My Boobs Are None of Your Business

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Flickr/viralbus

Flickr/viralbus

Breasts and body fluids are two topics of conversation that are generally taboo in decent society. Passing off as “mommy club” conversation, however, women ask new moms about breastfeeding.  In my experience, such questions come without invitation and the answers are less clear-cut than might be expected.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies for the first six months and encourage breastfeeding, along with solids, for as long as “mutually desired” by mom and baby.  Studies abound regarding the desirability of breast milk – reported results include higher IQs and less illness.  It benefits mothers, too.  Women doggedly advocate for breastfeeding by citing such studies and telling new mothers breastfeeding is what they “should” do.  Many express disgust when a mother says she did not breastfeed, especially if by choice.

The pressure on women to breastfeed is enough to make an otherwise strong woman break. Pressures are many on a new mother and changing hormones make emotions unusually rollercoaster-like. Self-doubt about the new role in life easily settles in and the gaping mouths and “tsks” that follow the admission of formula in a baby’s life serve only to add fuel to that hormonal fire.  Conversely, women who proudly proclaim their choice to breastfeed are met with approving nods and atta-girl pats on the back without regard for a woman’s unseen behaviors while breastfeeding – smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking prescription and over-the-counter medications.  Some medicines are categorized as “moderately safe.”  Is that better than formula?  Sure there have been mishaps, but breast milk can have “trace amounts of pesticides, dioxin and a jet fuel ingredient — as well as high to average levels of flame retardants.

Some women cannot breastfeed due to illness or breasts that never got the order to support another life.  Even the mother’s blandest diet can result in gastrointestinal distress for the infant.  Prescription drugs for galactagogue effects include metoclompramide, an anti-nausea/heartburn medication that has a side effect of major depression – nobody needs that.  Many mom-baby pairs have latching issues, some due to inverted nipples or a tongue-tie.  Rather than telling a visibly stressed mother that it is okay if breastfeeding does not work, women implore others to seek lactation support and to avoid introduction of a bottle, no matter the level of frustration.  When a mother is tired or has back pain, common advice is to feed the baby while lying down, contrary to the advice that parents should not share a bed with their infant.  Better advice might be to bottle-feed and give the mother a break, while simultaneously giving the father a chance to bond with the baby over a meal.

The study linked above shows breastfed babies have an IQ advantage of less than four points compared to formula-fed counterparts.  The margin of error in IQ tests is about five points.  Other research has shown that “smart mothers have smart babies” and just 15 points equals a mother being twice as likely to breastfeed her baby.  Further, most studies that show better outcomes for breast-fed babies compared to their formula-fed counterparts do not have adequate control groups.

Physical barriers to breastfeeding create logistical issues with pumping milk at work. Post-partum depression sufferers need to be freed from stress and guilt. Many just do not wish to breastfeed.  These women are not less of a woman or of a mother, but are are doing the best they can.  Perfect is the true enemy of good enough.  Breast milk might be “perfect,” but formula is good enough.

As I finished writing this, I was off to pump some milk for my still-breastfed six-month old and to write an encouraging email to a mom friend who was struggling with supply.  I did not tell her it is hard, but she should keep trying, essentially demonizing her if she chooses to stop breastfeeding, or encourage her to continue to starve her child with an insufficient milk supply just to assuage her guilt about choosing formula.  I told her that a good mom is a happy mom, that her baby can sense her stress, and that she needs to do what works for her family.  I told her lactation consultants (now no cost to consumers through insurance) are a great resource if she wants to keep trying.  I closed by telling her that her baby will thrive based on love and devotion, regardless of what type of milk fills her stomach in the early months.  As for the “mommy club,” there is more to the conversation than breastfeeding.

Lauren Reid

Lauren sometimes admits that she is a lawyer, but she mostly likes to talk about being a wife to her college sweetheart and a mother to two amazing little boys, born in 2009 and 2012. She has often considered leaving the oh-so-glamorous legal life for the Washington Ballet for all of the times the men in her life keep her on her toes.

15 Comments

  1. This is great – I read it while pumping at work. The only answer that’s right is the one that’s best for your family. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Stephanie! I am actually playing with a piece right now about pumping at work – congrats to you…such an important challenge.

      • Let me know if you’re interested in collaborating on the piece about pumping at work – I’ve been toying with writing something on the subject as well. It’s quite an interesting experience…to say the least.

        • Absolutely, Stephanie – that would be great!

  2. Great post. The ped making rounds when E was born couldn’t believe I said my goal was at least six weeks and then we’d evaluate whether to continue bf’ing. Formula isn’t poison and you’re absolutely right, a happy mom is better for baby than breast milk.

  3. I appreciate your perspective but I disagree to an extent. First, I want to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation is to breastfeed for 12 months, including food for the second six, and then as long thereafter as is mutually desired. Breast milk is still necessary for the first full year of life. Second, I think a lot of your points about women who have tried and been unable to breastfeed are completely on point – a woman should not sacrifice her mental health or the health of her child to force something that isn’t working. I had to supplement with formula for the first few days of life because I wasn’t produced enough colostrum (a problem I had not encountered once in all of my prenatal reading), and now, after six months of exclusive breastfeeding, am having to supplement again due to supply issues. I was disappointed at first, but I know it’s necessary for me and my baby.

    But where your comments do not ring true for me are for women who simply choose not to even try due to inconvenience or fear of discomfort. Breastfeeding is best, plain and simple. And women should be strongly encouraged to at least try. Women like your friend who struggle with supply issues deserve support and encouragement – and, of course, reassurance that if/when they have to supplement after trying, it’s ok. I completely agree with your statement that her baby will thrive on love. But I know three women in my life who just didn’t really try. It got inconvenient (“I’d have to be nursing or pumping every 2-3 hours to keep up!”), or it hurt because she hadn’t learned the proper way to latch, or she just didn’t want to. And it’s those decisions that I take issue with. Parenting is a sacrifice in so many ways, and we are all struggling to do the right thing and make the right decisions, but this one just gets to me.

    I’m not sure precisely the right answer, but I think information and support, and emphasis that this is one effort you should at least try to make for your baby, is definitely part of it.

    • Mary – thanks for your comment. We will have to agree to disagree because I firmly believe the choice to breastfeeding is an individual one based on many private issues. Plenty of people give their children permission to watch TV prior to age 2, which is proven to have detrimental effects. Oddly, it is parents who choose to withhold TV who are judged, but that is a topic for another time. My point is that judgment does not get moms anywhere and we can never know what reasons women have for ther decisions. If a mom does not want to breastfeeding and she can afford to provide formula, I do not believe anyone should judge her for that decision.

      As for the AAP reccommendation, it is six months exclusive and then for as long as mutually desirable (for at least 12 months). Interestingly, not a single medical professional I know can point to any medical reasons for the 6-12 month period other than bonding. If you are a working mom, pumping milk makes that a moot point (more or less), so why?!?

  4. We need to stop judging and instead support each other! Do what works for you and your baby!

  5. I’ve had patients who could not breast feed for a variety of medical reasons. The amount of shame and guilt they experienced was tragic, often from strangers on the street or in the checkout aisle. A woman is an expert on her unique circumstances,and we should trust her to make whatever decision is right for herself, herbaby, and her family.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. All of the judging is just plain wrong and unnecessary. Some are judged for not nursing enough while others are judged for nursing past a year. It’s so easy to be judgmental, but offering encouragement no matter what a mother decides or has to do is much more rewarding!

  7. Interesting perspective. I’m real glad I read this. You should post this on a “guy’s blog”

  8. You had me at the title of this post 🙂 Seriously, why does our society feel like women’s personal bodily choices (and parental choices in general) are up for discussion? Irks me to no end.

    Thanks for sharing this, and for joining our blog!

  9. LOVE this post. I had set a personal goal of exclusively 6 months of breast feeding (because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?), but realized when I went back to work at 3 months that my supply was not adequate for my baby. It took my pediatrician telling me that he had dropped from the 20th percentile in weight to the 3rd for me to be able to give myself permission to supplement with formula! I am so thankful that I have done that now as he is gaining weight like a champ and is happier with a full belly! The stress I put on myself to try to get my supply up in my first two weeks was unnecessary and nothing I read on the internet made me feel any better. It made it sound like I hadn’t tried enough even though I had tried power pumping, herbs, etc. with no increase. I cried many times over my “failure” and talked through it with all my friends and family and still felt like I did something wrong. After two weeks of supplementing, I do not feel less connected to my baby when I feed him a bottle – and it is actually adorable watching him eat that way. I realize that I will be judged as I mix a bottle of formula for my baby in the park or at a restaurant. I will be seen as a “lazy, selfish” mom, but I know better. I know that I have personally made the right choice for me and my baby and wish I would have done it sooner. My gut told me he needed more food, I wish I would have listened sooner! I’m sure many women will thank you for giving them permission to make the choice that is right for them and their baby.

  10. Reading this just gave a me a level of comfort – Thank you!

    I have been exclusively pumping pretty much since birth as my son was never a good latcher and a lazy breast feeder. He took to the bottle great and I haven’t looked back. I had planned to exclusively pump until 6 months but now at 5 months I can barley keep up with my little man’s hunger and am diving into my frozen supply which kills me. I have started to consider supplementing with formula so that I don’t have to use the frozen supply and I have received so much criticism about that from other moms and even my husband. I mean, I am still pumping and plan to until 6 months. People make me feel like a lazy mom. I mean com’on – do I not get credit for the last 5 months? For sitting in a little closet at work every 3 hours? For soaking my pajamas most mornings from engorged boobs? From having to leave a friends house so I can go relive the rocks on my chest?

    It really is so much easier to judge than it is to support. Thank you for this!

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