Breast is Best or Fed is Best: A Clarification

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Site Contributor. Motivated to do most things by food.

Last month I wrote an article arguing against breastfeeding elitism. I made a few fairly egregious errors in that article and will now attempt to address them.

I made a conscious effort in that article to leave my personal experience with breastfeeding and shame largely out of it. Possibly this is because I didn’t want to be the person who says “Breastfeeding isn’t everything, but I exclusively breastfed both of my children at times to the detriment of my own self care.” As in, don’t feel shame! But I felt tons of shame and guilt and would not give my kid formula. But you can and I won’t judge you! Feels a little hypocritical (even though in reality that is how I feel). In doing this I ignored one of the most important feminist research pillars – standpoint theory. The first point of feminist standpoint theory is that knowledge is socially situated.

Therefore, there is no such thing as true objectivity because everyone (including scientists) come with their own identities and experiences of privilege and marginalization.

With that said, I made an error in not sharing at least part of my own experience since it has certainly given me a lens in which to view this topic. Yes, I breastfed both of my children and when I finally offered formula to my oldest at 7 months when my supply was low, I cried for hours and felt crushing, ongoing guilt. I even wrote an article about it for the no-longer Off-Beat Parenting website. My son ended up refusing the formula and I swore that if I had another child I would not be so rigid…and yet I was. Intellectually, I knew it was okay to provide nutrition that did not come from me. I could let friends know without hesitation that what’s best for the mom is best for the child, and all that matters is the baby is fed and loved. (To be perfectly clear, what’s best for the mom is best for the baby in situations where the parent absolutely values the health and well-being of the child. This is in no way an argument for child abuse or neglect). But like so many other things, I couldn’t extend that kindness to myself. I quickly realized that despite being well educated on the topic and even helping people navigate these feelings in their own lives, my own feelings of shame and my desire to “do what’s best for my baby” in society’s view eclipsed my ability to see the situation rationally and thoughtfully. These experiences have absolutely colored my view of breastfeeding and have made me a fierce advocate for the mother’s own needs, which is why I find the mantra “Fed is Best” so appealing. I provided a skewed view because I feel relief each time I hear the term “Fed is Best” and believe that it could, at least on the surface, offer some space in the pressure women may feel. The distinction I failed to make is that the message is one that I feel is essential, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The American Council on Science and Health perhaps describes this campaign best: Fed is Best: Great Message, Not So Great Science. Formula is not the same as breastmilk. I can understand why people take issue with the messaging of “Fed is Best” if that’s what they hear. It is, however, the best possible substitute if breastfeeding is simply not going to happen exclusively or at all for any number of reasons.

A reader rightly pointed out that the article made it sound that pressure to breastfeed caused postpartum depression. Here my mistake was simply not clarifying enough. My intention was, again, to highlight the pressure mothers are under which absolutely could exacerbate feelings of anxiety, sadness, worthlessness, and so on. It may be a factor but certainly is not a cause. Again, my own experience with severe postpartum depression with my first child dictated how I thought and wrote about this, since nursing was a factor in my struggle to find my own way in my transition to motherhood.

The core of my argument remains the same, which is that extreme views on either side tend to alienate and shame mothers especially at a time when they may need the most support. I think we all can agree that individuals deserve to be well informed about feeding their children. This includes the benefits of breastfeeding, of course, but also alternative options so that the parent can make a factual and thoughtful decision that is as detached from guilt as possible. We know there are huge benefits to breastfeeding, so let’s find ways as a society to provide this education but then go further by supporting women who choose to breastfeed rather than guilting those who choose not to or who cannot do so. If we build resources so that every person feels they are empowered to make the best decision for themselves and their child – and along with this empowerment, providing the financial and emotional resources to make those choices – we will be supporting our communities in sustaining and nurturing ways.