Most Women Stop Breastfeeding by Six Months. Whose Fault Is That?

Oh bouncing baby boy, here comes the next round in the never-ending slugfest over the health benefits of breastfeeding:

The lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women breast-fed their babies for the first six months of life, a cost analysis says. ….The findings suggest that there are hundreds of deaths and many more costly illnesses each year from health problems that breast-feeding may help prevent. These include stomach viruses, ear infections, asthma, juvenile diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and even childhood leukemia.

That's according to an AP article, covering a new study just released by the journal Pediatrics.

I bet a lot of bottle-feeding mothers are going to read that paragraph, sigh, and think: “Great. Now I’m being blamed for billions of dollars in health care costs and 900 dead babies.”

The AP writer must have anticipated such a reaction, because she goes on to quote not one but two doctors saying we “shouldn’t be blaming mothers for this.” Then she puts the blame elsewhere: “jobs and other demands” that prevent women from breastfeeding, and “many hospitals [where] newborns are offered formula even when their mothers intend to breast-feed.” CNN’s take on the study is even more explicit in pointing its finger at an apparently unsupportive medical-industrial complex:

Bartick says moms shouldn’t be blamed, because they receive mixed messages and often lack support from the moment their babies are born. Bartick says many hospitals delay immediate urgent skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby, which can make things harder for the newborn to act on its natural instincts to suckle. Moms also need to be better educated about the importance of breastfeeding and they need adequate support after they leave the hospital in case they run into problems because the newborn isn’t properly latching on and therefore not getting enough food.

This may sound progressive, but it’s not new. It’s the standard line from breastfeeding advocates, lactation consultants, et al: Breastfeeding is a medical miracle, but we shouldn’t blame mothers who don’t manage to do it long-term, because they surely would if the corporate patriarchy weren’t preventing them from doing so.

There’s some truth in this argument. Yes, breastfeeding does have health benefits (although we could argue all day about the magnitude of those benefits, especially given how complex and multifactorial the diseases listed in this article are – breastfeeding prevents leukemia?). Yes, many hospitals do send new mothers home with formula samples, and many workplaces make it difficult or impossible to pump breast milk during the day. Yes, mothers need “adequate support” (and that doesn’t just mean a visit from the local La Leche League rep) immediately after bringing a newborn home.

But it is simply silly to argue that all women would breastfeed for six months (or a year, or even two years, as the World Health Organization recommends) if only The Man weren’t keeping them down. Some women find breastfeeding immensely painful – they get infections; they get bitten; they wind up with babies who just can’t latch properly even after multiple consults with a lactation expert. Other women want desperately to breastfeed and have all the “support” in the world that should enable them to do so, but their breasts just won’t cooperate.

I was one of these. My hospital nurses knew all about “skin-to-skin.” My baby latched perfectly. My family and friends made sure I had all the support I needed throughout my luxuriously long maternity leave. My “supply,” to use the preferred euphemism, was at first so bountiful that my hospital’s maternity support group recruited me to demonstrate breastfeeding for other new moms. I threw out the doctor-provided formula samples like so many soiled diapers.

And then, at four months, the milk dried up. My daughter’s weight fell from the 25th percentile to the seventh. She was so hungry she couldn’t sleep at night. Still, I fought putting her on formula. I spent whole days in bed, futilely trying to nurse, until our pediatrician gently told me that this wasn’t my fault, and I should stop crying, because what my baby really needed wasn’t my milk: it was me.

We gave my daughter a bottle of formula that evening – I made my husband do it, because I couldn’t – and for the first time in weeks, she slept through the night. She is 13 months old now. She has never had a stomach virus or an ear infection. If someday she develops asthma or diabetes or, God forbid, leukemia, I will of course be sad. But I won’t feel guilty, and neither should anyone else in the same situation.

I know there’s no way to convey the emotional complexity of breastfeeding in an AP article. But it would be a good start if, when writing about why some women don’t breastfeed, the standard line went something like this: Breastfeeding has some health benefits, but we shouldn’t blame mothers who don’t manage to do it long-term, because not everyone can. Sometimes that is the fault of hospitals and corporate workplaces and formula makers. And sometimes -- it may be unsatisfying to say it, but it's true -- there really is no one to blame.