breastfeeding might be natural, but nature's often trying to kill us
As you’ve probably read, there’s a formula shortage in the US right now, and rather than inspiring action or sympathy for parents struggling to feed their babies, it’s somehow sparked a lot of condescending comments about how breastfeeding is better, anyway.
See, for example, this opportunistic fool who is, of course, running for Congress:
Lots has been said (for years! “The Case Against Breastfeeding, by Hanna Rosin, which was really important to me when I had my babies in 2013 and 2015, was published in 2009!!!) about how breastfeeding is not actually free, or is only free if you think of women’s time as worthless.
Another category of response is the “breastfeeding isn’t actually that hard” line—almost without fail issued by a dude, though Bette Midler (?) recently decided to weigh in. (Twitter really is the Bad Place right now.)
Stephanie Ruhle @SRuhleThe baby formula shortage reveals an amazing secret oligopoly: - 3 American companies control over 90% of the mkt - hugely restrictive regulations (thanks to big $ lobbying) prohibit foreign formulas Name another industry/sector/product like this
My least favorite version of this was a guy (I won’t include his tweet here, because he’s a private dummy and presumably not running for public office YET) who said something like “if it’s so hard, it must suck for all the animals that breastfeed their young” and YOU KNOW WHAT BUDDY, IT PROBABLY DOES. Because do you know what happens to mammal newborns whose mothers die or won’t feed them? They die, too.
(There’s actually a little more nuance to this: some mammals, like mice, are non-selective, meaning they’ll nurse whatever newborn happens to be around; but lots of mammals, like ungulates, sheep, and—you guessed it!—primates, are selective and will only nurse their own young. But the big picture is that a nursing newborn is incredibly vulnerable, and that’s true across mammal species.)
In other words, breastfeeding might be “natural,” but nature’s often trying to kill us.
Breastfeeding’s great—in the way same way that unmedicated vaginal birth and cloth diapers and making all your own baby purees from organic local produce is great—if it works for you, and if you have the (considerable!) resources to manage it.
One thing I’ve been really grateful for in the past week or so has been people sharing their stories about using formula—because their milk didn’t come in, because they didn’t want to nurse, because they wanted to avoid the lopsided childcare labor that often results from one partner breastfeeding, and more.
So here’s my formula story:
When I got pregnant with my first son, the first thing I remember my mother-in-law (who’s lovely and not at all pushy!) asking me was if I planned to breastfeed. “Oh yes,” I answered, blinking at her. What was the alternative? Vodka? Gasoline? The breast-is-best messaging was so powerful in Madison, where we lived then, that I’d genuinely not considered anything else. Why would you feed your baby mysterious chemicals made in a factory, when you could just give it what your body would make naturally, for free?
And even through the really awful early days of breastfeeding—lactation specialists see a lot, I imagine, and I managed to startle mine with the sores on my nipples that resulted from a weekend of determined nursing with a bad latch—it never occurred to me that I might switch to formula, or even supplement. I remember one day telling a friend who was also nursing a small baby, “I just can’t imagine feeding my baby formula. I mean, I don’t even know what’s in that.”
(Did I know what was in breastmilk? Of course not. But it was natural, and therefore certain to be superior, I thought.)
But once I was back on campus a couple days a week, pumping to feed the baby when he went to daycare, I had a problem: the pump wasn’t a baby, and my body wasn’t fooled. I read every tip about producing more for a pump. I took the pump to the natural baby store to get the pressure tested. I bought different size flanges, started taking fenugreek again until my sweat smelled like maple syrup, a sign, the internet told me, it was working. And four or five or more times a day I’d hook myself up to the pump, and sometimes after 20 or 30 minutes I’d barely produced enough to cover the bottom of the bottle. Pumping filled me with despair and rage. It made me feel like malfunctioning farm equipment.
And even with all those struggles, it wasn’t until I was at a friend’s house and saw a carton of formula out on her counter like it was no big deal that I could come around to using it myself.
I was at E’s for a Milk & Mimosas party with a bunch of the other women from the department who had babies. When I stepped into the kitchen to get more coffee, I saw a canister of formula—Similac, labeled for supplementation—on the counter beside E. I was shocked. E and I had done prenatal yoga together. She visited me when the babies were brand new, and we spent an afternoon talking in my living room as the babies cooed and nursed and slept. We’d meant to go for a walk but never made it out the door, occupied then entirely with the needs of those new babies and the way as new mothers it took our total concentration to meet them.
E must have seen me looking at the formula. “I started supplementing,” she said. “Pumping at work was just so hard, I’d always be having to reschedule a meeting, and it just took so much time out of my work day.”
Emily’s reasons for supplementing were so entirely reasonable. I looked at her, the kind of composed, loving mother I so wanted to be. She was giving her daughter formula, and they were all still fine. If I didn’t judge her for that, why should I judge myself? We started supplementing, and I gave up a huge source of stress. Now I just wish I’d been able to get there sooner.
more smart words on formula from around the internet
Aubrey Hirsch’s new graphic essay at Vox does a great job explaining why breastfeeding isn’t actually free.
I’ll close today with this bit of wisdom from Laura Goode’s great essay, My Formula-Fed Miracle:
Here’s what I wish someone had told me about formula-feeding: Formula-fed babies often sleep longer, because it’s easier to regulate how much food they’re getting. Formula-feeding mothers also sleep longer, because their babies go longer between feedings, and because night feedings can be shared between caregivers — my sainted husband, bless him, eagerly stepped up to those night feedings, and bonded fast and hard with our baby through them. Formula allows mothers dramatically greater liberty in the first year of a child’s life, because you can be gone for more than two hours without being tethered to baby or pump. I had my first overnight getaway with friends when my son was two months old: a freedom unthinkable to many of my nursing friends for three or four times as long. Formula allowed me to enjoy the occasional buzz without fear of poisoning my baby. It allowed me to return to work, to put my child in daycare, and to share the snuggle-high of a suckling newborn with his father, grandparents, daycare provider, and anyone else within arm’s reach when I needed to poop. As it turned out, none of those were insignificant factors in my mental and physical health.