Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Breast is Best?

I complained the other day about not having a rant. I spoke too soon. Let the ranting begin.

As you might know, I am a CBC-ophile. I listen to quite a few shows on podcast, one of my favourites being "White Coat, Black Art", which is an insider's view of the health care system hosted by Dr. Brian Goldman. In honour of Mother's Day, there was a show on breastfeeding.

What is it about breastfeeding that is so incredibly polarizing and that makes us so unkind to other women? On the show, the discussion was about women who had various kinds of trouble breastfeeding and the experiences that they had with the healthcare system through their troubles. As I listened, I could, to some degree, sympathize with the struggles faced by these women. With both of my babies, I had trouble with my children being slow to regain lost birth weight and in both cases, I found it hard to get the help and answers I needed (although the second time round, I was smart and hired a wonderful lactation consultant to come to the house and who actually had more experience than an 18 hour course - she was brilliant and so reassuring and helpful). I could totally relate to the worry, the frustration and the helplessness that these women were experiencing and with my first child, I had been the victim of a very grouchy hospital lactation consultant who was probably having a bad day but who was very mean to me when I was least up to dealing with it.

There were a couple of things that really bothered me about the show and the comments that I read afterwards on the show's website. The first is the damage begin done to the cause of breastfeeding by so-called experts and breastfeeding proponents who stubbornly maintain that if you "do it right" (e.g., correct the latch, drink enough water) or take their herbal supplements, that everything will be fine. That so clearly sends the message that 1. women who have trouble are somehow to blame for the problem and 2. they put babies at risk. What these dogmatic supporters don't realise is that they are totally undermining what it is that they hope to achieve. Women who feel inadequate or who are given simplistic answers to complex problems are going to give up and go to formula. They are going to be defensive and shut down the discussion entirely. Wouldn't it be better to have babies getting some breastmilk than none at all, which is the result of this head in the sand approach?

The other thing that bothered me is the fact that in this discussion, there is so little information about what causes these supply problems in the first place. I find that this is territory that is so unclear. As someone who likes to research, this is so frustrating. If the more natural people are to be believed, our supply issues are related to traumatic births (e.g., inductions, forecep deliveries, c-sections, lots of intervention) and that epidurals are largely connected to supply and latch issues (mom's hormones not acting the way that they should and babies who are lethargic and don't latch properly due to exhaustion, leading to poor supply). While I tend to be a bit skeptical about the claims of the natural health people, thus far, that's the only argument I can find that makes any sense. If so, aren't women being set-up to fail? On the one hand, the medical establishment pushes the message that breast is best while also telling us that we need all these interventions to have babies without telling us the possible risks. The answers aren't so easy though - as a woman who has delivered very large babies vaginally and at least in one case, was induced, I am not sure how confident I am in a totally natural birth. For women whose births are easy, sure, but I don't know whether I am up to that.

What really gets me is what comes from all of this. I am not a fan of formula. I admit it, for some, probably paranoid reason, I do not want my babies getting formula. Yes, I know that for some women, they feel it's their only option and I am not about to judge. Especially if I lived in the U.S. with the unreasonably short maternity leaves, formula would probably be my friend, too. I just can't get past the fact that formula has a list of ingredients that are chemical/processed, it comes in cans lined with B.P.A. and that it is manufactured by companies who, to put it mildly, have not got a track record for functioning out of altruism. It just doesn't seem safe to me. And yet, all this breastfeeding backlash leads to more formula being consumed.

And then, of course, I read this article and almost lost my mind. While I think that there are some interesting points (I, for one, have always thought that the claims in terms of the benefits of breastfeeding had to be somewhat overrated - simply put, women who breastfeed are women who are willing to put their own lives on hold for their children and I'm guessing that breastfeeding isn't the only thing that they do more intensely that might benefit their children), the feminist thinker quoted made me crazy. First, she questions the benefits of breastfeeding and then there is the comment that "breastfeeding is oppressive to mothers." Hello? It's oppressive to feed your child? Personally, I think that spending an exorbitant amount of money to buy stuff I have to make, bottles I have to sterilize and heat and having to schlep bottles around is much more oppressive than having to pull out my breast a few times a day (although, I expect she is referring to the fact that we can't just hand the baby off to someone else). Of course, if mothering is so oppressive, we could all stop doing it...

I just wish we could have a calm, reasonable conversation about breastfeeding. I wish we could be honest about the fact that formula is second best without all the guilt being laden upon women who give formula. I wish that those in favour of breastfeeding could be more kind and supportive to those having issues and stop pretending that problems don't exist. I wish that in our hospitals, we could have certified and highly experienced lactation consultants available in the post-partum departments so that women could get quality support before they leave the hospital and struggle alone at home. I wish that the marketing regulations for formula companies were truly enforced so that I didn't have to get all the formula coupons when I had my son. I wish that formula wasn't in such demand that it is kept under lock at the grocery store (how horrendous is that). Most of all, I wish that we could communicate to mothers that they are good mothers, whichever choice they make but that there is quality help out there for them when they have breastfeeding challenges, whatever decisions they make. Our babies deserve better.


  1. Oh yes, yes, and yes.

    Can we not just say that yes, breaast milk is the best option, and we will do everything we can to help make that work, but if not, formula is a viable alternative?

    Can we not say yes, formula will work, but it is plan C, once other attempts have failed, and then provide support for other attempts, rather than pressuring and blaming?

    It just all makes me crazy, it really does. Every woman's body is different. We all have different births, and not just because of medical practice, it's always been that way. We all have different hormone levels and cycles. Why would our breasts not also have differences? A friend of mine recently had a baby, and it took days for her milk to come in, while mine was fully present in about 48 hours. I've always had lots. she does now, but it took a bit. Why should this be a surprise, when we don't share the same body?

    I'm with you on formula, too - I really tried hard to avoid it. Yet, I will concede that when I first started pumping to feed my older, I was trying to [pump while she waited and cried for food, and the whole thing was making me frantic. A nurse took the colostrum i had, split it in two, topped both halves up with a touch of formula, and fed her that so that I could be ahead a feeding, and be able to feed her when she was hungry, and then pump without pressure for the next feed. The difference was incredible, and I will be forever grateful for her practical approach in telling me that literally 10 mL was not going to kill her. She never had to have another drop, which I am pleased about, though, because I do think nature is waaaay better than lab-created food for babies.

    I also think we are lucky here in Canada - for that year, it was my sole job to look after my baby. Taking the extra time to pump and nurture the way I wanted to was what I did, and it could be my entire focus so that I could do it the way I wanted to. That is a real gift, and I was glad to make the most of it. I really do think that the whole thing would have been different if I had been without that time, because it took as long as a US mat leave to even sort out the feeding. There's no way I could have kept that up while being back at work, which really is a big part of why we were certain that we were going to wait to come back to Canada before we had any babies.

    Of course, as far as that Globe article? Margaret Wente is well-known for creating firestorms in the online community by being purposely controversial and anti-mother, so I'd take her with a grain of salt as much as you can!

    (sorry that my comment may now be as long as your post! It just... gah.)

  2. Oh, just saw this article, an interesting addition that I can totally relate to: