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.”