Hanna Rosin Inspires a Breastfeeding “Action Campaign”

Back in April 2009, I was still struggling to come to terms with my feelings on switching to formula feeding. Practically every night, I would find myself searching online for some sort of support or reassurance, but I found little to none. (I was up, mind you, because despite the rumors, formula does not help all babies sleep better at night – my son was still waking every 3 hours like clockwork at four months old.)

And then one night, a night like any other, I logged on to my pregnancy loss message board, so often a source of solace during the trying time I was, well, trying – and there I saw it: a post about an article in the Atlantic Monthly, called “The Case Against Breastfeeding”, by a brave woman named Hannah Rosin.

I’m sure this is old news to most of you, so I won’t waste time rehashing what Rosin said (basically, she questioned some of the science behind the breast-is-best campaigns, and examined how nursing became a measure of good parenting in her social circle). If for some reason you haven’t read the article, go do it. Now.

Back already? Good. If you’re a formula feeder, say a big “thank you” to Ms. Rosin for taking a heck of a lot of crap for saying what she did. I don’t completely agree with her tone – I think it may have come across a tad adversarial, which just made it too easy for the other side to slam her –  but I will forever be grateful to her for making me feel less alone. Plus, I think it is always good to ask questions, especially about something that touches such a nerve in so many women.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks so.

The United States Breastfeeding Committee, independent nonprofit organization, a “coalition of more than 40 organizations that support its mission to improve the Nation’s health by working collaboratively to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding”, has four ongoing “action campaigns” listed on its website. These include three campaigns that essentially ask for government assistance in making breastfeeding a public health issue. The fourth, well…

A storm is brewing against breastfeeding with the publication of Hanna Rosin’s article “The Case Against Breast-Feeding” in the April 2009 issue of the Atlantic. Rosin was also featured on the Today Show on March 16 with NBC News Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. Although their discussion deplorably misrepresented the medical research on breastfeeding, it also appropriately highlighted a much bigger issue: it can be very challenging to achieve optimal breastfeeding recommendations in the United States.

The United States Breastfeeding Committee has sent a letter to the editor of the Atlantic, co-signed by many of our members and other national organizations. But we also need your help to bring an end to this unnecessary and irresponsible “debate” about the proven health risks of not breastfeeding, and to reframe the discussion to focus on what’s really at stake: support for mothers and families.

No matter what you think of Rosin or her article,  I can’t believe that anyone who supports free speech can take this “call to action” seriously. They really want to waste time and resources lambasting this woman, who has already endured six months worth of personal and professional attacks? Do they actually fear her questions that much? And what exactly do they expect to get out of this – a retraction from the Atlantic Monthly?

The Atlantic Monthly is a well respected magazine. Hannah Rosin is an experienced writer. I am sure they triple checked their facts. And regardless, the piece was an Op/Ed. That means opinion or editorial. She was expressing an opinion, much like people express political opinions during election years, and are often seen as “distorting” the facts by the opposing side. The truth is, well, truth is relative. We all see things through our own lens. (A wonderful lactivist blogger, Birthing Beautiful Ideas, recently talked about this quite eloquently – and she actually referenced Rosin’s article and made a valid argument about her claims, as well.)

The letter that USBC sent to The Atlantic Monthly complains:

“Inconsistent associations are common in medical research—study designs may vary widely, and it is difficult to design a “perfect” study, especially when dealing with human subjects. It is unfortunate that the comprehensive analysis of medical experts is so often boiled down to a “sound bite” on the latest newsworthy twist in health research. Non-profit organizations like USBC exist to serve as a collective expert voice, distilling the best, evidence-based information and advocating for support for families without the bias of profit-seeking motives.”

I agree with the first half – there are definitely inconsistencies in medical research. But my reading of Rosin’s article just supported that assumption. I didn’t see it as her saying breastfeeding wasn’t good or beneficial (other than the title, which I agree was inflammatory and unnecessary, but as a former magazine editor, I can tell you that there is huge pressure to come up with startling headlines, so maybe that played a role…), just that the studies had been overstated. The USBC letter referenced a 2007 independent review of the studies that showed a “lack of breastfeeding was associated with a statistically significant increased incidence of several acute  and chronic diseases affecting both mother and child.” This may be true. But according to Wikipedia, the term statistically significant “is different from the standard use of the term “significance,” which suggests that something is important or meaningful. For example, a study that included tens of thousands of participants might be able to say with very great confidence that people of one race are more intelligent than people of another race by 1/20th of an IQ point. This result would be statistically significant, but the difference is small enough to be utterly unimportant. Many researchers urge that tests of significance should always be accompanied by effect size statistics, which approximate the size and practical importance of the difference.”

Anyway. Confusing. Wikipedia sucks.  But the point is, I don’t think Rosin did anything irresponsible as a journalist. (And I do think I am qualified to weigh in on journalistic integrity, since it is my field, unlike medicine or statistics.) She interviewed a variety of experts, quoted them, and gave her opinion. It was not a news piece. It was an editorial.

But if the USBC has nothing better to worry about, then I guess that is a positive sign for breastfeeding advocacy. So at least that’s good.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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One thought on “Hanna Rosin Inspires a Breastfeeding “Action Campaign”

  1. Thank you so much for your very kind “shout out!”

    While I might not agree that all truth is relative (blame it on that pesky philosopher side of me), I do agree, that what our attention is attuned to–what we notice about the world, what we find to be important about what see see, read, hear, etc.–is relative to each individual. So while you may see a timely validation of your experiences in Rosin's article, I see a “misinterpretation of some misinterpretations” in her piece. And these are both legitimate interpretations, in my opinion.

    I guess my main concern with her piece was what I referenced yesterday in my post. Namely, that she seemed to suggest that the “thinner” evidence re: the benefits of breastfeeding thereby made that evidence *thin*. And it's not exactly thin–it's just that people should no longer tout higher IQ points, postpartum weight loss, etc. as part of the benefits of breastfeeding. Nonetheless, the list of the benefits of bf-ing are still fairly lengthy.

    Well, I guess there was one other thing I was concerned about in Rosin's article. She also seemed to suggest that breastfeeding was somehow inherently oppressive to women. And this doesn't seem right to me at all. In fact, perhaps we could both agree that it is a culture of mommy-guilt that probably leads to feelings of “breastfeeding-oppression” for any mother. And THIS is what needs to be dismantled!

    It should go without saying that I am probably more sympathetic to USBC's “call to action” than you are, but I also think that the best way to *act* as a breastfeeding advocate is to first find the most effective ways to communicate the goals of breastfeeding advocacy without using fear or guilt-based tactics.

    My hope is that little dialogues like ours do just that–whether they help a pregnant mom, a breastfeeding mom, or a formula-feeding mom.

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