Everyone’s got an opinion.
Nothing starts the parental mud flinging faster than the formula vs. breastfeeding debate. I’ve seen cage-fighters behave with less savagery than sanctimonious mothers arguing over the subject.
And it’s hardly surprising. Held aloft as the holy grail of parenting, the virtues of breastfeeding have been extolled in innumerable clinical trials while those who resort to formula cop so much media flak, you’d think they were spoon-feeding their babies crack.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond. For good reason. Not only does breast milk contain all the essential vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in its first six months of life, but its benefits extend to protecting infants from infection and illness and can even protect nursing mothers from developing illnesses, including some cancers. As if new mothers needed any more motivation, every feed shifts around 500 calories, so they’ll be quicker to squeeze back into their skinny jeans.
Really, there’s no reason not to. At least on paper.
Reality is something altogether different. As someone who spent several years of her life with small children latched to her boobs – something I believe was the best decision for my children, and for me – I can also attest to the fact that it doesn’t always come naturally.
It took a lot of time, a lot of tears and a lot of practice for both my babies and me to get the hang of the whole suckling shebang. And I felt like a failure at first. A failure who’d taken to her boobs with industrial strength sandpaper. And that was before the recurring bouts of mastitis that doctors described as “uncomfortable” and I described as like being kicked repeatedly in the chest by someone wearing steel-cap boots.
Then there was being at the beck and call of a hungry succubus day and night until the seep deprivation became so torturous it was bordering on contravening human rights laws. And let’s not forget the fun of total strangers giving me grief for feeding my baby in public. A standout was the time I was discreetly feeding my then six month-old son by a beach in Spain and a passer-by started wildly gesticulating and trying to physically cover up the tiny amount of boob that was on display; even as a guy walked past with his crown jewels proudly flapping in the breeze, an event which didn’t even raise an eyelid. Such are the double standards surrounding breastfeeding.
But I would happily do it all over again, because once I got over the initial hurdles and stopped caring about the shamers, I began to enjoy those intimate moments with my babies and despaired when they both self-weaned at around 18 months. I treasured the trust it created between us, and the knowledge that, as well as creating these little lives, I was sustaining them in a way that nobody else could. I was a totally-exhausted, leaky-boobed superhero!
But that doesn’t mean I expected anyone to pin a medal to my milk-stained chest.
Breastfeeding was my choice but that decision didn’t make me a better person, a better parent, or give me any right to judge those who make different choices to mine.
While you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would dispute the fact that breastfeeding has some obvious short-term benefits, an increasing number of studies indicate that these are fairly minimal in the longer-term.
One such study, by Ohio State University sociologist Dr Cynthia Cohen, took in 25 years of data on more than 8,000 children aged 4 to 14, and discovered that the long-term benefits of breastfeeding dwindled down to virtually zero.
I know many babies who were raised entirely on formula who are happy and healthy because their mothers are happy and healthy. Some of these amazing mothers possessed all the expected mammalian desires to nourish and nurture their children through breastfeeding but couldn’t. Something that was devastating enough to them without the snarky judgements of Mean Girl parents adding to their already guilt-fuelled fire.
Then there are some who boldly elected not to breastfeed because they didn’t succumb to the ideology and simply didn’t want to. And you know what? That’s ok too. They don’t love their babies any less than I love mine.
So what is best for baby then?
In my experience, a happy mother. Regardless of whether she chooses breast or bottle.