Tag Archives: breastfeeding

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?



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Breastfeeding, Bootstrapping, and the Boundaries of Personal Experience

“Breastfeeding is a Must …” declares the headline for an article on City Limits magazine’s website, “… for Moms Who Can Afford It.”

It’s a knowingly incendiary statement: the sort of thing considered, by some journalists, de rigueur for maximizing eye-catchability. (And to them I say, “Hey, at least you didn’t use a forced pun”). A little backlash is written off as acceptable in that it means the title is doing its job, serving as an entrée to the meat of the story — which people hopefully bother to read.

I was referred to this City Limits article by the Facebook page of an online compendium of breastfeeding resources. It should go without saying that people who follow said Facebook page — myself included — tend to be pretty vociferous breastfeeding advocates.  However, reading others’ comments in response to this article reinforced the fact that some of my cohorts-in-name-only and I part ways significantly when it comes to bolstering our allegedly shared cause.

(Two quick caveats before I continue:

  1. I should probably impose a “No reading ‘users fora’ comments for any print or, especially, electronic publication” policy. I don’t need to court high blood pressure.
  2. Like my Pax (Ro)mama counterpart, Jen, one of the many hats I wear is that of professional educator. In my case, I’m an adjunct humanities lecturer at a career college that does not — emphatically not — traffic in liberal arts degrees. So convincing students of the utility of my classes is sometimes a hard sell.  All things considered, though, I think I do a pretty good job. And yet, I am so the type to read course evaluations and home in on the one or two negative comments bobbing ineffectually in a sea of positivity. That same, basic principle applies to other facets of my life, too.

Okay, so, back to the action!)

The gist of the article, written by a New York City social worker, is that, while Michelle Obama recently spoke out in favor of federal support for breastfeeding initiatives (especially in underserved African American communities), other federal programs, utilized by many poor women of color, actually impede the establishment of positive breastfeeding relationships between mothers and babies.

There were three camps of pro-breastfeeding readers who reacted negatively to this article’s premise:

  1. “WTF? Breastfeeding is free!” These people either failed to read past the article’s title, or are so mired in this kind of “strict constructionist” rhetoric that anything seeming to stray from a rotely-regurgitated adage just will not penetrate the ol’ gray matter.
  2. “Even though I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, I also [coughmindbogglinglycough] agree with Michele Bachmann’s [coughmindbogglingcough] comments about Ms. Obama’s campaign being literally indicative of the United States’ slide into [coughbogglebogglebogglecough] ‘nanny state’-dom. Ergo, people on TANF can suck it. ” The opinions of this group aren’t so much focused on the thesis of the article as the notion that a conflict between what they see as two cogs in the same, decrepit machine lends credence to their position. And that is, “The entire ‘factory’ [to  belabor my metaphor] needs to be shut down.” Frankly, for their purposes, it doesn’t even matter that the article is about breastfeeding. It’s just another way to insinuate a general political stance into a thread of discourse. Their prerogative, I guess.
  3. “I breastfed sextuplets after having a breast reduction and I needed to relactate seventeen times and I had mastitis every day and my partner left me and I had to hand express into a Ziploc bag while working 16 hour shifts in an abattoir and my babies all reverse-cycled for 12 months so I got by on two, non-consecutive minutes of sleep every night and the babies and I had to live in a hole in the ground, under a plastic tarp. If you can’t boast my willingness to blithely self-sacrifice, you aren’t entitled to claim hardship.”

It’s this last cluster of naysayers that frustrates me the most. Their objections aren’t rooted in an obstinate lack of reading comprehension, or a political ideology. Instead, they’ve become devotees of bootstrappery, and unable — or unwilling — to see that their stories, like everyone’s, have wholly unique parameters.

I had my own share of difficulties while breastfeeding. The most difficulties? Of anyone, ever? Clearly not. But enough to say to those feeling indignant about the momentusness of their efforts going unacknowledged, “I can relate.”

Neither my mother nor my grandmother breastfed any of their children, so I didn’t have the foundation of tradition buoying me along. After having my first baby, I had to return to work outside the home, starting at six weeks postpartum. (Of my partner and I, I had the greatest earning potential and carried our family’s benefits. My husband still worked near-fulltime hours in the evenings and on weekends). Stuart (the baby) rejected  just about every bottle my husband tried and, consequently, turned into a reverse-cycler. This meant he refused expressed breast milk during the day, preferring to wait until I got home from work and he could sup “from the tap,” every hour or two. All. Night. Long.  And he ended up having some pretty significant food allergies, which meant that I had to go on an allergen-elimination diet (and execute the second Great Freezer Stash Purge of 2007. The first GFSP happened after I discovered an excess lipase issue)  — while I was newly pregnant with my second baby, no less! Poor weight gain. Anemia. No La Leche League meetings within a forty-five minute drive from my home. It was not a walk in the park.

I did have a lot going for me besides a steely resolve, though.

Stuart did not require a surgical birth and, as such, I was able to breastfeed him almost immediately after he was born. Stuart was a full-term baby and did not have any physiological or developmental issues that prevented him from latching properly and swallowing and digesting my milk. I did not have any physiological or psychological issues that prevented me from producing milk or nursing without pain or emotional distress. I had six weeks to begin to establish a nursing relationship in the comfort of our apartment. I had healthcare providers who were knowledgable about breastfeeding, and encouraging of my goals. I had a computer and internet access at home and the ability to search for, and discern, credible information on breastfeeding. I was able to acquire an electric double-pump at no cost to myself. My employer offered a comfortable, private location to use my pump, and allowed me to do so according to my own schedule . 

In my case, when the factors from column “A” and the factors from column “B” duked it out, the circumstances contributing to my ultimate breastfeeding success prevailed: “success” meaning that I achieved the milestones I hoped I would (nursing until Stuart was at least one year old, and allowing him to wean at his own pace). I can easily see how, if things had been only slightly different, I wouldn’t have made it.

Sure, the strength of my commitment played some part in all of this. But I know better than to arrogantly say, “That’s all it takes.” The implication of such a statement is that those who do not breastfeed, for whatever reason, are “weak.” In fact, the reason I take such pains to point out that the very definition of breastfeeding “success” is highly subjective is that I believe objective success/failure polarities are counterproductive.

For some, success may mean never using artificial milk or artificial nipples to feed their baby. For others, it may mean exclusively expressing breast milk for, and bottle-feeding,  their baby until they are able to begin transitioning to solid foods. The bottom line is, until breastfeeding is truly enculturated, across the board (for working and stay-at-home moms; mothers of every ethnic and cultural background; moms of all ages and socioeconomic statuses), and steps are taken to provide practical accommodation for all manner of barriers, we breastfeeding advocates need to be a little better about reserving judgment.

Does that mean we should all rest on our laurels until the fabled day arrives (or until Michelle Obama delivers it unto us? Wow, that woman is endowed with an awful lot of responsibility for a single person!)? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t suggest that. However! If you’ve been following along, you can probably surmise that I appreciate how daunting a task it seems to take a run at The System while trying to juggle the stuff of everyday life. I know it is easier to just feel disgruntled and cast aspersions at faceless folks on the Internet. So here are some things you can do to constructively forward the cause that require virtually no time commitment whatsoever:

  • Acknowledge people’s victories, including your own. I think one of the major contributors to breastfeeding mamas’ bitterness is that they expend a ton of effort to do right by their child in a not-always-breastfeeding-friendly climate only to have their breastfeeding milestones pass without so much as a pat on the back (or, even worse, with comments like, “Oh, you’re still doing that?”).

Do you know someone who is breastfeeding or pumping milk for their child? Throw a casual, “Good job!” in their direction every once in a while. And if you don’t get the same in return from people in your life, celebrate yourself! Just say, “I am proud of myself for breastfeeding,” out loud, to another human being (or, heck, in a Facebook status update). It’s all part of moving toward a curious-but-necessary re-normalization of this biological function. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate a little praise?

  • Acknowledge people’s setbacks, including your own. I feel like no one should have to justify their personal reasons for breastfeeding only at a certain level (i.e. supplementing with infant formula), or only for a certain period of time … or not at all. We’re trying to take down the paradigm, not the individual, right? Nonetheless, I’ve found  that many people really want to share their challenges: particularly people who have had to revise their original breastfeeding goals. The tricky part to navigate: knowing when they are looking for suggestions to redress the difficulties they have encountered, and knowing when they are simply looking for commiseration and recognition. Responding with, “That sounds really hard. Here’s an anecdote about something that was hard for me when I was breastfeeding my child …” and leaving the door open for further discussion is a good one-size-fits-all salvo.

Relatedly …

  • Be able to identify threats and challenges to individuals’ breastfeeding success as well as broader, societal acceptance of breastfeeding. Be open to reading articles, like the one from City Limits, and listening to people’s stories that might, initially, trigger a defensive or antagonistic response. Be aware of laws pertaining to breastfeeding in your state and imagine the different ways in which they may help and harm breastfeeding mothers. Try to avoid interpolating your own history and cultural background into the experiences of others; trust that they are accurate chroniclers of their circumstances, and that it might take action internal to their particular demographic to effect change.

And, last but not least …

  • Remember that the vast majority of parents love their babies and want to do what is best for them. The shame of being told , “If you really loved your child, you would [do X,Y,Z differently],” is pretty peerless and, I would venture to guess, not a great motivator. Understand that we humans all have different stress tolerance thresholds, different priority hierarchies, different coping mechanisms.

If one mother, for example, is part of a religious congregation that frowns upon breastfeeding during services, it may be feasible for her to attend services elsewhere, or forego attending until her baby is able to make it through the service without nursing. For another, the very idea would be unthinkable and could lead to alienation from her family or faith community. Whether or not their choices line up with the choices we would make, it is not our place to question their love for their babies, or their fitness to parent.              


This post isn’t about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies. It isn’t really about the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers, either. Trust me, though: those considerations are never far from my mind. What it is about it this:

 I would like to propose that increased acceptance of breastfeeding is too important a battle for us to employ tactics like reductive credos (“Breastfeeding is only natural!” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”), ad hominem attacks, and scorched earth exclusivity. I wish that it was as simple as “boobs + baby + positive attitude = universally utopic breastfeeding experience.” But I think that, in the end, admitting the flaws in that equation will lead to a more comprehensively useful, fundamentally stronger campaign.

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