You Make Me Sick (?)

Consider this convenient compendium of factoids from Wikipedia’s breastfeeding article …

  • In a 1993 University of Texas Medical Branch study, a longer period of breastfeeding was associated with a shorter duration of some middle ear infections (otitis media with effusion) in the first two years of life.
  • A 1995 study of 87 infants found that breastfed babies had half the incidence of diarrheal illness, 19% fewer cases of any otitis media infection, and 80% fewer prolonged cases of otitis media than formula fed babies in the first twelve months of life.
  • Breastfeeding appeared to reduce symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections in premature infants up to seven months after release from hospital in a 2002 study of 39 infants.
  • A 2004 case-control study found that breastfeeding reduced the risk of acquiring urinary tract infections in infants up to seven months of age, with the protection strongest immediately after birth.
  • Infants exclusively breastfed have less chance of developing diabetes mellitus type 1 than peers with a shorter duration of breastfeeding and an earlier exposure to cow milk and solid foods.
  • In children who are at risk for developing allergic diseases (defined as at least one parent or sibling having atopy), atopic syndrome can be prevented or delayed through exclusive breastfeeding for four months.
  •  Atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema, can be reduced through exclusive breastfeeding beyond 12 weeks in individuals with a family history of atopy.

 … and this recent study, from Denmark:

An observational study of 69,750 infants born in Denmark has concluded that breastfeeding may decrease epilepsy in childhood. Information on breastfeeding was reported by mothers at 6 and 18 months and information on epilepsy retrieved from the Danish National Hospital Register. Breastfeeding was associated with a decreased risk of epilepsy, with a dose-response like pattern. For example, children breastfed for 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 12, and >13 months had a 26%, 39%, 50%, and 59% lower risk of epilepsy after the first year of life, respectively, compared with children who were breastfed for <1 month. The authors conclude that the observed protective effect of breastfeeding may be causal.

Now hear me out when I say that, rather than feeling self-satisfied, as a former breastfeeding mama, reading these statistics always gives me pause.

Another follower of the site that referred me to the last precis (on the incidence of epilepsy in BabyDanes) commented, “How bizarre that you have posted this! I saw a woman in town today who has two epileptic children under the age of 4 and I wondered as I walked past her, if breastfeeding reduced the risk.”

This got me thinking: about how we peddle breastfeeding; about the false  dichotomy of “sick children” and “healthy children”; about whether kids in either imaginary category should be used as marketing pawns. And about why we are making mothers feel like they must produce their “vetted breastfeeder” card before they can be held faultless for their child’s illness.


I’ll put myself and my kids out there as an informal case study.

I am the parent of two children who were sickly babies, and still face some health challenges — so far not-insurmountable ones — at ages four and two, respectively. They will likely deal with illness, to one degree or another, through adulthood. What’s to blame? Probably the confluence of my and my husband’s genes. There’s a lot of auto-immune hinckiness going on in all branches of the family tree.  We’re just lucky that, with accommodations, the stuff that Stuart and MaryAlice have experienced hasn’t had a big impact on their quality of life.

Thing is, many of the symptoms of and secondary conditions related to  their illnesses are ones for which extended breastfeeding is often touted as having near-prophylactic qualities. And both of my children were breastfed from day one: Stuart for 16 months (self-weaning about four months into my pregnancy with his sister), and MaryAlice, who also self-weaned, for roughly 30 months. What else? We introduced solids, on a conservative  schedule for allergen-avoidance, at six months. They got a combination of homemade purées and finger foods; but breastmilk was still their primary source of nutrition until toddlerhood. Brownie. Points. To. Meeeee.

A friend of mine, who did not nurse her first child (for sundry reasons, and despite valiant attempts), remarked, when Stuart was an infant (gaunt and anemic with a hyper-sensitive GI tract and weeping plaques of dermatitis): “You know, they say that breastfed babies are healthier. But when I see what Stuart has been through, I have my doubts!”


Therein lies the problem. Or a problem.

“Hold the phone!” you might be (reasonably!) saying, “Are you suggesting that these studies’ findings shouldn’t be circulated? Or that the studies shouldn’t be conducted in the first place? If you look at that data, it doesn’t imply that breastfeeding prevents or cures illness across the board, or that breastfed infants can’t get sick!”

No, and no. True, true. 

Breastfeeding advocates are regularly coming up against the challenge of how to disseminate our message persuasively and memorably while remaining on the sunny side of factual certitude. Formula companies have advertising dollars in their arsenal that we never will. (I’d add, “because breasts can’t be commodified.” But ohohoho how shortsighted that statement would be!). So why not at least co-opt their approach?

Except, unlike formula companies, breastfeeding advocates don’t have a centralized clearinghouse for our information or the vehicles we use to get the word out.  And, by dint of the “product” itself, we aren’t going to. (That would be weird and dystopian). Wonderful resources like Best for Babes aside, breastfeeding “proselytizing” probably goes over best at the grassroots level.

That great, potential strength is also a great, potential pitfall. Why? Because wielding logical fallacies is so, terribly (and I do mean terribly!) … well, fun. And easy. But they’re also easy  — and, I’d venture to guess, fun — for naysayers to dismantle.

The way this sickness-impervious-breastfed-babies fable makes the rounds is by way of misleading vividness couched in the actual outcomes of the above-mentioned studies and trials. (It’s a kissing cousin of the sickness-impervious-babies-of-stay-at-home-parents yarn). The positive take on this fallacy is, “My baby is robust and thriving and hasn’t had so much as a case of the sniffles since birth! We owe it all to breastmilk!” It’s an argument I don’t mind at all because it is person-specific and self-referential. Celebrate your healthy baby and celebrate breastfeeding, by all means. Is the implicit argument, “You should breastfeed, too, so your baby is healthy like mine”?  Perhaps. But it’s subtle and non-damning enough to be pretty innocuous (no pun intended), from where I stand.

At least when compared to the negative flip-side: “All the formula-fed babies I know are little mucous-buckets: always coming down with something. And their parents wonder why their kids are sick all the time! Could it be because they’re mainlining ‘crap-in-a-can’ [or alternate, disparaging euphemism for infant formula]?”

Sure, that exact sort of vitriolic take on the subject is probably reserved for preaching-to-the-choir internet fora. But the sentiment shines through, even in more tempered renditions (e.g. “That baby sure is sick a lot. I wonder if s/he is breastfed“). At least it does for me, as the parent of two, breastfed-to-the-gills children who struggle with chronic health problems.

Here is the snowball effect of the thoughts it evokes:

  1. Parents who choose to formula-feed their infants invite illness into their babies’ lives. There is direct, anecdotal causality between formula-feeding and illness, despite the studies drawing no similar conclusion.
  2. Sick children are undesirable.
  3. Sick children are not only undesirable because of the difficulty managing their illness poses to the children themselves and their families and caregivers. No, they are “gross.” And they spread their ick to more pristine, hardier kids. Yuck.
  4. This undesirability serves as a testament to their parents’ — their mothers’ — shortcomings. A sick baby is your punishment for Doing It Wrong.
  5. If you were a competent parent (read: if you loved your child), your kid would be healthy.

All sorts of other permutations of the same, basic idea feed this last point. I mentioned the non-parental caregiver/center-based daycare factor earlier. There’s also the chemical exposure factor (“I bet she used diaper lotion with parabens!”). The non-organic food factor (“Mom ate at McDonald’s a lot during her pregnancy …”). The medical intervention factor. (“They head straight to the pediatrician for antibiotics every time their baby coughs!”). Etcetera ad infinitum.

What are otherwise objectively reasonable convictions — avoid harsh chemicals; make healthier food selections; don’t jump the gun on prescription drug use (all “choices” fraught with their own privilege, by the way) — get mired in this over-zealous correlation-inflation. The fallout, here, is two-fold. First, we’re taking the offensive and using shame as a battering ram. I know I’ve harped on this topic before; but, since it continues to be massively uncool, I don’t feel bad about pointing it out again. The second issue: we’re leaving the door open for similar flights of empirical fancy that contradict our own. Like, “Breastfeeding can’t be the best choice for all babies: look at Stuart.” (“Heroin can’t be that bad. William S. Burroughs made it to 83!”).


More upsetting to me than the tenuousness of the rhetorical devices at play (and leave it to a former English major to be upset about rhetoric at all) is the idea that Well Children have cachet, whereas Sick Children are a liability to one’s reputation as a parent.  I mean, occasionally, in these discussions, there will be a hurried amendment to the opining: “Andreallyit’stoobadthatthekidshavetodealwithbeingill.Thatmustsuck.”

But, for the most part, the children that are held sacrosanct, the children we are supposedly jumping down each other’s throats to protect, are reduced to symbols. It’s almost as though bodily fortitude stopped being something that is desirable in and of itself (“I am so grateful for my health!”)  and started to have  … moral overtones.

(I want to take a moment, too, to acknowledge that parents of children with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities undoubtedly face even greater reproach in this doctrine of blame-assignment. It’s simply a topic for another time!)

At the heart of the matter: when someone learns about my kids’ rather storied history of illness, I don’t want their first thought to be, “How did you fail them?” And I don’t want to have that whole earlier spiel about my breastfeeding cred tattooed on my body for easy reference a la Memento. Because, yes, being obligated to prove myself is tiresome; but, more fundamentally, because I don’t feel others are entitled to information about Stuart and MaryAlice’s actual, corporeal, cellular-level selves for the purpose of reifying or calling into question their basis for discrimination. I’m using the term “discrimination,” by the way, to mean determining who deserves praise, and who deserves criticism; who should be given sympathy, and who is getting their just desserts.

(This piece by Julia at Kidneys and Eyes about the site Too Big for Stroller [which doesn’t merit a hyperlink, because ew] offers a variation on the same theme and is well worth a read).


Does mentioning potential benefits to maternal and infant health still have a place in discourse about breastfeeding? I would say, yes. Absolutely. I don’t have a concise vision for how this piece of the puzzle would ideally fit (how to find that impactful, consumer-friendly balance of fact and plain-spoken coherency?) ; but “yes,” nonetheless. However, I also believe that we need to examine our tendency to use wellness as a way to patly incentivize breastfeeding, because of the ease with which such promises are misconstrued and either (A) end up having an inverse effect on the reliability of our message, or (B)  “other”(-as-a-verb) certain mothers.

Let me reiterate: when you are as passionate about breastfeeding as I am, I know how enticing it is to cling to any and all affirmative-seeming associations and proffer them desperately against what often feels like a deluge of disadvantageous societal messages (“booby traps” in Best for Babes parlance). I’d submit, though, that we also have a responsibility to consider the potential fallout from leaning on shaky logic.

And, yes, it’s pretty common to cast aspersions and flippantly over-simplify Big Thoughts in our interactions online when we would never do so “IRL.” On the other hand, if we give ourself a “pass” because of this, we’ve set up a holding pattern: that is, we want to re-normalize breastfeeding; we have determined that safe spaces for doing so are far too rare “out there” … so we create an antithetically hostile climate “in here”?

Where does that leave our fellow mothers, but stuck in a limbo between competing spheres of judgment?

4 Comments

Filed under Amanda, Uncategorized

4 responses to “You Make Me Sick (?)

  1. Thanks for the shout out. This is a great piece…wow.

  2. Thank you, Julia!

    Thought I’d mention that my amazing sister-in-law, who gave birth less than three months ago, is running the Chicago marathon this Fall as a fundraiser for the PKD Foundation (on behalf of her best friend, who has PKD). So proud of her!

  3. Very interesting. I didn’t breast feed because I was smoking cigarettes (and what a wonderful mama I was! hey we didn’t know any better okay!) and I knew nicotine would get in breastmilk. But that’s about ALL I knew. Of course, ear infections out the ass (yes I know, anatomically impossible, but you know what I am saying!) and many other issues that I now believe might have been avoided….BUT my daughter has breast fed like a good doobie and the kids seem just as prone to the ear infections. (?) Obviously, familial allergies and other factors are likely in play as well; she lives on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and there are goats and hounds, licking the toddlers (etc).

    I will send this to my daughter, love and kisses for an honest post.

  4. In fact, I’ll be linking this one. :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s