The Mommy Wars have taken a perilous and troubling new direction: questioning the value of breastfeeding. The American Pediatric Association, however says plainly, "Human milk is uniquely superior for infant feeding." While the AAP recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months and ideally up to one year, an alarmingly small fraction of women are actually following through with this recommendation: at birth, only 46% of women are exclusively breastfeeding and at 6 months the number drops to 17%. An attention-getting article in The Atlantic questions the science and posits that women are more empowered by adding to their bank accounts instead of wasting their time tied to their off-spring. Judith Warner, usually a dependable advocate for women, complained on her blog in the New York Times about how humiliating using a breast pump can feel. Instead of trivializing this elemental act, we need to champion it. A commitment to breastfeeding is the first step we can take to combat the health crisis of obesity and illness linked to the industrialized food chain, and re-establish a healthy relationship to food. Breastfeeding may be the first, most important choice we make in feeding our children real food. Given the evidence, this choice should be easy, but is instead fraught with difficulties, leading many of us to fail.
Like me, many women in their thirties and forties never saw a drop of breast milk in their lives before actually producing, it, and we seemed to have survived. It's finally dawning on us, however, that the whole host of health problems we and our children are suffering now: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. comes from our co-dependent relationship with industrialized food. Michael Pollan, in the brilliant Ominvore's Dilemma, writes that the great cuisines of the world developed through trial and error over centuries to produce a distinctive and healthy diet. Polyglot America has no such tradition, so we careen from diet to diet, fad to fad, RDA to RDA in an effort to figure out the best way to eat. This lack of tradition, combined with our industrialized food supply has severed our basic human relationship with food. This happens even earlier than we might realize, in infancy, with the casual introduction of manufactured baby formula.
Perhaps with science's effort to isolate the health effects of nutrients in food, we ignore the possibility that maybe it's not the antioxidants, minerals, and flavinoids alone, that maybe it's the entire piece of broccoli eaten at the table with your family that makes it healthy. Breast milk is a baby's first real food. While formula mimics the nutrients of breast milk, scientists admit it's still only an approximation of what Nature provides. One scientist even admits that it's "embarrassing" how little they understand the contents and mechanics of breast milk. The AAP thoroughly documents the health benefits of breastfeeding to babies, mothers and even the community at large. In addition to these benefits, breastfeeding helps reestablish our relationship to the natural food chain and starts our children on a path to a healthy relationship with food. The choice to breastfeed should be an easy one to make, but sadly is often constrained by circumstance. That is why we need to push for more cultural and institutional support for breastfeeding, support that women of every class desperately need.
I have no desire to demonize, criticize or demoralize those women who don't or can't breastfeed. The world is full of mothers who can't make enough milk, babies who can't nurse properly, and mothers who work and can't take the time out of their day regularly to pump. Formula seems like an easy solution. But the history of formula, like that of all manufactured food, is filled with tragic scandal: from Nestle's disastrous marketing of formula in Third World countries, to the deaths of infants in China due to melanin-laced formula, and even the recent discovery that supposedly superior organic formula was filled with unholy amounts of sugar. In a best-case scenario, formula is not poison, but it's not real food either.
I had no idea what breastfeeding would really be like when I sat, big-bellied, dutifully reading my Nursing Mother's Companion. I accepted intellectually that it was the best thing for my son, but the reality of it was totally unexpected. It's not that I loved it -- it was tiring, excruciatingly painful at first, nauseating at times, but I knew immediately that it was right. I am a mother, I thought. This is what I do. While I spent most of each day in terror that something horrible would happen to my tiny, infinitely vulnerable off-spring, nursing gave me a few hours when I actually felt capable of the overwhelming job of being a mother. It bonded us and introduced me to the lifelong, happy sacrifice that is being a parent.
While I found breastfeeding my son extremely fulfilling, balancing it with work was utterly exhausting. Pumping four times a day, usually before dawn and late at night, left me bleary. In addition, my boss thought it was the height of humor to serenade me with mooing sounds as I emerged from his office (the only room with a door in our open studio) holding my precious stash, headed for the refrigerator. So much for commanding respect as a professional.
Those of us who choose to continue breastfeeding and work outside the home suffer a litany of difficulties and humiliations large and small. I was able to persevere, but I began to wonder, why is this so hard? I was educated, well-off, had support from my family, even grudging support from my workplace. If I found it so challenging to continue breastfeeding, what chance did a woman without my resources? At least I had access to a private office. My sister, who works in retail, gave up after 5 months of pumping in a dirty public bathroom. Another friend is a traveling sales representative and had to pump in her car. Women are being forced by attitudes and circumstance to choose between feeding their children what Nature intended and some powder in a can whose safety we pray we can depend upon. Recent food safety scandals make this assumption even more precarious and frightening.
Every woman's circumstances are different, but we can demand some simple measures that will benefit everyone. The State of California, that perennial hotbed of radical ideas that eventually become mainstream (organic food, hybrid cars, anyone?), has instituted worksite protection legislation for working/nursing mothers, that among other things, requires that employers provide "lactation accommodation," i.e., they need to provide mothers with a reasonable amount of time to express milk and provide a convenient, private location other than a bathroom to do so. We could also add a similar requirement for public "mother's rooms" to building and zoning codes, providing accessible and clean, safe places to nurse or pump in places like shopping malls and airports. Melissa Bartick MD in these pages has documented the success of this legislation and suggests that the same be included as part of national health care policy reform, along with the elephant in the room, paid maternity leave.
Demanding these changes may be the most difficult thing we face. After fighting so many years for equal opportunities at work, we now find ourselves asking for special treatment as women, something we fear will undermine years of struggle. The argument for staying at home versus working is pointlessly destructive. We've been brainwashed into thinking we need to do it all, balance it all, without complaint. Business guru Jack Welch depressingly insists there is no work/family balance. He's only showing what a dinosaur he truly is. Complain and demand we must. Breastfeeding is the first step on the road back to healthy eating. Babies, it's time for a change.
A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.