|Do you really think this father is hurting his newborn child?|
Another week, another study trying to figure out how to convince new moms to keep babies on the boob and Pediatrics had no choice but to publish it because the issue is of such dire societal importance. This time, the pro-breastfeeding researchers (as if there is any other kind) hassled 1,792 pregnant women here in the United States. About 60% said they were going to breastfeed exclusively, more than 85% "intended" to for at least 3 months.
In reality, only a third of mothers achieved "their intended exclusive breastfeeding duration" with 15% giving up before setting foot outside the hospital. Apparently researchers didn't ask for a double-pinkie swear, otherwise all those women would have made good on the binding social contract. Maybe what's needed is a formal pledge in the labor and delivery room akin to the Purity Ring Ceremony popularized by some pro athlete virgin a few years ago:
Research Assistant/Unemployed Psych Major: Remember, um, how you circled yes on that survey last month? You, um, said you were going to, um, breastfeed?
Exhausted Mom-to-Be: Are you the anesthesiologist?
Research Assistant: No, um, I, just like need you, um, to repeat after me.
Exhausted Mom-to-Be: Nurse!
Research Assistant: I pledge to protect and breastfeed...
Exhausted Mom-to-Be: Nurse!
Research Assistant: for a period no less than...
Exhausted Mom-to-Be: Unless you plan on inserting a needle in my spine, get out!
Research Assistant: Um, I just need, um, a number before, um, I won't get paid unless the form is...
Exhausted Mom-to-Be: You have 10 seconds before I call security.
Research Assistant: So um, your answer is 10, okay, 10, um, months.
As for the delinquent moms, the ones who went back on their word, they tended to be obese, smoked or simply had the poor judgement to set really high breastfeeding goals.
Or their babies were provided supplemental formula in the hospital.
Cue the outrage, the self-righteous indignation, the calls for reform, the petition at Change.org.
How could they?
How dare they?
No, not the nurses giving vulnerable newborns bottles of formula.
Not the negligent mothers denying their fragile babies the bounty of breast milk.
Not the greedy corporate conglomerates selling the infant formula.
Here's what should make more women angry:
The incessant moralistic calls for women to literally shackle themselves to their children for up to a year based on what amounts to insufficient, biased, or otherwise entirely too speculative data.
If breastmilk were in fact The Holy Grail we would already have clear and convincing evidence breastfeeding makes kids overwhelmingly healthier (if not smarter) but we don't despite every other Department of Maternal and Child Health, public health official and pediatrician not to mention the attachment moms/lactivist moms militias trying to pretend otherwise.
You can quote me on that. I can't take it any more. There are real health issues* and then there is not breastfeeding enough.
Suboptimal breast-feeding, despite what the Surgeon General and that ridiculous Harvard study would like us to believe, does not kill babies. Disease, dirty water, unhygienic living conditions, these kill infants and children by the millions around the world each year not lack of breast milk.
Remember, I breastfed all three of my children (for 3-4 months each) in part because of research showing a range of modest benefits though they are possibly smaller and more short term than even I believe (see my Truth in Breastfeeding Pledge).
It's time professionals and researchers turn their attention to the psychological benefits and costs of prolonged breast-feeding. Enough about physical health, let's look at the mental and emotional burdens associated with our strict breast-feeding recommendations, the ones few women can achieve without a lot of free time, a nanny, an office with a door and a lock (and a reasonable boss), a double breast-pump, a baby who does not self-wean, a baby who can latch on, freedom from post-partum depression or other health issues and last but not least a strong and persistent desire to breastfeed.
UPDATE: Other variables improving breastfeeding success reported/emailed by readers include nipples that don't bleed, crack or become excessively painful, sympathetic and employed partners, older children in school, no other children, a baby without a twin brother/sister, sufficient milk supply, enough sleep, low stress. (You can go over to The Fearless Formula Feeder who probably has an even longer list! And a good post on this same study!)
The question shouldn't be how to get more mothers breastfeeding (or to meet "their goals" - i.e. socially-constructed, guilt-inducing, empirically-challenged ones bestowed on them by well-meaning? experts, family members and friends) but how to make women feel empowered, comfortable and competent in the first months of parenthood regardless of their feeding choices.
*For those pining to save someone (if not their own child from the tyranny of formula manufacturers), might I suggest a peek at some organizations making a real difference in a real health crisis, like the United Nations Foundation and their Shot At Life campaign. Yes, I'm one of their (unpaid) advocates - ShotatLife.org - because kids shouldn't be dying from diarrhea and other diseases we can prevent.
Baby-Friendly Hospital Practices and Meeting Exclusive Breastfeeding Intention. Cria G. Perrine, PhD, Kelley S. Scanlon, PhD, RD, Ruowei Li, MD, PhD, Erika Odom, PhD, and Laurence M. Grummer-Strawn, PhD. Pediatrics, published online June 4, 2012.