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When will I learn NOT to click on articles about breastfeeding? All they do is rile me up. I end up shaking my fist, cursing the computer and despairing about the fact that the issue is still the subject of so much divisiveness among mothers.
My latest read by Brown University economist Emily Oster had an irresistible title: "Everybody Calm Down About Breastfeeding." Of course I clicked, pleased to see that the subject of breastfeeding was now in the hand of an accomplished academic (and mother).
Oster opens her article ticking off the vast benefits that breastfeeding allegedly confers on babies. You've heard them: It reduces obesity! Raises IQ! Cuts depression! Aids bonding! I nodded my head—I was told all of this, and in my darkest hours when I wanted to STOP breastfeeding because it hurt like so many spikes driven into my nipples, I pressed on. After all, I didn't want my baby to grow up to be a stranger to me, fat, depressed and intellectually compromised to boot.
I slogged through a clogged duct, mastitis and worst of all, pumping at work (on airplanes, in the car, and in an abandoned office in a Mississippi courthouse).
I was enlightened. I'd read the research. Well, I didn't actually read it, but I'd heard about it. I read the brochures that my ob-gyn gave me.
We want to believe that what we are doing for our kids is the best and that our sacrifices will result in very real gains down the road, so we go with the breast.
By the fourth paragraph of Oster's article, she lowers the boom: The benefits of breastfeeding are largely "overblown." And Oster has read the research. She cites study after study and points out each of their fatal flaws.
According to Oster, the biggest flaw in the breastfeeding research is that the studies are incomplete. For example, in this country, most women who breastfeed are wealthy and highly educated. So measuring the long-term benefits of breastfeeding may actually be measuring the long-term effects of being raised by wealthy, highly educated women, not from nursing.
This makes perfect sense to me, which is why the article left me enraged.
My early motherhood was confusing and painful, in part because I was hellbent on nursing because I'd been sold the idea that all these benefits would be conferred on my children. It's hard not to feel duped when almost all of the research on the subject has such an obvious control problem.
"Why?" I wondered, shaking my fist yet again.
Why are we bombarded with so many messages about the purported superiority of breastfeeding? Oster nails it on this one. She posits that because we want to believe that what we are doing for our kids is the best and that our sacrifices will result in very real gains down the road, so we go with the breast and the justify that choice with benefits we want to believe will materialize.
Breastfeeding and all that it requires of a nursing mother (especially one who exclusively nurses) is perfect for our helicopter age, where parents will sacrifice anything to give their kids advantages.
The article does deliver some good news. Oster notes that studies that control for maternal wealth and education show two major benefits to breastfeeding: less diarrhea and less eczema.
Good, yes, but that's not exactly what they were saying at La Leche League.
I don't like that my early motherhood, which hinged on breastfeeding in large part, was founded on misinformation and flawed research.
The other "good" news is that there is no evidence that breastfeeding is "worse" for babies than formula. Well, thanks for the bone, I guess.
It's too late now, but I can't help but ask myself if I would have breastfed as adamantly or as long had I understood the "true" benefits. Would I have hired a lactation consultant and cried about supply? I suspect it would have still been an emotionally journey—the ups of getting the hang of it and the rush of hormones, as well as the downs of the pain and the pressure of keeping it up.