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The Gift and the Sacrifice of Breastfeeding

Published on Psychology Today.

Breastfeeding is something that you hear a lot about these days from doctors, nurses, friends, neighbors, and even from celebrities. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that new mothers feed their babies exclusively with breast milk for the first 6 months of life, and they suggest one year or more of breastfeeding alongside the introduction of solid foods. Pediatricians and nurses have followed suit, and you can commonly hear the phrase “breast is best” tossed around doctors offices and in the media. The reason for all the hype is that breast milk is said to have benefits for both the mom and for the baby, as it can reduce a newborn’s chances of getting sick, it can help a mother recover more quickly from birth, and it can even help you shed that pesky baby weight. On top of all that, breast milk is cheaper, cleaner, and more natural than expensive baby formulas. Based on these potential benefits, I decided to breastfeed my own son, Edwin, when he was born.

On one hand, from a scientist’s perspective, breast milk is the most miraculous thing I have ever studied. Breast milk is not like other foods—it’s the perfect food; it is alive and dynamic, constantly changing to suit your baby’s specific needs. It has all of the nutrients to sustain a child up to 6 months of age, and it tastes good. When we started giving our son formula at 6 months, he literally gagged and spit it out. We went through every single formula brand in the supermarket before he finally took one. I foolishly tried to find a formula that tasted something like breast milk, but it just doesn’t exist. Food scientists simply cannot create a formula that has all of the nutritional value of breast milk and also tastes good; it’s impossible to do.

On the other hand, from a mother’s perspective, I found out very quickly that although breast milk might be significantly cheaper and healthier than formula, nursing can come at a steep price for some moms. The books I read while pregnant tout breastfeeding as the most natural thing in the world; it should be easy, and it should never hurt, they say. Well, for me, it didn’t feel natural, it wasn’t at all easy, and it did hurt—it hurt a lot. In the first two weeks after my son was born, I was so bruised that it felt like knives every time Edwin latched, and I even bled a few times. I couldn’t be separated from him for more than a few hours or I would become engorged and leak. I also couldn’t share the burden of feeding with anyone else—it always had to be me—me waking up every two hours in the middle of the night, me staying home from work…me, me, me, and more of just me. For weeks I felt like all I did was nurse; I no longer had control of my own body, and I no longer had room for anything else in my life. It got better of course, but it never got easy. I made it till about 6 months, at which time my son started sleeping through the night and my milk dried up. That was that.

All in all, it can be a bit misleading to tell mothers how easy it will be to nurse, how much they should love it, and how they could easily do it for years before having to stop. For me, nursing came at a cost. And there’s research suggesting that my experience wasn’t exactly unique. For example, in a study of 72 women who were interviewed about their nursing experiences, most said that pushing the idealistic goal of breastfeeding exclusively for any prescribed amount of time was not very helpful, and undermined their confidence as new mothers. Instead, the authors of the study argue for policies that account for the realistic needs of individual families and setting more immediate short term nursing goals instead of pushing rule-based policies that new mothers might fail to reach.

Besides research suggesting that long-term nursing goals can be stressful to some mothers, it turns out that research on the long-term advantages of breast milk for babies is not as clear-cut as our policies might suggest. Much of this research does show that breastfeeding exclusively for at least 6 months is associated with a variety of health benefits for both the baby in terms of fighting off illness, and for mothers in terms of a faster recovery time and for reducing the risk of various types of cancers. But, these studies are all correlational, so it could be that parents who breastfeed are somehow different from parents who don’t breastfeed in systematic ways that lead to positive health outcomes. We don’t know for sure. What’s most likely the case is that breast milk is indeed better for babies than formula, but not so much better that mothers should torture themselves if they can't swing it.

My point here isn’t that we shouldn’t breast feed; again, breast milk is an amazing gift, and likely carries several advantages for both the mother and the baby. Anytime we can give our kids a leg up in life, we’d do it, so of course we should nurse if we can. Buts, we should also remember that how a mother chooses to feed her child is an individual and sometimes emotional decision no matter how it’s made. Many women feel pressure to nurse, and end up setting goals for themselves that turn out to be unrealistic. Some moms might find breastfeeding easy, others impossible, while the ones who have to go back to work immediately might have no choice either way. So whether we choose to breastfeed our babies for 2 years, 2 months, or not at all, we should respect each mother’s choice, feel confident in our own, and most importantly, be honest with each other about both the gift and the sacrifice that comes with deciding to breast feed (or not).

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