A show known for highlighting the truth about trends like extreme diets and outdated wedding traditions has turned its focus to the breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding debate.
For its season two premiere, “Adam Ruins Everything,” which airs on truTV, features Emily, title character Adam’s friend, being told to not breastfeed her child in public but to also not supplement with formula (because moms just can’t win).
Luckily, another character stepped in to correct the judgy commentators with some information about nursing and formula-feeding and pointed out that many moms who have a difficult time breastfeeding and parents who foster and adopt have to turn to other solutions. She also called out the women who shamed Emily.
“How dare you judge how a mom feeds her kid,” she said.
The four-and-a-half-minute sketch mixes comedy with controversy, all while promoting a judgment-free environment for parents.
This month, actress Amanda Seyfried offered a similar take on whether moms should breastfeed or bottle-feed with a single tweet.
“Breastfeeding is awesome. Formula is awesome. Feeding your baby is awesome,” she tweeted. “Not awesome? Judgement.”
Now, some people argue that pressuring women to breastfeed is not about a conservative social agenda, but instead is a legitimate public health measure justified by the overwhelming and obvious advantages of breastfeeding to babies’ health. But the scientific consensus is increasingly clear that the advantages of breastfeeding are relatively modest, and do not at all justify the amount of emphasis being placed on it.
There are no proven links between breastfeeding and IQ, obesity, behavior problems, parental attachment, food allergies, ADHD, or any other of the long-term health indicators lactivists put forward as reasons for referring to breast milk as “liquid gold.” High-quality randomized and sibling studies have produced “results suggest[ing] that much of the beneficial long-term effects typically attributed to breastfeeding, per se, may primarily be due to selection pressures into infant feeding practices along key demographic characteristics such as race and socioeconomic status.”
The one area where breastfeeding does seem to make a difference is in reducing the incidence of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections in the first few months of life. A major study published in 2010 found that “[e]xclusive breastfeeding until the age of 4 months and partially thereafter was associated with a significant reduction of respiratory and gastrointestinal morbidity in infants.” This is a real advantage of breastfeeding, and obviously no one wants babies to get sick.
But it is important to keep in mind that the risk of coming down with a cold or a stomach bug is a risk that parents reasonably take all the time. Every play-date and trip to the park increases your baby’s risk of contracting exactly these same communicable diseases. Every time mothers and fathers go to work, they run the risk of bringing home an infection they could pass to their babies. But no one is arguing that babies and their parents should be quarantined indoors and away from other people for the first year of life. The emphasis on breastfeeding is completely out of proportion with the way we approach other risk factors for the exact same diseases.
What’s more, there is some evidence that breastfeeding increases some other risks. For example, breastfed babies are at higher risk for iron deficiency (which actually does affect IQ), and exclusive breastfeeding without introducing solid foods after the age of nine months may increase the incidence of serious food allergies. Breastfed children also seem to have higher rates of asthma, and are at greater risk of catastrophic brain hemorrhage if their parents (foolishly) opt out of the Vitamin K shot at birth. But no one is talking about these risks and how they affect the overall importance of breastfeeding.
The science just doesn’t bear out the popular perception of breast milk as a magical panacea, and formula as practically akin to feeding your baby jet fuel. Nor does it support treating low breastfeeding rates as a public health crisis on par with smoking during pregnancy.
All other things being equal, breastfeeding is better for babies’ health than formula. But as Suzie Barston writes in her book Bottled Up:
“The real question is how much better? We should be questioning if it’s better enough to justify the pressure we put on women to do it, even if they don’t want to or can’t; if it’s better enough to excuse poor science and a stupefying dismissal of relative risk.”
But because of the belief that good motherhood requires perfection in every aspect of your child’s life, no one is asking these questions. No one is doing a clear-headed cost-benefit analysis.
Women face enormous pressure to breastfeed, even in situations where it clearly makes no sense. Any woman who chooses not to breastfeed is forced to come up with excuse after excuse, and continues to face bullying and criticism no matter what she says or does. Harassment of formula feeding mothers is rampant, both on social media and IRL, and it is actively encouraged by breastfeeding advocacy organizations like the La Leche League in the guise of “education.”
The La Leche League has openly advocated using guilt to pressure women to breastfeed, even suggesting that “using artificial baby milk could, and maybe should, be considered reckless endangermentbecause it increases risks to a baby’s life and health, just like parental smoking and failure to use a car seat.”
Reckless endangerment? Really?