World Breastfeeding Week 2017 is being observed this week by people in 170 countries around the world. Obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Amy Tuteur won’t be joining the celebration which she says exists “to extol mothers who breastfeed and to shame those who don’t”:
I’m not celebrating because my email inbox is filled with tales of anguish from women who feel guilty because they tried to breastfeed and were not successful. These women are tormented even when their babies are thriving on formula. Why? Because it has been drilled into them that “breast is best,” and, therefore, they are harming their beloved babies by formula feeding.
Dr. Tuteur objects to the vision of the sponsor of the annual event advocating “a world where breastfeeding is the cultural norm”:
In other words, WABA hopes for a world where breastfeeding is not the personal choice of the woman who owns the breasts in question but a moral imperative.
That is a disturbingly familiar formulation. It echoes “a world where marriage of a man and woman is the cultural norm” and “promoting a culture of life,” statements that reflect the desire of a portion of the population to substitute their personal beliefs for the beliefs of the individuals who are affected.
Wait! Isn’t breastfeeding natural?
Sure, but while it is natural for women to bear children; the idea that all women should have children is a cultural norm, a norm that is harmful for women who don’t want children.
Similarly, it is natural for women to breastfeed; but the idea that all women should breastfeed whether they want to or not and whether their babies are thriving or not is a cultural norm, a norm that is harmful for many women and babies.
Objections aside, Dr. Tuteur reminds us that the “perfect” infant food has three characteristics, making breastfeeding “only one of two excellent ways to nourish a baby”:
1. It should contain all the nutrients and other factors that an infant needs.
2. It must be available in sufficient quantity to promote vigorous growth of the infant.
3. The infant must be able to access it easily.
For most babies, breast milk is the perfect food. For some babies, however, it isn’t. Encouraging breastfeeding should be the cultural norm (for the many reasons we examined yesterday), and expecting mothers to consider and then discuss breastfeeding with their obstetricians and pediatricians should also. Culturally, most American families have a choice — breast vs. bottle — that families in other locations, under different circumstances, don’t. For many, the decision goes way beyond a moral one; rather, it’s a matter of survival. I hope American mothers see the big picture and don’t feel shamed if breastfeeding doesn’t go their way. In my experience as a pediatrician, most moms who are dealt this card are strong enough to accept it and move on. Emily Perschbacher puts it this way:
[Eirene] Heidelberger added that despite medical and social pressures to breast-feed, new moms should remember that “fed is best.”
“We are here to support and educate mommy,” she said. “The benefits (of breast-feeding) are amazing to mom and baby, but it’s your choice.
“If mom is happy and baby is thriving and eating and growing, who cares what the world says.”