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…I’m Only the Messenger!


In April’s edition of “The Atlantic Monthly,” Hanna Rosin raises the question of whether breastfeeding is really the elixir it’s been made out to be, or merely an instrument of torture to suppress women and start them down the road to domestic inequity.

Breastfeeding, she argues, sets up an unequal dynamic in a marriage. And while I realize that this is an unpopular belief, I tend to agree with her. Rosin explains throughout the piece that most of us grew up with the idea of co-parenting being a reasonable, attainable goal. However, the domestic responsibilities, she suggests, begin to shift (incrementally and unconsciously) with the introduction of breastfeeding. According to Rosin’s hypothesis, once a woman becomes the sole parent responsible for her baby’s sustenance, a host of other domestic duties shift onto her side of the ledger. “She alone fed the child,” Rosin’s argument goes, “So she naturally knows better how to comfort the child, so she is the better judge to pick a school for the child and the better nurse when the child is sick, and so on.”

In addition to the disparity in domestic responsibilities, Rosin offers incontrovertible evidence to contradict the commonly held belief that breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding for the health and well-being of the baby. The truth, she concludes, after reviewing hundreds of studies and meta-analysis (reviews of existing studies), is that there is no conclusive benefit to breastfeeding. She sites numerous studies, including a well known 2005 paper in which statisticians compared data on 523 sibling pairs who were fed differently. The results looked at diabetes, asthma, allergies, childhood obesity, mother-child bonding and IQ and found no statistically significant differences. The researchers, (who in my opinion were afraid to face the wrath of breastfeeding advocates), gently concluded, “The long-term effects of breastfeeding have been overstated.”

The other issue into which Rosin insightfully delves, is the premise that breastfeeding passes necessary disease-fighting antibodies from mother to baby. “Even many doctors,” she affirms, “believe that breast milk is full of maternal antibodies that get absorbed into the baby’s bloodstream.” While this is true for most mammals, Rosen asserts that human babies are born with antibodies already in place from the placenta. Breast milk antibodies are not transferred into the baby’s bloodstream at all, but rather pass through to the gastrointestinal tract. The overall benefit, she claims, amounts to one less episode of diarrhea for breastfed babies.

Rosen elucidates that the flaws of most breastfeeding studies is that they fail to account for the multitude of socioeconomic, cultural, and intellectual variables that go along with a woman’s decision to breastfeed. “It is impossible,” writes Rosin, “to separate a mother’s decision to breastfeed – and everything that goes along with it – from the breastfeeding itself.”

Overall, Rosin, who continues to part-time breastfeed her third child, insists that the cultural bias towards breastfeeding that paints the practice as some kind of magic vaccine, is not only misleading, but also serves to entrap women and psychologically damage them by making them feel guilty, anxious and selfish if they can’t, or simply don’t want to, breastfeed.

As a loving mother who was unable to breastfeed her first child, and chose not to even try for her second, I think Rosin’s arguments are astute, thoughtful and right on. I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to breastfeed or that it isn’t the right choice for many people. But I agree with Rosin that it’s not a choice without costs. “It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way,” concludes Rosin. “When people say that breastfeeding is ‘free,’ I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.”

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About gettrich

Debra Rich Gettleman is a professional actor, playwright and journalist living in Seattle, WA with her husband Mark and two amazing boys, Levi and Eli.

5 responses to “…I’m Only the Messenger!

  1. jojom28 ⋅

    Why would you give credence to such blatantly false information? I can show tons of studies on the internet that prove the health benefits of breastfeeding. Plus it is the single most loving thing a woman can do for her infant.

  2. superdad

    I agree with this totally! As a father, I felt left out and alienated when our first child was born and I wasn’t allowed to feed her. It totally changed the dynamic in our family and I am convinced it led to our later divorce.

  3. justthinkingtoo ⋅

    jojom,
    Why don’t you think for yourself? They can show anything in any study and like the typical idiotic follower you are, you believe. Have you ever actually evaluated the studies or tried to spot the bias in them? Well Hanna Rosin did just this, and Debra Rich was brave enough to write about it. I as a mother who did breast feed her babies am glad to have people truly evaluating these studies. Because of their articles, I also reviewed many studies. As a scientist I appreciate good fundamentally sound research over all else, even when it questions what I myself did. They are right that although there are a myriad of pro-breast feeding studies, they all have errors in the selected cohort- no unbiased randomation of participants.
    So If I have two groups of people who I ask to either sky dive or not, do you think the skydivers may have different personality traits the the non-sky diving set? I would imagine they would be more risk tolerant and therefore may have more accidents or earlier deaths. So I could show in a study that sky diving (even when done without accidents or harm) shortens you like. Obviously not true (unless you die while diving).

  4. I feel completely baffled as to why the Atlantic would even consider publishing such blatantly inaccurate information about breastfeeding.

    We are talking about a living substance that varies at every feeding all day long to suit the needs of that specific child. Formula is a dead dehydrated substance made with the cheapest oils available only made to sustain the child.

    To even try to say there is no difference is dead wrong.

    I feel nothing but pity that you unsuccessfully breastfed your first child and that I blame on our unforgiving western culture that offers no widely available support, resources or education on breastfeeding.

    You say it is not a choice without costs?? The time invested in the initial establishment of breastfeeding to secure a successful relationship is NO MORE than the further cost of bottles, formula and medical care you will still need to provide your baby. I am sorry still, I didn’t realize time spent with our babies was time wasted!

    As far as “not working in a meaningful way” I am a pre-med student who went back to school when my daughter was 4 months old, as well as began to involve myself in breastfeeding eduaction and activism.

    I believe my work is more than meaningful.
    I am also still breastfeeding my now 1 year old daughter.

    I find that the majority of women against breastfeeding or feel indifferent about the topic are women who tried and failed or gave up. That is where our society needs to change, breastmilk is one of the best starts we can give our babies and I am sad that so many women are robbed of this wonderful MEANINGFUL experience.

  5. P.S. I am only the messenger!! (as you so eloquently put it)

    By Dr. Lydia Furman, pediatrician at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, as told to Medela.

    The recent article in The Atlantic, “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” has many people asking about breastfeeding research. By its nature, medical research is a constantly evolving field, and the body of work on breastfeeding is growing every day. But the research to date points to one consistent conclusion — breastfeeding is associated with remarkable benefits for both mom and baby.

    Perhaps the most complete look at breastfeeding research in developed countries was an April 2007 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). It reviewed more than 9,000 abstracts as well as 43 primary studies on infant health outcomes, 43 primary studies on maternal health outcomes and 29 systematic reviews. The report concluded that there is clear evidence that breastfeeding is associated with a reduction of risk for:

    Acute otitis media (middle ear infections, the most common bacterial illness in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics)
    Non-specific gastroenteritis (diarrhea or stomach flu)
    Severe lower respiratory tract infections
    The report also concluded that a history of breastfeeding is very likely associated with a reduction of risk for:

    Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
    Asthma in young children
    Obesity
    Type 1 and 2 diabetes
    Childhood leukemia
    Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
    Necrotizing enterocolitis (a condition associated with the high mortality rate for premature infants)
    The AHRQ study also found that women who breastfed have a clearly reduced risk of breast cancer, and very likely also have a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and ovarian cancer.

    While we are learning more every day about the incredible complexity of breastmilk, we do know that many of these benefits are related to the bioactive components it contains. For instance, secretory IgA provides important protections to the stomach, while lactoferrin helps deliver iron to the baby and prevents bacterial infections.

    A mother’s decision to breastfeed is often an intensely personal one, weighing many factors beyond health benefits. If a mother asked me, “Why breastfeed?” I’d explain the scientific evidence that shows reduced risk of infection and illness for mom and baby. But I’d also want the mother to know that breastfeeding is more than dispensing a nutritious snack. Breastfeeding can be the best feeling in the world—a unique type of nurturing that provides a closeness unlike any other.

    Dr. Lydia Furman is a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital was recognized as the No. 2 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report, and one of the top 10 children’s hospitals in the country according to Parents magazine. Dr. Furman graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and completed her internship and residency in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston. She was recently awarded an American Academy of Pediatrics CATCH Planning grant to evaluate the feasibility of a “Breastfeeding Doula Intervention for Low-income mothers” (2009) Dr. Furman has published several peer-reviewed articles on breastfeeding, including research looking at breastfeeding in the inner city, aspects of weaning and breast milk feeding of very low weight infants. She is the mother of two children, both breastfed.

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