Sorry Breastmilk, You’re Just Not That Amazing
Having just breathed a blissful sigh of relief now that World Breastfeeding Week and National Breastfeeding Month have finally concluded, I was dismayed to come across yet another ode entitled The More I Learn About Breastmilk, the more Amazed I am.
Obviously this piece was written by a new mother, as most people are not filled with endless wonder about breastmilk. I’m about as amazed by it as I am by pumpkin spice.
And yet, prepare to be amazed! The piece begins with how lactating women literally dissolve parts of themselves into breastmilk. Quibbles about literally aside, this might amaze you if you are just now learning what it means to be a mammal.
If you aren’t a new parent and you still find lactation super interesting (let me know so we can totally not grab a beer sometime), you should at least know that much of what Angela Garbes finds amazing isn’t actually true.
Breast-feeding leads to better overall health outcomes for children.
No, it does not. Breastfeeding may be associated with better outcomes, but it isn’t responsible for them. Garbes suggests that a NICU preemie or an infant in rural Africa will benefit more from breastmilk than a full term baby in Seattle, but she doesn’t explain why. Breastmilk isn’t magic. It can prevent some conditions associated with prematurity but it doesn’t cure them, and breastfeeding is important in developing countries primarily because it doesn’t require access to clean water.
We’re also told that breast-feeding leads to babies with higher IQs and lower rates of childhood obesity than their formula-fed counterparts.
We may be told that by people who either don’t know any better or who have a professional interest in the “breast is best” adage, but it’s just not true. Breastmilk won’t make your kid smarter or skinnier.
Breastmilk contains all the vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in the first six months of life.
Yes, as does formula.
Breast-fed babies don’t even need to drink water.
Neither do formula fed babies, other than the water you mix with powdered formula.
Breastmilk provides immunological benefits.
Breastfed babies get fewer colds.
We know that breast-feeding can help children avoid diseases that manifest later in life, like type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.
Garbes writes very sweetly about nursing her sick toddler to provide her with “medicine” and “defense against what she’s fighting.” It’s a lovely sentiment but it’s entirely inaccurate.
She wants breastmilk to spark a national conversation about paid maternity leave and societal and institutional support structures for new mothers but breastmilk shouldn’t be a prerequisite. All new parents — regardless of ability to breastfeed or gender (for that matter) — would be well-served by more robust family leave policies and institutional support. The feeding method shouldn’t matter because, for the most part, it doesn’t matter.
Garbes strikes me as a new mom in the thick of her child’s first significant transitional phase. As her daughter begins to wean, it’s natural to reflect on the time, energy and devotion that breastfeeding has required. She wants it to have mattered and, of course, it did. Just not with IQ points or disease prevention. Those long months of infant feeding are intensely sweet, intimate and irreplaceable, whether they come with breastmilk or formula.
Edited to indicate the sources linked above that aren’t clearly visible to some readers:
World Health Organization: No Long Term Benefits to Breastfeeding, SkepticalOB.com
Everybody Calm Down About Breastfeeding, FiveThirtyEight.com
and another one:
Has Breastfeeding Mania Gone Too Far? Russell Sanders, The Daily Beast