Breast Is Best: Are Moms Just Breast-Milk Delivery Devices?
Is a new mom just a set of breast milk-delivery devices? Excuse me for getting the wrong impression. It's easy to forget a mom comes with a head and other features that sometime complicate the equation of what's best for baby to say nothing of mom. It's easy to forget a mom comes with a rather complicated emotional and cognitive life. Speaking of the psychological demands of motherhood, I've been wondering where my psychologist friends have been through out the current parental paradigm of Breast Is Best or Milk Culture as Alissa Quart just called it. So I took to social media to ask if they have anything to add about the cognitive and emotional components of breastfeeding and the current breast-milk craze. Here's my open letter published in a somewhat revised format from my perch at Psychology Today.
My Dear Psychologists, I come to you about a pressing public health matter affecting a number of families across the country—breastfeeding. As professionals who are concerned with the well-being of parents and children you must be aware of the importance of breastfeeding. You know the reduced risks of ear infections, colds, gastrointestinal distress and the other often cited but less rigorously documented benefits. You know the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends mothers breastfeed for at least twelve months, the first six months exclusive of other types of nourishment (i.e. infant formula). You might remember several other memorable breastfeeding moments: Health officials and elected officials like NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, celebrities and breastfeeding researchers joining together to ban formula samples in Baby Friendly hospitals and in some instances lock them up alongside the narcotics. Public service advertisements comparing not breastfeeding to the dangers of smoking, log-rolling or riding a mechanical bull during pregnancy (note the ads are no longer available for linking purposes). Harvard researchers claiming over 900 child deaths from diseases like leukemia and asthma could be prevented every year if only 90 percent of mothers would breastfeed exclusively for six months. As if breast milk could have saved them. In sum, you know breast is best. Except of course when it isn’t. As psychologists, we know about some conditions that can make mommy putting baby to her breast every few hours for months at a time a bit difficult: postpartum depression, stress, anxiety, guilt, a history of depression, a history of eating disorders or distorted body image, unrealistic goals, fear-inducing health messages, the demands of new parenthood including negotiating a new identity, balancing work and family, ministering to the needs of the neglected spouse or older child, coping with sleep deprivation, financial changes and the realization you might never squeeze into your favorite jeans again. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to recognize breastfeeding is not always best. It doesn’t take an expert to recognize the breast does not come without costs and complications. There is no free lunch here. Anyone who has ever lactated or watched someone lactate knows this. We all know this and yet our community has remained relatively silent. It sometimes seems we’ve come to believe psychology has nothing to offer parents until kids start disrupting preschool. We've ceded infancy to the real docs. Where have we been all these years of breast-is-best? Where we been when the media touts the latest evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding without mention of the limitations including relatively moderate effects? Where we been when authorities conclude what’s best without a shred of consideration for a mother’s well-being, emotional or otherwise? Where we been when new mothers are lectured, humiliated, disrespected even bullied for not doling out enough breast milk? Where are the studies that include not just the benefits but the costs of breastfeeding or the costs of the breast-is-best atmosphere? Better yet, why haven’t we been telling parents what or how they feed their children in the first few months if not year of life is not all that important to their child’s long-term health, success or happiness? New moms need a reminder there are many, many other things they can do for their children that far outweigh how much breast milk they sucked down as infants. I hate to be a boob but speak up. Parents deserve better. Yours, A mom who breastfed all her kids.
Thoughts? I heard from several people via email. I'm not sure why they didn't post their comments. Was it because they didn't want any potential criticism of breastfeeding displayed in a public though potentially anonymous manner? As for published comments, the sole one posted is titled "What a Terrible Message." As if it's a waste of time to ask for an accurate and nuanced discussion that doesn't reduce a woman to a set of milk sacs.