Is Breast Best?

I spent the last seven years breast-feeding all four of my children, so you might expect that I’d be in support of Mayor Bloomberg’s Latch On NYC breast-feeding initiative.

But I couldn’t be more against it.

Oh yes, it’s very "1950" to invade the rights of a woman to choose how she wants to feed her baby, a choice that’s already fueled with guilt, shame and judgment.

But that’s not the main reason I think it’s wrong.

What about the other women, the majority of women who want to do “the best” for their children but just cannot?

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was hell-bent and determined to breast-feed her, my belief that "breast was best" passed down from my mother who breast-fed me and my siblings back in the '70s when almost everyone was reaching for the bottle.

I never thought twice about the free formula samples in the ugly black bag, because I knew I wouldn’t need them.

And as it turned out, my life revolved around breast-feeding.

First there were the scabs. Then she wanted to eat all the time. And when she wouldn’t take a bottle, I had to take my daughter to my office with me every day, and hire a student to watch her while I taught my college classes.

She was colicky and often inconsolable, from what I later learned was a combination of silent reflux and a foremilk imbalance, so I did an elimination diet, eating a total of four foods for six months. I rarely slept or put her down. My marriage was suffering.

But breast is best. Formula is failure. And I’m not the only mother who felt this way.

Like many mothers, I nursed my children willingly and without regret for many years, to give them the healthiest start, the higher IQ, the better immune system and all the other things they tell you so that you will breast-feed your kids.

It’s cheaper! And convenient!

And that’s true for moms in specific cultural and socio-economic situations who can make enough milk and can get through weeks—sometimes months—of almost shocking pain; and it's true for those women who can survive on little sleep and can pump if they need to go anywhere for longer than two hours without their baby.

But what about the other women, the majority of women who want to do “the best” for their children but just cannot?

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As well-intentioned as Latch On NYC might be and however gentle the approach might appear, with many of the participating hospitals insisting that moms need only ask for formula, and not beg or plead, I have to wonder what will happen after these moms leave the hospital—even with the hospitals claiming nurses will only provide support through breast-feeding education and not judgment or shame.

I don’t doubt that this initiative will increase the number of breast-feeding mothers. The immediate presence of the formula along with the education and support from staff has been a successful catalyst in changing the minds of many mothers who might have been on the fence about their feeding choices.

Meanwhile, those moms who have been breast-feeding all of 48 hours, whose milk probably has not yet come in yet, will be sent home.

The real test is when moms leave their small room with their sweetly dressed baby ... and return to their life. With working spouses and partners. With other children. With family and support far away.

And then what?

Will Latch On NYC send lactation consultants to support these women? Offer them free or discounted breast pumps and bottles? Convince their employers to give them a special breast-feeding room so they don’t have to do it in the women’s bathroom?

The hospital experience is an anomaly, a utopia of sorts, where people bring your food to you and escort you to the bathroom and change your baby’s diaper if you happen to be sleeping.

The real test is when moms leave their small room with their sweetly dressed baby packed up in their carseat, and return to their life. With working spouses and partners. With other children. With family and support far away.

With their own return to work a mere 12 weeks away.

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I look at my own experience as a breast-feeding mother, nursing my oldest exclusively until she was 2, and supplementing with formula from about six months on with my fourth. The difference between the two of them is not in their IQ or immune system.

You wouldn’t see them running around and say “Oh yeah, that one had the formula, huh?”

The difference is in me. I was happier and well rested. I was more present in my marriage, in my own self-care. In life.

Feeding choices are a personal decision, not just because it’s a special bond between a parent and a child, whether it’s breast-feeding or formula feeding, but because it’s unique to every mom’s situation.

The two days in the hospital are only a brief snapshot in a mom’s daily existence. And as much as we want moms to breast-feed, and I do, I really do, I also want moms to be happy, and I want her choice to be as much about her as it is about her baby.

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