Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Let's Fight Over Breastfeeding

I get tired of The Atlantic trying to start fights among women. That seems to be most of the motivation behind publishing "The Case Against Breastfeeding" by Hannah Rosin. She writes that she's tired of breastfeeding and her research shows that the benefits of the laborious process are inconclusive. (Of course, there's a response from an editor of an upcoming anthology about breastfeeding on Salon's Broadsheet, where she accuses Rosin of "cherry picking" data.)

Look, I can see both points of view here. Breastfeeding is supposed to be really good for babies, especially in their really formative first months of life. It helps with brain development, nutrition, and building a relationship with the mother. But I've also seen mothers get exhausted of always being "on call" to feed their child -- or pump in advance. It's tiring and I'll even side with Rosin in saying that it's a little unfair because fathers can't provide breast milk. (If you've ever wondered how difficult it can be, I suggest you read this New Yorker article from a while back by Jill Lepore. She notes that most breast pumps -- a necessity for working mothers who want to breast feed -- run around $300.) And Rosin is also a little right that even if breastfeeding is for the best, in a developed Western country the differences between feeding a baby breast milk and feeding a baby formula probably aren't going to be incredibly significant.

So why bother getting into this divisive argument? Some women want to breast feed. Some don't. Some can't. What's important isn't arguing over the minutia of difference between studies but rather to stop making women feel like bad mothers because of how they choose to raise their children. Rosin says other mothers make her feel guilty, so she turns the pointed finger back on them. It's not surprising women might get defensive at her article if they've chosen to devote a great deal of time to breast feeding.

What I found most interesting about Rosin's article was a point she mostly glossed over:
In the U.S., breast-feeding is on the rise—69 percent of mothers initiate the practice at the hospital, and 17 percent nurse exclusively for at least six months. But the numbers are much higher among women who are white, older, and educated; a woman who attended college, for instance, is roughly twice as likely to nurse for six months.
In other words, whether or not you believe breast feeding is best for the child, it is ultimately a luxury for mothers today, one best afforded to women of a certain socioeconomic class with flexible jobs. The point should not be that we are pressuring upper-middle-class women like Rosin into breast feeding their children, the point should be that women who might want to breast feed simply can't because they don't have the luxury to do so. We should instead be working for ways to ensure the option of breast feeding for all mothers.


Unknown said...

Why do you get to decide what "the point" is? Is there only one permissible question/viewpoint/analysis of this subject?

Anonymous said...

Breastfeeding by no means is bad at all, I have been breastfeeding my little one from last six months and must say I have shredded fare amount of weight! I even use Medela freestyle
breast pump to pump and store the milk so that my kids can have my breast milk while I am at my work.


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