The Least Interesting, Least Controversial Post You’ll Read About That NYT Article

In the 1993 film Groundhog’s Day, a reporter (Bill Murray) gets stuck in an endless time-warping loop, which forces him to repeat the same day over and over again. He’s aware of the constant rewinding, but no one else seems to be; everyone around him repeats the same lines and actions every day, with no knowledge that they did the very same thing the day before.

I’m starting to feel a bit like Bill Murray.

Every year or so, someone (typically a journalist or academic) writes an article for a major news outlet about the breast/bottle issue, and the universe explodes into a toxic cloud of overwrought responses and painfully long comment sections. I’m not casting stones from my glassy little house; I’ve contributed to these explosions many times by posting the catalyst articles on Facebook and Twitter, written my own overwrought responses, and added my unnecessary two cents to comment threads.

But that’s what you do, when you’re caught in a Groundhog’s Day situation. You go through the motions, say what people expect you to say. You play your part.

Here’s what my personal Groundhog’s Day looks like:

An article comes out with a controversial, negative title about breastfeeding, containing one or more of the following points:


-Breastfeeding studies are flawed and therefore can’t be trusted.

-The studies proving that breastfeeding isn’t the cat’s meow are somehow exempt from the same criticism, and can be trusted implicitly

-Everyone trying to help women breastfeed is a bully

-The person writing breastfed, but thinks formula feeding is a perfectly viable option and resents the pressure she couldn’t resist; or, she formula fed, and this is a sad, penitent story about her breastfeeding failure and how hard she tried.

Next,  a response piece comes out, making one (or more) of the following arguments:


-The author of the original piece isn’t an MD or IBCLC, but rather a political or social scientist, so she’s got no business having an opinion on medical issues. (Let’s ignore that some of the most prominent voices in breastfeeding literature are anthropologists.)

-People who speak out against the pressure to breastfeed are anti-breastfeeding, hate breastfeeding mothers, and must be bitter/anti-feminist/in the pocket of Big Formula/uneducated/uninformed.

-There is no such thing as the Mommy Wars, and moms don’t really feel guilty about not breastfeeding, because our 6-month exclusive breastfeeding rates show that they are in the majority, so why would they ever feel bad?

-Because breastfeeding mothers also have problems, that negates the problems of non-breastfeeding parents.

-All of the research cited in the article means nothing, because (add circular argument here about how the AAP and WHO support breastfeeding, based on the same studies that are being questioned).


-Anyone who cares about women and babies should boycott said article and the godforsaken newspaper/website that published it.


Then, a follow up to the follow up will be written, reiterating the points of the first article, and we all act as if any part of this tone-deaf conversation is news. And so on, and so forth, until we find ourselves back at the beginning, ready to start the cycle over.

If this were a movie, I’d make a dramatic, heart-stirring speech, grab a stick, and draw a literal and proverbial line in the sand. On one side, I’d invite the the rational, kind people – regardless of their opinions on breastfeeding, or how they fed their own kids. As long as they respected other people’s points of view, and were willing to listen and have a real conversation, they would be welcome.

On the other side, we’d leave the zealots and judgmental jerks. Then something magical would happen, maybe involving a fairy godmother who’d been disguised as a gruff barkeep for the whole movie, watching and waiting for the protagonist to figure out the Big Lesson. Sparks would fly, and those of us on the “nice” side would miraculously wake up 24 hours later and go on with our lives, while the others would be stuck in that same day, having the same tired arguments. (Don’t feel bad for them. They’re happier that way.)


But there isn’t a fairy godmother, or even a barkeep, so I’m stuck reciting my lines. I’m not going to be poetic about it, because I’ve written the same article like 7000 times already and I would only plagiarize myself (is that possible?), so I’m just going to list some bullet points, in no particular order, which detail my response to the all the articles and responses and responses to responses, in no particular order:

Breastfeeding moms struggle. They deserve help, and resources, and the right to feed their babies anywhere and in any way they see fit.

- Formula feeding parents struggle. They deserve help, and resources, and the right to feed their babies in whatever way they see fit.

- Infant feeding studies are inherently flawed. All of them. The ones that say what you want them to say, and the ones that say what you don’t. The best we have are sibling studies, of which there are approximately three. Those three do show very negligible benefits of breastfeeding. However, just because research can’t prove that breastfeeding guarantees a healthier, smarter child, does not mean it’s not worth supporting. It is still the biological norm, and there are many reasons it is worthwhile and wonderful that have nothing to do with science. (Incidentally, I find it ironic that SCIENCE is what we use to promote breastmilk, while at the same time being seriously pissed off at SCIENCE for making a damn good substitute for it. Those science-y bastards!)

- We do NOT have solid evidence that breastfeeding is the panacea (at least in western society) that organizations like WHO and UNICEF make it out to be. But remember that WHO and UNICEF are worldwide organizations, and in many parts of the world, not breastfeeding really can be a death sentence. So that might cause a bit of understandable zealotry on the subject.

- It is unfortunate that the only people speaking up about these issues are political scientists and bloggers (one exception: Dr. Amy Tuteur, who has a book coming out very soon which tackles this topic). Consider, though, that it’s basically career suicide for anyone in the medical profession to speak out against breastfeeding pressure.  Until we can have more balanced discussions that don’t result in knee-jerk responses and accusations, I don’t see many practicing MDs volunteering to lead the charge. (There’s a really long discussion on this form of innate censorship in my book, not that anyone has read the damn thing. Because, you know, it’s Groundhog’s Day, and it doesn’t exist in this alternate reality. Or any reality, really, looking at my book sales. Sigh.)

- Infant feeding politics are greatly affected by region, race, class, and social group. What happens to one patient in one hospital doesn’t have much bearing on another patient in another hospital, even one down the street, let alone in a different part of the country. Some people live in breastfeeding-friendly communities where they really are the only person reaching for a bottle. The fact that their statewide statistics show that 50% of the people in their state are also reaching for bottles means nothing, unless those 50% hang out in their neighborhood, with their social circle.

- What happens in Baby Friendly Hospitals is not uniform. What Baby Friendly says in its literature can easily get lost in translation. Many, many parents report feeling bullied and pressured, and left without any resources or support once they chose to formula feed. Telling them that this isn’t happening just because it isn’t happening at the hospital YOU work at, is gaslighting, pure and simple.

- Likewise, just because you were treated like a criminal for asking to supplement, doesn’t mean someone else is lying when they say their child was given formula without reason or consent. Some hospitals are very breastfeeding unfriendly.

- Speaking of which, the whole reason for the huge push with breastfeeding is that for a long time, formula was the norm, and breastfeeding was discouraged. That said…I actually think a case could be made that the truly anti-breastfeeding period was about 2 decades, or about 25 years (50s-mid 70′s). Formula feeding became the norm in the 50′s, and that’s when pediatricians started telling women it was “better” to use commercial formula than their own milk. The pendulum swung the other direction in the mid-70′s (post Nestle disaster) and breastfeeding has been the “right” choice ever since. As it is currently 2015, and the pendulum has been way over on the breastfeeding side from around the early 90s, that means we’ve been pro-breast longer than we were anti-breast. This might be the reason for all the recent backlash – it’s time for another pendulum swing, this time (hopefully) towards the middle.

- Instead of questioning the quality of the breastfeeding research, why aren’t we questioning why we’re still doing meaningless observational studies which do nothing but frame infant feeding (and therefore, necessarily, women’s bodies) as the only element in childhood health and development? Instead, we could be using the money, time and energy finding better alternatives for those who can’t make breastfeeding work, or finding ways to support breastfeeding without harming the psyches of new mothers or marginalizing new dads or adoptive parents. Even studies which look at the chemical composition of breastmilk would be helpful and interesting. But we know that observational studies on the long-term effects of breastfeeding are bullshit, so why do we keep doing them? Seems like an exercise in frustration, to me.

- Breastfeeding supporters (IBCLCs. CLCs, nurses) are not the enemy. I think there are fundamental flaws in the training programs and governing boards that oversee these credentials, things that make it difficult for care providers to do their jobs with empathy and sensitivity. For example, the way IBCLCs are restricted by their code of conduct makes it hard to truly support formula feeding parents, in my opinion. But for those who want to breastfeed, these professionals are a GODSEND. And many do stray from the party line and help parents feed their babies, however that may happen, end of story. Stereotyping is stereotyping, no matter which way you cut it.

- The previous point does not negate the fact that many women have been mistreated and hurt in the name of breastfeeding. The individuals and organizations that perpetuate this behavior must be held accountable, just as much as the formula companies need to be held accountable for their marketing tactics, past and present.

- Speaking of marketing, formula companies have done some god-awful things. But we must be careful not to confuse their modern, generic capitalist behavior with the sins of the past. Sending a formula sample (which can be donated to a food bank or burned at the stake, you choose) is not quite the same thing as sending fake nurses into a resource-poor nation and creating conditions that killed hundred of babies.

- The experiences of formula feeding parents are just as real, valid, and important as the experiences of breastfeeding mothers, and vice versa.

- Listen to those experiences: breastfeeding mothers talk about shame around feeding in public, attitudes towards extended breastfeeding, and a lack of practical support at the hospital. Formula feeding parents talk about shame around the entire first year of feeding, being made to feel like they are harming their children, being chastised by care providers, and having a lack of practical support at the hospital. There are problems and gaps and room for improvement on both sides. It’s not a pissing contest.

- When a new voice arises on the infant feeding debate scene, don’t immediately dismiss it. Maybe there’s a reason for all these articles – maybe there are some real issues going on here, and if we solved them, the articles would stop.


I could say more, but I’m boring myself. I hope you’re bored, too; bored of the constant back and forth, bored of defending yourself and your point of view; bored of fighting. It won’t change until the people in real positions of power – physicians, members of the AAP and WHO and numerous other medical organizations, government officials, parenting “experts” – decide to take a long, hard look at what this “debate” is doing to parents and babies, and realize that if the end goal is a happier, healthier generation, they are failing miserably.

All we can do in the meantime is take care of ourselves and those around us; to tell our stories and talk to those who are willing to listen, and explain why breastfeeding is not, and never will be, the same sort of public health issue as obesity or smoking. Some will put their hands over their ears and refuse to listen, but that’s okay. Keep talking. Force it to be a dialog instead of a lecture. Read the articles you agree with, and the ones you don’t agree with. Find people who support you, and pay it forward by supporting others.

And one day, if we’re lucky, we will all wake up in our beds and find that it’s February 3rd.





Why The World is So Screwed Up About Breastfeeding Research, In Several Paragraphs & A Few Headlines

The headlines:

“Study: Breastfeeding can ward off postpartum depression” (Press TV)

“Breastfeeding mothers less likely to get postnatal depression” (The Independent)

“Breastfeeding ‘helps prevent postnatal depression’” (ITV)

“Breastfeeding could help prevent postnatal depression, says Cambridge researchers” (Cambridge News

“Breastfeeding ‘cuts depression risk’, according to study” (BBC

“Failing to breastfeed may double risk of depression in mothers: study” (Telegraph)

“Mothers who breastfeed are 50% less likely to suffer postnatal depression” (The Independent)

“Mothers who choose not to breastfeed are ‘twice as likely to get postnatal depression because they miss out on mood-boosting hormones released by the process’” (Daily Mail, UK)

“Breastfeeding Keep Mothers Happy and Reduces Postnatal Depression” (International Business Times)

“Breastfeeding moms have lower depression risk” (Health Care Professionals Network)

“Breastfeeding protects mothers from postnatal depression, study finds” (The Australian)


And the reality:

New Evidence on Breastfeeding and Postpartum Depression: The Importance of Understanding Women’s Intentions.

Borra C, Iacovou M, Sevilla A.


This study aimed to identify the causal effect of breastfeeding on postpartum depression (PPD), using data on mothers from a British survey, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Multivariate linear and logistic regressions were performed to investigate the effects of breastfeeding on mothers’ mental health measured at 8 weeks, 8, 21 and 32 months postpartum. The estimated effect of breastfeeding on PPD differed according to whether women had planned to breastfeed their babies, and by whether they had shown signs of depression during pregnancy. For mothers who were not depressed during pregnancy, the lowest risk of PPD was found among women who had planned to breastfeed, and who had actually breastfed their babies, while the highest risk was found among women who had planned to breastfeed and had not gone on to breastfeed. We conclude that the effect of breastfeeding on maternal depression is extremely heterogeneous, being mediated both by breastfeeding intentions during pregnancy and by mothers’ mental health during pregnancy. Our results underline the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed; but also, of providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to.

In other words, women who wanted to breastfeed and did = low risk of PPD. Women who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t = high risk of PPD. The researchers stress “providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed but…found themselves unable to”.

This does not prove that breastfeeding cuts depression risk. It proves that women who had a goal and met it tend to have lower rates of depression. It does not prove that there is a biological reason that breastfeeding may be protective against depression. That may indeed be the case, but then the depression risk would have been similarly high in women who never intended to breastfeed.

Our societal confirmation bias is so damn strong, that we blatantly overlook the finding that suggests something potentially negative about breastfeeding promotion. But here’s something to ponder: while we can’t force insufficient glandular tissue to produce adequate milk, or force women to breastfeed who don’t want to, we CAN ensure that every mother gets support in her feeding journey. We CAN listen to research that suggests the pressure to breastfeed is contributing to feelings of guilt, shame, and judgment – a potent trifecta of emotions for those prone to depression – and do something about it. If we are going to take this one study as “truth”, as so many parenting-related studies are mistakenly interpreted, something good might as well come out of it.

At this point, there is a pretty clear correlation between not breastfeeding and PPD. Instead of using this as ammunition against formula use, we could be asking the tougher questions: Why are women who don’t breastfeed more depressed? If it is something biological, wouldn’t the rates of PPD have been skyrocketing in past generation where breastfeeding was rare? If we stop making breastfeeding seem like the only-best-right choice to raise a happy, healthy child, would it mitigate this risk?



One of my favorite quotes about research comes from the Nobel-prize winning scientist who discovered the importance of vitamin C, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi: “Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” These days, the reverse seems to be true – research is to confirm what everybody else has seen, and everybody has already thought. This needs to change, and it won’t, as long as our society and media turns even the most interesting findings into self-confirming soundbytes.


A World Breastfeeding Week Plea: Stop celebrating, start collaborating

Usually, I’m all over the place this week. Getting quoted in the requisite “it may be breastfeeding week but gosh darnit some women still find exclusive breastfeeding super hard” articles. Posting my own stuff here on the blog, or over on HuffPo. Talking about #ISupportYou and pissing off hundreds of people in the process, because they see it as a veiled attempt to “steal the thunder” from World Breastfeeding Week.

But this year, I’m all but invisible.

Part of this was unintentional. I’ve been going through some stressful career-change mishigas, dealing with the inevitable gaps in childcare that occur between camp and school, entertaining a ridiculous number of visiting extended family members. I’ve been too exhausted to blog, or talk to media sources, or self-promote (because let’s be honest – that’s a part of what all of us parenting bloggers do. Even the most altruistic of us. Even those of us who don’t depend on hits or advertising or who never make a cent off their blogs. We write because we want to be heard; we pray for bigger audiences, book deals, evidence that we’ve made some sort of impact. I happen to be rather shitty at this, which is why I don’t blog much anymore. I don’t have the stomach for that part of the job).

Another part of my conspicuous silence has been intentional, however. Probably more than I care to admit. See, I’ve been focusing my efforts on the supportive stuff. Reaching across the aisle, trying to understand all facets of this debate, and hoping that by creating better resources for all moms, I can help stop all the guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. I know that breastfeeding is important to many, many women. I want those women to succeed, and feel happy and proud and supported. So this year, I wanted to try and stay out of World Breastfeeding Week drama like I try and stay out of my kids’ sibling squabbles.

Yeah. Because that works so well with my kids.

The problem is, I also want formula feeding mothers to feel happy and proud and supported. And for some reason, it’s not okay to want both of these things. It’s ok to pay lip service to it, to claim #ISupportYou and tell formula feeding moms that celebrating breastfeeding isn’t about them. But if you actually do the work you need to do to ensure that non-breastfeeding parents are supported, you are violating WHO Code. You are taking attention away from the women who “need it”. You are stealing…. what? Resources? Sympathy? One-up(wo)manship?

I tried to stay out of it. I really did. I held my newly-minted CLC certification close to my non-lactating chest and bit my tongue.

And then the articles came, and came, and came. And so many this year were not about the benefits of breastfeeding, but rather how hard it was. Or how hard it was NOT to breastfeed. How this mom felt like she was poisoning her baby, or this one felt like she’d be booted from the “mom club” because she didn’t wear the EBF badge.

So much guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. None of it is stopping. There’s more this year than ever before.

Then this happened.

And I heard my community inwardly wince. Not for the reasons you might think. Not because they didn’t think it was a beautiful image, and not because it glamorized something that had been messy and painful for most of them, although those certainly were thoughts that some of us had to squash down into that endless pit of mother-guilt. No, it was because it was yet another image of a breastfeeding celebrity, with headlines and stories that spoke of her bravery for normalizing nursing, and comments all over the place about how breastfeeding was finally being celebrated.

I think, for many of us, it was the “finally” that did it. For many of us, it would seem far braver for a celebrity to do a shoot with her bottle-feeding her kid with a can of formula in the background. We have only seen breastfeeding being celebrated. There’s so much partying going on, and we feel like the crotchety old neighbors calling the cops with a noise complaint. But you know, it’s late, the music is loud, and we’re tired.

Now, just to be clear – I’m talking about breastfeeding being “celebrated” That celebration doesn’t do us much good. It does not mean that it is easy for moms to nurse in public. Obviously, it isn’t. Or that lactation services are plentiful and accessible to all. Obviously, they aren’t. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but that doesn’t stop it from being difficult for the new mom in the hospital, whose birth didn’t go as planned. Or the one who has to go back to work 2 weeks postpartum. Or the one with a job not conducive to pumping. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but not when you’re overweight. Or when you’re nursing a toddler.

Idealized images in the media of what breastfeeding looks like do not normalize nursing. In fact, I’d argue it fetishizes it – not for men, so much, but for women. Now, we don’t just have to feel inadequate for not fitting into size 2 jeans a month after giving birth, but we need to feel inadequate if we don’t meet the feeding norm and make it look gorgeous and natural and easy.

Please do not misread what I’m saying here – talking about breastfeeding, supporting breastfeeding, and implementing changes to make breastfeeding easier for those who want to do it are important, admirable, and necessary goals, as far as I’m concerned. But the comments I saw coming from my community after this photo hit the news were not about any of these things. They were from women feeling totally drained, frustrated, and alienated after a nearly a week of hearing how inferior their feeding method was, who were sick of being told they were defensive or that they feel guilty if they tried to stand up for themselves. This story was the last straw. It’s weird, when you think about it – it wasn’t the piece on the risks of formula, or the memes about the superiority of breastfed babies – what broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous spread of a gorgeous, confident actress proudly nursing her baby.

This is what perpetuates the cycle of guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt: our lived experiences are so damn different, that it’s like we’re constantly talking at cross-purposes. The nursing mom who is the only one in her small town not using a bottle sees a photo spread like this as thrilling, victorious, self-affirming – as she should. The formula feeding mom living in Park Slope who carries her formula-filled diaper bag like a modern-day hairshirt sees the same spread as just another celebrity being held up as a pioneer, when she’s only doing what’s expected of a woman of her stature – as she should. Both are right. Because both are personal, emotionally-driven responses.

Earlier this week, I said that deciding how to feed your baby is just one of a myriad of important parenting decisions. But somehow, it’s become the most important one. We cannot expect formula feeding moms to support their breastfeeding sisters when they don’t receive the same support. We just can’t. It’s not fair, and it’s not realistic. I feel like that’s what I’ve been asking of all of you, and somehow I just woke up to that fact.

Why are there still articles talking about how shitty we feel for not breastfeeding, instead of articles talking about what’s being done to change this? Where is the news story about the doctors who are saying enough is enough (because I know they are out there – many of them contact me, and I appreciate these emails, but I wish they were able to say these things publicly without fear of career suicide)? Where’s the NPR program about ways we can improve breastmilk substitutes so those who cannot or choose not to nurse aren’t left hanging? Where’s the Today Show, The View, The Katie Show, doing segments on why women are REALLY not meeting breastfeeding recommendations, instead of segment after segment on how brave so-and-so is for posing nursing their newborn on Instagram, or talking to dumbasses on the street about the “appropriate” age for weaning?

When we stop “celebrating” and start normalizing and supporting and being realistic about how different life can be even just a street away, maybe World Breastfeeding Week can have it’s proper due. Maybe we can actually talk about ways to help women in the most dire straits feed their babies as safely as possible – clean water, free breast pumps, free refrigeration, access to donor milk.

I want to be able to be silent during World Breastfeeding Week. It shouldn’t have to be “overshadowed” by emotional, personal pieces about breastfeeding “failure”. It shouldn’t be a time for articles about not making formula feeding moms feel “guilty”. These words shouldn’t even be part of our infant feeding lexicon, for godsakes. Failure? Guilt? For what?

This year, I want us to stop celebrating, and start having some calm, productive conversations with people outside your social circle. For many of us, the celebration feels exactly like high school, when the popular kids had parties and we sat home watching Sixteen Candles for the thirty-fifth time. That’s not to say breastfeeding isn’t worth celebrating, but the end goal should not be one group feeling triumphant and the other feeling downtrodden. Formula feeding was celebrated for decades too – and that celebration made the current atmosphere of breastfeeding promotion necessary. Please, let’s learn from our mistakes. Let’s move on. Rip down the streamers, put away the keg, and open the doors to the outsiders looking in. You never know – they could end up being the best friends you’ve ever had.


Breastfeeding pressure doesn’t care about privilege

I am privileged.

I’m not rich, but I have never gone hungry; never been without a roof over my head; never wanted for anything (well, nothing more pressing than a better body and maybe a date with Ewan MacGregor circa Trainspotting). I don’t know how it feels to be judged by the color of my skin. I’ve been discriminated against, as a Jew and a woman; called names like kyke and jewbeggar and bitch, but I’ve never been racially profiled or held back by a language barrier, or assumed to be suspicious or uneducated because of the way I look.  I have a great husband and amazing friends and ridiculously supportive parents and in laws.

I realize that in the United States, this means I am incredibly lucky. I also realize that this means I have no business assuming things about anyone else’s lived experience. It doesn’t matter how many academic texts I read or people I speak with in a clinical setting – I can’t know how it feels to be dependent on welfare, or in an abusive relationship, or at a dead-end job with a sexually harassing boss.

I often hear that the pressure to breastfeed is a problem plaguing a specific socioeconomic and geographical subset of women; that my assumption that women are being harmed by overzealous breastfeeding promotion is dripping with “privilege-laden assumptions”. The people making these claims insist that poor, minority women think formula is superior (because they’ve all been victims of unscrupulous marketing and social pressure), and do not know the benefits of breastfeeding, and that if anything they feel ostracized if they breastfeed. Formula feeding, they say, is the unfortunate norm – my concerns have no place in these communities.

I don’t deny that I am coming from a certain perspective, and I always acknowledge that things are different depending on where you live, and what your social circles are doing. I also don’t deny that these social and marketing influences are real. But I think it’s just as privileged to assume that all women in lower socioeconomic areas need to be “educated”, and to ignore the fact that the lower a woman’s status in society, the easier it is for her bodily autonomy or emotional well-being to be violated. Ensuring that the rights of these women are protected is more important than raising breastfeeding rates – and the same policies which are worrisome for a privileged white woman are even more deleterious for someone whose voice is already struggling to be heard.

Yesterday morning, I met with two women who work at an organization serving a lower income neighborhood of Manhattan, helping teenage mothers from a variety of cultural backgrounds. These women told me that in some of the ethnic groups they serve, breastfeeding is very much the norm; in others, it is not as culturally accepted. Their organization is extremely pro-breastfeeding – there is no formula available at their office to give to girls in need, and they encourage breastfeeding throughout the prenatal period and beyond. But when I brought up the idea that the girls these women work with are not being affected by the “breastfeeding makes good mothers” philosophy, I was met with disbelief. “The ivory tower ideal is even more of an ideal for someone who is already struggling to fit the definition of a good mother,” one of them explained. They expressed a need for better messaging – encouraging at-risk women to focus on mothering rather than just feeding. Things like promoting skin-to-skin, reading to your baby, eye contact… not putting the emphasis on breastfeeding as the be-all end-all of parenting.

I also learned that the breastfeeding education these girls are given mostly consists of comparisons between formula and breastmilk, and information on how breastfeeding leads to better bonding and healthier kids. There is little instruction on the actual mechanics of breastfeeding, or how to manage the lifestyle barriers that could make exclusive nursing difficult. So while these young women may go into labor wanting very badly to give their babies the best (and they are well aware its the best, as their prenatal education features lectures on the differences between formula fed and breastfed babies), once they leave the maternity ward and have to return to work or school within a few weeks, without successfully establishing breastfeeding, or knowing how to pump, or how to advocate for their right to express in the workplace (if their workplace even falls under the parameters of the latest breastfeeding laws, many end up on formula- without any advice on how to do so safely.

After that meeting, I had lunch with an FFF who lives in Brooklyn. Her story was all too familiar – wanting to breastfeed, finding herself faced with low supply, getting conflicting advice from healthcare providers, balancing her own health and sanity with her (incredibly nuanced) understanding of breastfeeding’s benefits. The same sort of story we often see on this blog, from an educated mom with a supportive partner who had the ability to hire lactation consultants, and knew how to read scientific literature well enough to suss out her own risk/benefit analysis.

Obviously, this woman came from a very different situation than the women represented in the day’s earlier conversation.  But there was a remarkable similarity in what was expressed by everyone I spoke to. There was consensus on what we need: a more balanced, less hysterical, more individualized approach to infant feeding. All agreed that an honest discussion of the challenges of breastfeeding would be helpful, and that education on formula feeding safely and knowledgeably would go a long way in protecting the physical health of babies and the emotional health of mothers, regardless of their socioeconomic or ethnic background.

The stories these women are telling are not about white or black, native or immigrant, poor or rich. This isn’t about politics. It’s about what will be the best choice for an individual woman in her individual circumstances. These are stories with one moral: that we can – we must – support a woman’s right to breastfeed as well as her right to choose not to breastfeed.  This isn’t about doing away with Baby Friendly, because we need to ensure that women are getting a good start to breastfeeding and every opportunity to make it work (and that means switching the focus from vilifying formula to actually helping women initiate and sustain breastfeeding in practical ways). But we need to speak up and insist that there is a way to do this without loading more pressure onto new mothers.

I have a feeling breastfeeding guilt is seen as a problem of the privileged, because we are the ones with the time, resources, and autonomy to speak up about it. That doesn’t mean women of other backgrounds aren’t feeling the same pressure, perhaps manifesting in even more damaging ways. Still, it’s not my place to pretend to understand them, or to put words in their mouths. There’s no way I could, because these women aren’t an aggregate. They are individuals. To speak for the “disenfranchised” or “minority communities” as a sole entity is asinine. My experience is extremely different from other moms in middle-class Los Angeles – that doesn’t make it any less real, or valid.

One-size-fits-all infant feeding policies do not work, because women are not one-size-fits-all. In fact, in both fashion and life, one size usually just fits a lucky few. To label breastfeeding guilt as solely an experience of one type of woman, and paternalistic “education” as necessary for another, is just plain wrong.  It would be nice, instead of arguing about who has the most altruistic motives to help certain groups of moms feel empowered, we just focused on empowering all women to make choices that feel right for them, and to decide how their bodies are utilized.  Because while I would never attempt to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s a privileged assumption that most of us would appreciate the ability to speak for ourselves.



Can formula feeding really be “fearless”?

The lovely KJ Dell’Antonia recently mentioned my book and blog in a Motherlode column she wrote about the recent onslaught of breastfeeding-pressure backlash. There was the refreshing -albeit unfortunately titled- piece by a father in the Atlantic, followed by another excellent Motherlode post by writer Marie C. Baca about “embracing” bottle feeding- these came on the heels of a number of other articles which cropped up over the summer and in the early fall, as a result of Latch On NYC and a few other initiatives that have passed in the United States and abroad. Dell’Antonia observed that in all of these writers’ submissions (including yours truly’s) to the infant feeding discourse, one thing remained consistent:

…What’s striking about Ms. Barston’s and Mr. Kornelis’s stories, and most stories of “fearless formula feeding” is still really how “fearless” they aren’t. In every narrative of not breastfeeding, there is the obligatory note of failure, as though justification were the first order of the day… for most women, not nursing, for whatever reason, remains a troubling topic. As long as women are occupied with the litany of excuses… then the conversation will stay on defending the bottle or breast, and off the more important question of how to ensure that the choice between them is dictated more by health and happiness and less by circumstance.

This struck a nerve with me. Scratch that – it pinched a nerve. Her theory was like a constant, nagging backache, reminding me that it needed attention every time I moved a bit too fast. It took me a few days to untangle what bothered me so much about these assertions; the ensuing discussion on the FFF Facebook page only served to deepen my desire for answers (or a good massage).

All of you made fantastic points about why we so often appear to be defensive about our choices. Some argued that while we may indeed give excuses, this is because we are conditioned to expect judgment. “I think our stories are tinged with defensiveness since before even sharing them we are already preparing to be attacked,” Tara mused. Lisa echoed that sentiment. “For me, it wasn’t inner guilt – it was everyone’s expectation that I SHOULD feel guilty and that I had done something wrong. Frankly, I was outright pissed off by the insinuations and outright accusations that by formula feeding my daughter, I was setting her up to be fat, stupid, and unhealthy. That’s where my defensiveness came from – the need to defend my choice.” And others thoughtfully mentioned that while we may indeed appear defensive, a lot of it may simply be our way of dealing with complex emotions over the inability to do something we wanted very badly to do:   “”I don’t believe that guilt is a simple emotion – I felt guilty because my boobs failed, I also felt guilty that I was happy that formula was working for us. I felt I was letting my daughter and others down. Guilt is often the result of being unable to change a moment in time – it’s not always about what is right or wrong,” wrote Allison.

As a few of you rightly pointed out, so much comes down to perspective. Unless you have lived through this particular kind of hell, you just can’t understand it. As Misty explained. “I think they mistake bitterness with defensiveness. Unless you’ve suffered the same societal and personal condemnation and guilt tripping that comes with the breast v bottle war, you can’t imagine what kind of damage and pain it causes to a woman’s soul. Obviously, not every woman who tried to nurse but went to formula experiences anguish about it, but many of us do, especially those who had fully embraced the ‘breast is best’ mantra. I still struggle with resentment toward the BFing friends and professionals who, in my opinion, needlessly caused me to suffer terribly as a new mother. I still have sorrow that my first year as a mother was so joyless, because others chose to reinforce my flawed views about BFing (which I’d gotten from them) instead of guiding me compassionately to a more balanced and emotionally healthier way of feeding my child.”

Perspective also plays into the issue of defensiveness in another way: the further away from it you are, the easier it is to approach the “Why I Formula Fed” question dispassionately. I guarantee that for most new mothers, ten years from now- hell, even five – this debate will bore the hell out of them. Other issues will take its place – education, bullying, puberty, safety concerns, etc. However, there are those of us for whom this isn’t just a personal tragedy, but a social problem, a cause which deserves our anger and outrage and yes, defensiveness. I don’t think it’s entirely realistic to hope that we can move away from defensiveness completely, because we are typically reacting to offensiveness.

I think you can be fearless and simultaneously feel the need to defend yourself. All “fearless” formula feeding means to me is that you feel you have made the best choice for your family, for your baby, for you. Fearless doesn’t necessarily mean regret-less, guilt-less, anger-less, resentful-less. It just means you’re not scared of your choice, because you know it is safe, and you know it was right.

But as for what KJ refers to as the “litany of excuses”… I’ve always suspected these are a necessary tool, a ticket to participate in the conversation. By explaining how much you wanted to nurse, and talking about all the struggle you went through to do it, it might help the opposition understand that this is not a matter of lack of education or drive. That it would at least start us on a level playing field, and take down the barricades at the border – I wanted to nurse, you wanted to nurse, we both believe in breastfeeding, so let’s try and discuss this rationally. I have nothing but admiration for women gutsy enough to just come out and say nursing wasn’t for them – I loved Amy Sullivan’s essay in The New Republic, and it was, indeed, the most “fearless” argument for bottle feeding I’ve seen (interestingly, Dell’Antonia felt that Baca’s piece was free from the normal guilt-ridden excuses. I thought it was an excellent piece, on every level – I mean really, really excellent, and quite fearless in a number of important ways – but the fact remains that Baca still mentioned that that she was physically unable to nurse. That gives her a “pass”, in many people’s estimation; it’s still a preemptive strike against condemnation, unconscious as it may have been). But one look at the comment section of Sullivan’s editorial, and you’ll see that it immediately erupted into a hate-fest. Breastfeeding moms took her words as an affront to their method of feeding; breastfeeding advocates told her she was misinformed; judgmental sanctimommies hurled accusations of the usual flavors- Sullivan was selfish, shouldn’t have had kids, etc.

Still, in the past few months, I’ve noticed something: no matter what the writer says, in every online piece I’ve read about formula feeding, the response thread is Exactly. The. Same. The same arguments, the same people, the same facts and studies and name-calling. So while I think we have a right to our emotions – whether these emotions are guilt or regret or anger or pride- we shouldn’t feel the need to state our case in order to create a more peaceful discourse. No matter what you tell them, haters are gonna hate, or whatever that saying is.

Ultimately, I think KJ is right: I’m not sure we can move forward in creating positive change for anyone until we can stop the vicious cycle of guilt-defensiveness-bitterness. I would argue, though, that this is not the responsibility of the women (or men) sharing their stories, but rather that the conversation at large needs to change focus and tone. This might start with media outlets allowing for more nuanced, balanced features on why breastfeeding isn’t working for so many women, rather than coping out with opinion pieces. It might continue with physicians being able to speak out against some of the newest breastfeeding promotion endeavors without risking their careers to do so. It might end with us accepting that changing our society to be more breastfeeding-friendly is far less of a public health issue than it is a question of personal freedom, women’s rights, and trusting our own instincts over what the experts deem is best.



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