The Case Against Breast-Feeding

It’s Mat Leave Monday! Today I’m talking about an article that appeared in The Atlantic, called “The Case Against Breast-Feeding“. What does this have to do with maternity leave? Read on to find out. 🙂

The Case Against Breast-Feeding“, written by Hanna Rosin, has been tearing up the blogosphere for a little over a week. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading the article. For a few days I read only various bloggers’ reactions, and I found that my impression was off-base. Although I disagree with most of what Rosin has to say, I think it’s an interesting read and it helped me clarify my own beliefs, if only for myself.

Anyways, here are Rosin’s main points as I see them:
1. Breastfeeding takes a lot of time, and is difficult (or impossible) to juggle with paid employment.
2. Breastfeeding is the exclusive domain of women, creating inequity in shared parenting.
3. The health benefits of breastfeeding may be exaggerated.
4. It’s perfectly valid to choose not to breastfeed, and maybe even preferable for some people.

Here is a quote from the article:

The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is ‘free,’ I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.

I think that instead of making a case against breast-feeding, Rosin is actually making a very good case for long-term, paid maternity leave. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, short maternity leaves correlate with lower breastfeeding rates. And it makes sense to me, as a nursing mom. You can pump and exclusively breastfeed while you’re working, but it’s often challenging, particularly if you work in an environment where break time and private space are not readily available. It’s simply easier to breastfeed when you have easy around-the-clock access to your baby, like I enjoy right now on maternity leave.

But let’s say you don’t breastfeed. Does that mean you don’t need access to maternity leave? Not at all. As Rosin also points out, one of the issues with breastfeeding studies is that it’s difficult to filter out other factors that contribute to infant health and development. It may look like the magic of breast milk creates benefits when it’s really something else entirely, like more interaction while the baby’s nursing. Many nursing behaviours create benefits that have nothing to do with the magic of breast milk, and everything to do with the way an infant attaches to a primary caregiver.

If that’s true, then it means that all babies benefit from good maternity leave policies. They all share the same need for attachment and stimulation. And by extending parental leave to fathers and partners as well, infants receive the opportunity to form bonds with multiple caregivers. Babies benefit, and if they choose to parents can resume their careers at a point when their babies are more developmentally ready for separation. No one is forced to choose between spending the critical early days with their baby and maintaining paid employment.

I haven’t really addressed the argument for or against breastfeeding here. And I won’t, beyond saying that I’m not sure I agree with Rosin’s assessment of the science. But either way I don’t think that matters. I think the point is that while women often bear the lion’s share of the childbearing load, family-friendly policies help make it manageable. Policies such as maternity leave value the time parents spend parenting, and also value their contribution to the work force.

What about you? Have you read Rosin’s article? Do you have another take? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. I did read the article and coming form a mom who struggled and agonised over breastfeeding I am happy to see the other side finaly represented in a way that doens’t make me feel like a looser mom.

    I know what it feels like to be worried about bottle feeding out in public. I have had more than a few comments about my ‘choice’ and not be a ‘good mom’. I know that alot of my ppd came from this. It came from the women who sat breastfeeding their children and judging me for not. And not even knowing my background and not caring that it was killing me inside not being like them. I felt excluted and uncool and in general, like a very bad, unloving mother to my daughters.

    As a mom who struggled with breastfeeding (physically) I think it really sucks that women, mom, attack each other over the act of breastfeeding. I am not arguing that breast is best….I believe that it just makes sense to breastfeed – if you can. But, “So overall, yes, breast is probably best. But not so much better that formula deserves the label of “public health menace,” alongside smoking.” I read this quote from the article and I sighed with a happy smile on my face. It is like breastfeeding moms out there belive that we are intentionally harming our children by not breastfeeding them. Like I don’t have my own childs best interest at heart. It is so hard to be judge as a mom, especially a new mom. You really don’t know what your doing and being bullied isn’t helping. And, breastfeeding moms may not believe they are bullies, but sometimes they are, and they don’t even know they are doing it….because they never relent and say that sometimes it’s to not breastfeed. Instead they give you the look, or tell you that you just didn’t try hard enough, or that that you must be prepared for your child not being as healthy and smart as theirs will be (all things that have been told to me).

    It really sucks being ostrisized like this. It sucks to go home and try to breastfeed and have your baby screaming because they are hungry and their breath smells like turpentine because they are starting to starve (yes…Emma smelled like this). And then, when I broke down and bottle fed her, I felt like she hated me. I made myslef feel like a failure, I didn’t anyone elses help. I loathed feeding her. But, I came around. And all those holds you can do to breast feed your baby – you can do them to bottle feed your baby too. And, who said I had to wear my shirt and bra when I was bottle feeding – I could lay down, naked with her and cuddle her to my breast and stare into her eyes and coo and love just the same as if it were me that was providing her nurishment. And we bonded, just like a breast fed baby and their mom would. And, when my ppd was at it’s worst, dad could do the nights and I could sleep and work at making my brain that much healthier. It was a win win situation for me. But, it took me a long time to come to grips with it in my head, and as you can see, I still have alot of anger over the treatment I received from other moms who judged me and crippled my confidence at being a good mom. Just like you struggled with the anniversary of Hannah’s birth and all that is associated with her early arrival, this is my trigger.

    I love to see moms breastfeed. I really do believe that if you can, you should at least, some of the time. But, I am the first and the loudest when it comes to moms who can’t, telling them it’s okay and they are great moms still. I don’t want any mom to ever feel like I did, especially from me.

  2. Here’s a thought. Offer two years paid maternity leave to moms who will continue to breastfeed in that time. I wonder THEN if breastfeeding would be more of an incentive. And while I am pro-breastfeeding, I would never look down on another mom for NOT doing it. I think each mom needs to make the BEST informed decision for herself and her child.

  3. Here is another good post on the maternity leave side of the article:

    I’ve read Rosin’s article and various different responses to it, all over the web. I certainly agree that longer maternity leaves *can* aid in making breastfeeding long term successful. I couldn’t imagine pumping in the type of job I have and I have been fortunate to have had one year + leaves with all three of my babies, each of whom nursed for over a year (and one is still going strong). Being around my baby all the time was certainly an easy way for me to breastfeed . . . being at home full time with a new baby while I had a 2 and 3 year old last year was the only way I could have managed nursing my new baby. I ran around and chased them, wiping bums and noses, while I nursed the baby in her sling!

    I am very pro-breastfeeding but am also very realistic in realizing that it does not and cannot work for every mom. I am never judgmental of anyone who does not breastfeed. Instead of the anger that so many readers felt toward the Rosin article, I felt compassion towards her. It sounded like things were tough for her – maybe there were more emotional issues than she let on. I totally understand the resentment that can build up as I stay home and tackle the circus that is watching my three kids full time, and watch my husband saunter out the door for a day at work. Some days, I would DIE for that to be ME going to work. And here I am in a situation where I may not be able to afford going back to work b/c three young children in day care (5, 3 and 1) is so incredibly costly.

    Lots to think about. As for Rosin’s points that the medical evidence stating how beneficial breastfeeding is for babies is over-stated, well, I’d need to see LOTS more empirical evidence about THAT before I believe it.

    Great post!!

  4. Omg I totally agree with you:

    “I think that instead of making a case against breast-feeding, Rosin is actually making a very good case for long-term, paid maternity leave.”

    I am very very pro-breast feeding, but I think our society makes it so hard for some moms. I think there are many who would like to, or have tried but not had the success they wished for, who could have been successful if they had had the right support.

  5. Hmmmm.

    First off, Rosin’s ‘urban playground moms’ sound really bitchy. Perhaps she should try a different playground.

    Clearly there’s a lot of anger behind this article. I understand that, and I sympathize, but unfortunately it’s led to her article sounding a lot like “all breastfeeding advocates are fascist, closed-minded trolls”, which is not any better than the breastfeeders asserting that “women who don’t breastfeed are expressing a subconscious desire to stomp on their babies’ heads”.

    Clearly there are no easy answers here. I loved nursing — it was one of the few things I felt competent at in the mothering arena, and I had a really bad back resulting from a crash c-section, and my first baby was heavy, so something where I didn’t have to be up hauling him around was a blessing. It did seem easier than bottle-feeding to me, but only because they were both champion nursers and I had a supply that could have fed a village. My sister and several close friends had nightmare experiences, and they did get some grief from the nursing lobby, which I think is monstrously unfair; the thing that the rabid and judgemental section doesn’t seem to realize (clearly subtlety is not their forte) is that if somebody genuinely doesn’t care which is better for their baby, they won’t care about the people who rail at them. The only ones who will feel bad are the ones who do care, and therefore have already done everything in their power to breastfeed, and it just didn’t work. The very last thing you need when you’ve done everything in your power, and nursing is just not possible, is someone to make you feel worse. Unfortunately, some people are more interested in making themselves feel superior than in reasoned debate or compassion.

    There are more than enough childless people chucking shit (sorry) at mothers. I devoutly wish we could stop doing it to each other.

    I also agree with Amber that the article supports the argument for long-term paid mat leave.

  6. Woo hoo! Another BC blog about stuff I like to read about! Hi! I’m Melodie! I wrote a Canadian response to Rosin’s article too, also taking into account the fct that we have mat leaves whereas the USA does not (or at least it is so abysmal they might as well not have one). I do think you did a much better job of pointing out the fact that regardless of breastfeeding infants need time to attach to their primary caregivers, and really, it goes both ways.Here is my link:
    I look forward to seeing your stuff again soon!

  7. I didn’t agree with everything Rosin said, but it was nice to see an article that didn’t treat non-breastfeeding mothers as selfish beasts. One of the points I most agree with is that it’s easier to have truly shared parenting when bottle-feeding is an option.

    I couldn’t nurse Q-ster for the first week due to some delivery complications, and my husband did more than half of the feedings until I was able to nurse him. With the second baby, delivery went very smoothly, so I nursed from the beginning, and it took much longer for my husband to be able to have that same closeness, since the little guys spend almost all their time sleeping and eating at the beginning.

    A dad that makes the huge effort to integrate himself (like SwingDaddy) into the mom-baby bond can do it, but I think that it can be intimidating and not every man does it, to his and the family’s loss.

    Sorry, I’ve digressed to thinking about parenting beyond just breastfeeding, but your post was very thought-provoking. Back to your thoughts on a long maternity leave. If it were common in a career in this country to take a long leave, I would probably take it. Since I’m not used to it though, it’s hard for me to imagine being gone that long.

  8. Nice to find your blog, Amber. I’m just about to start poking about in your archives, but thought I’d leave a note to say hello. It looks like we had similar takes on Rosin’s article, although I guess her vitriol got to me a little bit too much. What I really agree with, though, is when you write: “all babies benefit from good maternity leave policies. They all share the same need for attachment and stimulation. And by extending parental leave to fathers and partners as well, infants receive the opportunity to form bonds with multiple caregivers. Babies benefit, and if they choose to parents can resume their careers at a point when their babies are more developmentally ready for separation. No one is forced to choose between spending the critical early days with their baby and maintaining paid employment.”

    Having been lucky enough to benefit from a year-long paid maternity leave three times over, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

  9. I feel so lucky to be able to benefit from a year long maternity leave, as there are many who do not have that choice.

    I think that if I had to go back at 6 months, or even 3 months, I probably would not be breastfeeding as I am now.

    I agree that breastfeeding takes up a lot of your time and those moments when I’m exhausted and want to just relax, I cannot just pass my son to his father to feed. But it should be a non-judged choice that a mother alone decides for her baby.

  10. although, interestingly, i found that in london, people breastfed for a much shorter time, and they have a much longer maternity leave…

  11. I won’t say much because I haven’t read the article yet. But your summary and discussion was reasonable and intelligent – thank you!

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