she feels differently about these issues, but I wouldn't put my words in her mouth, either :)

  5. @Kyrie - I understand that feeling wholeheartedly. I think it just comes down to being confident in your decisions, and having a partner/friends/family to help support you in those decisions. Recommendations are just that - guidelines, not rules. :)

    @Emma - I KNOW! It's amazing how many people who you do not even know feel that they can ask you the most PERSONAL QUESTIONS IN THE UNIVERSE - and actually expect an answer! Someone on a birth board I frequented actually asked her husband's boss to ask his wife how many centimeters dilated she was when she was past her due date. WHAT?! I'd say wanting to know the exact position of my cervix is pretty d@mn personal! Or, they will give you 'advice' on what you're doing wrong (ie - "You won't get a gold medal for birthing naturally," or "You won't bond with your baby if you get an epidural!"). Or, even better, they'll tell you ALL THE HORROR STORIES of their own pregnancy/birth/newborn. It's insane.

  6. @Sara: Yes, of course these guidelines are not laws (thank goodness!) But when the WHO makes these recommendations, they affect public opinion, doctor's recommendations, etc. For instance, one commenter on the Crunk Feminist Collective post claims that the WIC program has been providing less formula in some of its packages in order to promote breast-feeding, a claim that seems to be backed up by this article: This is one example of how the WHO's "suggestions" can limit parenting choices: parents may have to (rather than choose to) breast-feed more in order to make up the difference.

    What I dislike is the distillation of the available information into what I feel is a rather unreasonable recommendation. I absolutely think that parents should be made aware of all the pluses and minuses of breast-feeding. However, a one-sided statement like the WHO presents "empowers" only those who choose to follow their recommendations.

    I also find it troubling that the WHO is even willing to recommend a course of action that is impossible for working women.

  7. @Emma--I think we have a lot in common. my daughter just turned one, and inappropriate questions/comments I have received include:

    1. How long did it take you to get pregnant? (Just the right amount of time, thank you)

    2. Did you use ovulation predictor kits? (asked during my husband's dinner business meeting)

    3. Why did you wait so long? (because I wanted to finish grad school, live in Europe, and do other cool things, not that it's any of your business)

    4. Where did your daughter's red hair come from? (the fucking mailman)

    5. Your baby is crying. (Wow, really? Thanks for the FYI)

    6. Why is your baby crying? (because she's tired/hungry/bored/poopy or BECAUSE SHE'S A BABY, and sometimes they do that)

    7. Your baby is awfully small. Was she a preemie? (Nope. Your ass is awfully big. Are you lazy?) *side note--why is it okay to pick on babies' bodies? You wouldn't ask the slender woman next to you if she was anorexic. Don't judge my one-year-old's weight!

    @Kyrie--This issue of mommy judgment goes back to Jess's earlier post of stay-at-home versus "working" moms. We are all here fighting for equal treatment in society, yet we spend at least as much time fighting amongst ourselves as we spend fighting society's expectations. Change needs to come from within, first, folks. Raising a kid is complicated and filled with more variables that you can possible account for. We need to give ourselves (and each other) a break.

  8. I see your point. However, the WHO also has an obligation to provide their recommendations based upon valid studies and research. Perhaps something like this could be added, "If this cannot be achieved, mothers should feel confident supplementing or replacing breastmilk with formula, and replacing formula with whole milk at 1 year of age and beyond." This would take the pressure off mothers, especially working mothers, who are already under enough pressure with a newborn as it is.

    I had no idea about WIC providing less formula to 'encourage' breastfeeding - that is awful. There are definitely better ways (read - positive!) to encourage breastfeeding, such as breastfeeding classes, La Leche League meetings/support groups, and lactation consultants. Society needs to STOP PUNISHING PEOPLE for their choices and support them instead.

    As for shaping the recommendations of the public and doctors - I'm not sure what it's like elsewhere, but in the good ol' US of A we listen to the CDC. The CDC produces growth charts based on formula-fed babies (which is fine for formula-fed babies, of course, but makes breastfed babies look like they are failing to thrive), which are standard for every pediatrician unless they choose to go by the WHO chart. Thankfully, my pediatrician does go by the WHO chart - after her 4th month, Pumpkin CRASHED on the CDC chart, and may have been diagnosed as failure to thrive. On the WHO chart, her growth pattern was 100% normal. I’ve heard countless stories of pediatricians not supporting breastfeeding mothers, but never once heard of a pediatrician advising against formula. Formula samples are handed out in the hospital and by pediatrician’s offices, but the lactation consultants usually only come by for 5 minutes to say hello and give you their cards. Thank goodness for my pediatrician’s support, otherwise breastfeeding may have been impossible for me.

    In conclusion (=P), in my personal experience, I’ve seen the exact opposite to be true when it comes to breastfeeding, as much as I’m sure other women have been made to feel horrible for their decision to formula-feed. It all comes down to presenting the choices, and being there for new mothers as they make their choices instead of berating them for making the ‘wrong’ one.

  9. @Sarah: I think an addendum like you suggest would make a world of difference. I also still think parents would be better served by a lists of pros and cons (that, ideally, link to those valid studies) than they are by a plain recommendation to breast-feed.

    I find this dichotomy between your experience as a parent and what I see from the outside really interesting. Everything I see in the media seems to push breast-feeding as the best option, a "choice" that you are obligated to make if you possibly can. But your experience indicates that the medical industry favors formula-feeding over breast-feeding, which means that this advertising is largely misplaced: why preach to parents if it's hospitals that are the problem? That's just going to give parents an increased sense of urgency regarding breast-feeding without giving them the medical support they need to do so!

  10. Well, of course formula feeding is often favored - breastfeeding is essentially free, and formula makes lots of money for lots of people. ;) Not that making money is inherently bad, of course, but it can color opinion pretty quickly and easily.

    I really think the breastfeeding/formula feeding debate swings back and forth like a pendulum. When formula was first introduced, society seemed to be of the mind that science was more awesome than nature, so formula must be better than breastmilk. Only 'peasants' or 'poor people' breastfed - if you were an affluent/rich/GOOD mother, you fed your baby formula. Now I feel like we're just about mid-swing to breastfeeding being awesome and formula being evil. And while I do feel studies absolutely show that breastmilk is the best nutritional choice for babies, it doesn't mean formula is a BAD choice - just like the invention of formula didn't automatically mean that breastmilk was a bad choice.

    IMHO, EVERY mother should have a standing appointment with a helpful, supportive pediatrician within the first week of her baby's life. Away from the stress of the hospital and all the know-it-all docs and nurses (not that all docs and nurses are this way!), all the 'advice' (well-meaning or not) from family and friends, to just TALK about how this little creature is going to fit into and enrich her life, and how she truly desires to feed and take care of her baby. Then the pediatrician should respond to her wishes, tell her that she is going to make a WONDERFUL mother, and give her all the support she needs to do it!

  11. "Away from the stress of the hospital and all the know-it-all docs and nurses (not that all docs and nurses are this way!)"

    Heh, I'll take a nurse practitioner over a doctor any day ;) But in all seriousness, what you propose would be, no doubt, extremely useful to any new parent. Now if we could get some universal health care to cover it for every child-bearer ... hello, America? Could we get on that?

  12. You know it - I had a nurse-midwife. ;)

    For realz!

  13. In the name of giving credit where credit is due...

    Thanks for this very thoughtful and reflective post, Kyrie. I really enjoyed reading it and all of the comments.