Women pregnant for the first time are hit with a lot of new information. They start learning details about pregnancy, child birth, and babies that are rarely observable to nonparents. Quickly they also see how politically-charged much of parenting is. Your choices about how and where to give birth, where your newborn will sleep, and how you will feed, clothe, and raise your baby aren’t just an expression of your preferences, but are often taken as markers of your world view. It can make already stressful decisions even more so.
Breastfeeding is one of the biggest political hot button topics in the parenting sphere. When I was becoming a mom in 2005, pressure to breastfeed was intense. Pregnant women were lectured that breast milk was strongly associated with all sorts of positive outcomes for junior: fewer illnesses, better health outcomes, less of a risk for obesity, and higher IQs. The implication was that formula wasn’t just inferior; it was bad for children. Breastfeeding was natural, while formula was some manufactured, chemical-laden soup produced by big businesses that cared little for our babies’ health.
I was lucky: My daughter nursed easily and my flexible work situation allowed me to continue for well over a year. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Almost every woman I knew had wanted to breastfeed, but many faced big challenges: babies who wouldn’t latch, breast infections, and tough work schedules. They weren’t just disappointed, but suffered from tremendous guilt given the message from every public health expert and parenting authority that they were failing their children and that the consequences for doing so would be long lasting.
In the years since, studies have quietly revealed that the supposed health benefits of breastfeeding are much more modest than had been advertised. The findings that suggested breast milk was an elixir tended not to control properly for incredibly important socioeconomic factors. Basically, moms who breastfeed tend to have more money and education than moms who don’t, so it’s just as likely that those factors, not the breastfeeding, explain the better outcomes. We’ve also become more aware in the last decade that women tend to have too little vitamin D, which means their breastmilk does too. Breastfed babies need vitamin D supplements to make sure they aren’t missing out.
Suddenly formula doesn’t seem like such a bad option. Sadly, getting a straight answer on the pros and cons of breastfeeding isn’t easy, especially since one has the sense that public health officials are loath to reverse or even soften their guidance on the issue. There are plenty of groups—breast feeding advocates, women’s groups who champion regulations to require businesses to provide women with dedicated nursing rooms, environmentalist and naturalists who simply oppose alternatives to mother nature—that are heavily vested in the status quo.
Yet now, it appears a new twist in our politically-correct priorities could change the dynamic and politics of public debate about breastfeeding. A new study by Pediatrics warns against calling breastfeeding “natural” since that reinforces traditional expectations for genders and mothers being the primary caretakers of their babies. As Tom Knighton at PJ Media sums it up:
Those aligned with the “party of science” have been, ironically, finding sillier and sillier ways to pretend that biology isn’t science.
For example, nature—not intellect—created breastfeeding, so by definition breastfeeding is natural. However, a major medical journal has just published a study arguing that calling nature “natural” is “unethical,” because truth is problematic or something.
I’ve long hoped that public officials would stop overstating breastfeeding’s benefits and stop trying to guilt women about their failure to breastfeed long enough. Yet it’s maddening that the change should result not from a reassessment of the facts, but rather due to kowtowing to political correctness.
Clearly breastfeeding is natural. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way or even the best way to feed your baby, but we ought to be willing to acknowledge that mother nature did give females a pretty amazing power to generate food for their offspring (for free!). That’s something for women and new moms to feel good about. We don’t need to try to insist that it’ll lead to a higher IQ or lower BMI for your child, or imply that formula isn’t a perfectly healthy and nutritious alternative for those for whom breast feeding isn’t an option. But it is a capability that new moms can be proud of.
It’s past time to get politics out of this personal issue. Each new mom deserves the best information about the pros and cons of breastfeeding and formula in terms of health, without politically-correct “gender neutral framing” or a heaping of unnecessary guilt to go with it.