A friend of mine posted this article to Facebook today, an argument against breastfeeding. While I can appreciate the #slatepitch-iness of arguing against the merits of breastfeeding, I nonetheless felt like rebutting with a comment. However, I ended up writing something that would have been absolutely ridiculous as a Facebook comment, so rather than inflicting it on the my friend’s Facebook page I decided to inflict it on the blog:
Some thoughts on the subject of breastfeeding vs formula, based on personal observations and some research I’ve done as a young parent. I’ve also had this proofread by our household expert on the subject (i.e. my wife), who signs off on the major conclusions. (In the interests of disclosure, our son is breastfed. He also eats as much as I can at lunch, while getting as much again on the floor. But that’s a different story.)
a) Women should be given the best information available, and encouraged to make their own informed choices about how to raise their child(ren). (Observant readers will note that we already have a problem here, as “the best information available” changes over time. I found this history of infant feeding interesting and well researched, albeit on the too-long-didn’t-read side: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684040/)
Simply put, there is no one right way to raise children.
b) Breastfeeding vs formula is a contentious issue, one among many that mothers face. The balance of evidence that I have read makes it pretty clear that there are some real benefits to breastfeeding that are impossible to reproduce through formula. While there are studies that question some of these findings, the preponderance of evidence points in a pro-breast-fed direction. (Here’s one compilation: http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/Research/Breastfeeding-research—An-overview/. The NIH article linked to above has more.)
That said, children who are bottle-fed end up fine, too. I was bottle-fed, and I’m told I’m nice enough, and good fun at parties. Well, I was before I became a young parent. Anyways, you can hold the position that breastfeeding carries distinct advantages, without also holding the position that bottle-feeding is bad. I can think a healthy diet and regular exercise are good things to do, while still accepting that many people (especially young parents, as it happens) do neither of these things and yet live long and happy lives.
c) Mothers in working poverty are a tremendous problem in Canada, much bigger than most of us realize. However, for me the ideal solution is not to push mothers towards more work-friendly parenting choices, particularly expensive ones like formula feeding. (As a side note, anyone who argues that formula is a better way for mothers to get back to work has probably never tried to heat up formula and sterilize a bottle at 3 in the morning. Again, there are no easy solutions here.) Say what you will about breastfeeding but there’s no denying it’s the cheapest way to feed a young infant. In many countries around the world, and in more families than we’d like to acknowledge in here in Canada, that small margin really can make a tremendous difference.
In my view, the right approach is to provide better financial and social support for young mothers, to enable them to make the choices they are most comfortable with. Things like family allowances and public daycare, and not another salvo in the mommy wars.