The controversy over bottle vs. breast feeding is long-standing. Since the 1950s the LaLeche League has mounted a campaign that essentially (and quite successfully) condemns women who don’t breast-feed their infants. Beyonce with baby Blue Ivy leads an effort to get more celebrities to breast-feed and to encourage their fans to follow suit.
Does not breast-feeding make you a terrible mother? Will you harm your child if you don’t breast-feed? Or stop shortly after starting?
Studies on men’s involvement with their babies and an important recent article in Harper’s take issue with the fierce stance on the need to breast feed. Some women want their husbands totally involved in their child’s care from the start. Men, often feel left out and ignored. For example, The Journal of Human Lactation reported that “A desire for the father to have opportunities to be close to the baby can be a factor in some mothers opting to cease breast-feeding; an approach that focuses exclusively on the mother-child dyad can result in some fathers feeling excluded, jealous and resentful to the detriment of breast-feeding success.”
Another journal study also finds that “Dads make a difference.” This Australian study concluded: “The ability to breast-feed and continue the practice requires dedication, commitment, persistence and support. Mothers often need to overcome many obstacles to successfully breast-feed their babies and maintain their balance of home, family and work commitments. Evidence suggests that fathers want to be involved and be part of the parenthood process, including infant feeding. The role transition from couple to family poses challenges to both parents. Sharing the experience of childbirth and supporting each other in the subsequent infant feeding practices is one of those challenges.”
For many women today the challenges are great. Many are exhausted or the milk doesn’t flow or the baby rejects the breast or they have a medical condition that prevents them from breast-feeding. All viable reasons that the La Leche League seems not to agree with. Indeed, in her Harper’s magazine article, “The Tyranny of Breast-Feeding: New mothers vs. La Leche League,” Elisabeth Badinter states that women who elect not to breastfeed are tyrannized.
The expectations for new mothers are often overwhelming. Nevertheless, what has too often become established protocol demands mothers breast-feed. Your doctor, mother or mother-in-law, your friends adopt the prevailing La Leche League philosophy as Badinter notes. “Since the 1980s breast-feeding had come to be regarded as essential and sacred, an act of purity, innocence, and wisdom.” And, the numbers support La Leche’s power. By 2011, 75 percent of women breast-fed for varied time periods (vs. 26 percent in 1970).
Badinter’s article points out that claims that breast-feeding improves a child’s intellectual development have not been proven. In fact, a few large studies have shown no “link between I.Q. and breast-feeding” and no “greater protection against asthma or allergies.”(See Badinter’s article for more findings.)
Findings aside, the League keeps the pressure on women, particularly women who have to work by encouraging them to stay home as long as possible and avoid daycare centers for infants. Not possible to stay home? Then express your milk, but Badinter asks, what about mothers who find expressing milk repulsive or in the least distasteful?
The guilt trips and torment imposed by the La Leche League have seemingly no end. To make matters more emotionally difficult for women who can’t or don’t want to breast-feed, Badinter reports: The husband, a doctor, of one of the League’s founders had this to say: “A woman who bottle-feeds is handicapped. She may turn out to be a pretty good mother, but she could have been a lot better mother if she had breastfed.”
I am not arguing the merits of breast-feeding; they are many and valid. But a society led by the La Leche League’s influence since 1956 has made those who don’t breast-feed live with enormous guilt and needlessly question their value as mothers. There is an entire generation of bottle-fed babies who are just fine. A minority of researchers, Elisabeth Badinter points out, are finding that “the advantages of breast-feeding in developed countries have been exaggerated…that formula is constantly being improved to reproduce the advantages of breast milk.”
Please acknowledge and accept women who can’t or choose not to breast-feed; they are not social outcasts. They, too, bond with their babies and become excellent mothers. Give them your understanding and support.
For more information, read: Elisabeth Badinter’s article, “The Tyranny of Breast-Feeding: New mothers vs. La Leche League.” Harper’s, March 2012.
Note: Elisabeth Badinter’s book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (Henry Holt).