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Is Breastfeeding Truly Best?

If you’re expecting a baby, you’ve surely heard that “breast is best.” Breastfed babies are healthier. They have less diarrhea, ear infections, and allergies. They have better immune systems, better protection against SIDS, and are less likely to need shoes, become obese, or develop certain childhood cancers. They are even smarter. Nearly 13,000 studies document these and other benefits of breastfeeding.

But Diane Wiessinger, an internationally certified lactation consultant in upstate New York, argues that these statements are factually incorrect. When we say that breastfed babies are healthier, who are we comparing them to? Definitely for formula fed babies. But while formula feeding may be a cultural norm, it is clearly not a biological norm.

Think about it. Everyone knows the dangers of smoking and obesity. People who smoke are more likely to develop lung cancer. Obese people are more prone to heart disease and diabetes. But who is more likely? From smokers and people of normal weight. In both of these examples, the biological norm is the basis of comparison. Researchers who design studies always use non-smokers and people of normal weight as control groups.

But this is not the case with breastfeeding. Here, for example, is a paragraph I recently came across in an issue of a popular parenting magazine: “If someone told you there was an elixir that could help your new baby get bronchitis, ear infections, pneumonia, diarrhea and infections protect the urinary tract. Want to know more? If you knew that the effects of this combination would last into your child’s teenage years, reducing the risk of diabetes, allergies and high blood pressure, would you just have it? If the same medicine can increase. His IQ, won’t you hurry to see it as soon as possible?”

What if the same paragraph was written and compared formula-fed and breast-fed babies? It might read something like this: “If someone told you there was a drug that would lower your child’s defenses against bronchitis, ear infections, pneumonia, diarrhea, and urinary tract infections, would you want to know more? If you knew the side effects of this combination would continued into your child’s teenage years, increasing his risk of diabetes, allergies and high blood pressure, would you insist on avoiding it? If the same medication lowered his IQ, would you avoid it, if possible? ?”

Of course, the message seems harsher. And this is exactly what health care providers, magazine editors and formula manufacturers want to avoid.

Often times, people fear that women will feel guilty so they soften the message. For example, a mother told me about her doctor’s approach for the first time. “My dad didn’t breastfeed, but he didn’t force it. He gave me a free Enfamil diaper bag with formula in it,” she recalls.

It is this kind of “objectivity” that prevents us from making fully informed choices. Plain and simple, breast milk and formula are not synonymous substances.

Of course, the media is full of stories of women blaming themselves for not being able to breastfeed. But anthropologist and breastfeeding advocate Katherine Dettwyler points out that guilt and regret are two different emotions. If we make the best decision with what information and resources we have at the time, we have no reason to feel guilty.

Psychologist Harriet Lerner warns against internal guilt. “Try not to forget,” she writes, “that our society encourages mothers to plant guilt like a rose garden, because nothing prevents awareness and the expression of legitimate anger because it eats up all the emotions.”

And without the right information, women have every right to be angry. Not every woman can breastfeed (although many are) and not every woman wants to. But just as we have a right to know the benefits and risks of other substances we put in our bodies, we also have a right to make fully informed decisions about how we feed our babies.

So when you read about breastfeeding, remember: breast is not the best. It’s just normal.

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