This was the response I heard from my stepson recently after he overheard his father and me talking about the issue of breastfeeding in public. I brought up the topic (surprise, surprise) after noting a mother nursing her toddler in a public setting that day. I was celebrating the scene, since it's so rare in our culture that women choose "extended breastfeeding" at all, let alone brave the public eye in doing so.
My stepson, who is eleven, was most certainly just mortified at hearing the word breast thrown around repeatedly more than anything else, but his statement startled me on a deeper level. "Can we PLEASE stop talking about breastfeeding? That's not NORMAL!!" he shouted again as he ran upstairs, red in the face.
But, isn't it? Isn't breastfeeding THE most normal way of feeding an infant?
Is Breastfeeding Normal?
When I really think about it, I think we need to differentiate between what is common and what is normal. When we look at breastfeeding worldwide, statistics show only 51% of infants are exclusively breastfed at 4 months, and only 38% at 6 months. These numbers exist though The World Health Organization suggests that all infants be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life, then they should receive complimentary foods (not formula) to accompany breastfeeding up to 2 years of life or beyond. So, it is evident that breastfeeding isn't necessarily common, though it is on the rise in the U.S. according to the CDC Breastfeeding Report Card.
Breastmilk is human milk for human children. Therefore, physiologically speaking, it is the normal way of feeding an infant. The components of breastmilk are perfectly composed to nourish human babies. There is no substitute that comes close to providing what each mother is capable of providing for her own child. Infant formulas in all forms are merely imitations and substitutes for human milk, derived from other animals and vegetable sources.
What's So Great About Breastmilk?
For one, breastmilk is completely unique. As much as science has studied the components of it, we still don't know everything that is in it or how to accurately imitate it. In addition, each mother-baby pair is completely unique. If you line up cups of expressed breastmilk from ten mothers, you will see ten different colors, thicknesses, smells and textures. This is because each mother produces exactly and precisely the very formula of human milk her specific baby needs.
What many people don't know is that as the baby nurses at the breast, she shares the germs and bacteria in her mouth with her mother. The mother's body is then able to adjust and create antibodies she and her baby both need to protect them from infections and illness. So, breastmilk changes from day to day, and from feeding to feeding to meet the needs of the baby. Not even breastmilk fed through a bottle can imitate this, though it is the second best alternative to nursing.
Also, have you ever watched how different babies look when they're feeding at the breast as opposed to a bottle? The jaw, lips, tongue and throat all move completely differently than they do when a baby drinks from a bottle. This is crucial in the development of the jaw and dental structure of infants. Children who never breastfeed are much more likely to require orthodontic care at some time in their life because of this deficiency.
Children who are breastfed have:
- Fewer instances of ear infections
- Fewer instances of asthma and eczema
- Fewer gastrointestinal infections
- Lower risk of respiratory tract diseases
- Fewer instances of Type I and Type II Diabetes
- Lower risk of Leukemia and other cancers, both in childhood and later in life
- Lower risk of becoming overweight and obese
As a doula, I am an advocate for parents having a choice about everything involved in the labor, birth and care of their children. This does not exclude the method of feeding their children. But as with every other choice, I believe it's imperative that parents have ALL the information about their choices before deciding on a plan of action.
Breastmilk and formula are too often presented on equal playing fields as an either/or choice. The method of feeding your baby is often seen as one of convenience or an emotional response. The truth is, baby formula and breastmilk are in no way equal choices. Infant formula was designed to be a substitute in cases where a child is unable to breastfeed for medical or other reasons. It's not even a second best option. First best is breastmilk fed from the breast of the baby's mother. Second best is pumped or expressed breastmilk from the baby's mother, fed through a tube, syringe or bottle. Third best is donated breastmilk from another woman. Only then, when all other options have been exhausted and there is no other way to nourish a baby should formula be considered.
The risk of formula feeding includes increased risk of the diseases and disorders described above, and more importantly the risk of death. There is a 21% reduction in infant deaths for babies that have ever breastfed (See Baby Bond for more information). Also, there are often formula recalls, formula contamination, improper preparation (did you know you're supposed to boil water and not allow it to drop below 70C before feeding?), unsanitary conditions and many other factors that make formula a risky choice.
Infants who are formula fed experience:
- More diarrhea
- More constipation
- More colicky behavior
- More acid reflux
- Reduced cognitive development
- Higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or death from other causes
Before you misconstrue this blog post as saying that infant formula is poison, please read on.
The real issue here is not about presenting the benefits of breastfeeding. Most people know "breast is best" as much as they know smoking is bad. The real issue is lack of breastfeeding support and knowledge. Since only about half of mothers breastfeed at all and many of those only the first few days or months, the number of knowledgeable women most mothers know is few. Who do women turn to in those first hours after birth when they are exhausted and know their baby needs to nurse but don't really know how to accomplish the task? How do they remain steadfast in their decision when baby seems tired or uninterested or can't get a good latch when the nursery nurses are so quick to offer infant formula as an alternative "just to make sure baby eats something?"
Moms who give their babies formula are NOT bad mothers. They are mothers who want the best for their babies. They may have all the information available and have made an educated choice to feed their baby with formula. They may have significant challenges in breastfeeding because of previous breast surgery, sexual trauma, stress, postpartum depression or many others. More often than not though, they are women who have been given little information or misinformation, or simply do not have enough resources and people around them to encourage them to keep trying until they get it right, or to problem solve when there are setbacks.
Breastfeeding IS normal, and it is far more common in our culture than we realize. Many women feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public not because of their own discomfort with it, but because of others' discomfort. I hope more an more men and women can do more in our society to welcome breastfeeding mothers and remove the weirdness attached to something so very "normal."