Full disclosure: I breastfed each of my three children for a year; and while we definitely shared some great moments in those years, boy did I love the feeling of freedom that came with not being tethered to my kids all the time once they were weaned. Not to mention the fact that suddenly, my husband could wake up with them and let me get in a few more precious moments of sleep.
And then there’s this: There’s a lot of drama surrounding breastfeeding — it’s a huge part of what fuels the mommy wars, after all — and I for one am glad that I don’t have to participate in that anymore.
I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot recently, after picking up a copy of Courtney Jung’s book Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy. Right from the start, it resonated with me in so many ways.
I don’t know how many times I asked myself whether all of the hard work I was putting into nursing my kids was worth it at all, or wondered, Wouldn’t I be happier if I just switched to formula? I don’t know how many times I wished that I could simply hand over the baby to someone else and go out without having to think, But how long until the baby needs to be fed again?
In Lactivism, Jung, raises an argument supported by several recent studies that the benefits of breastmilk may in fact be overstated, and that as a result, many mothers feel pressured to breastfeed even though they don’t want to, or physically can’t. She also questions the transformation breastmilk has made in recent years from natural food source to commodity — something that can now be bought and sold over the Internet for its perceived magical qualities. And Jung’s done her research too: In Lactivism, she shares countless personal stories, interviews with experts, and results from recent studies.
Let me first say that Jung isn’t against breastfeeding — and neither am I. In fact, breastfeeding was easy for me and was probably a better choice for me and my babies than formula or pumping. What she is against is something she calls “lactivism,” or “breastfeeding zealotry” — which has led to a generation of women feeling guilty for a decision that’s inherently personal, and also totally okay.
But here’s Jung’s main point, which hopefully serves as some comfort to moms who don’t nurse: There are a whole lot of other things that are important for your kids, too — and none of them involve breastfeeding. “In fact, if we were to make up a list of things that really matter to the well-being of our children, breastfeeding wouldn’t even make the top ten,” she argues.
And I think she’s right. Because while yes, it’s super easy to get lost in the breastfeeding vs. formula debate, we should never lose sight of what really matters when it comes to our kids. Things like …
1. Is your baby getting enough to eat?
I think these days we forget that breastfeeding is simply a way to feed babies and not necessarily miracle medicine. There are plenty of reasons why breastfeeding may work for one woman, and not for another; in which case, formula is a great alternative. All that matters is whether the baby is gaining weight at a healthy rate, not how precisely that happens.
2. Is your baby healthy?
Breastfed babies are healthier, right? No, not necessarily. Science is actually very unclear about this. And besides, there are lots of things you can do to keep your baby healthy. Stay up-to-date on her vaccination schedule; take her out for a walk and let her play outside; help her maintain a healthy diet; take her to the doctor when she’s sick.
Why focus on breastfeeding alone when there is so much more we can do for our babies’ well-being?
3. Is your baby safe?
Is your baby sleeping on his back? Is your house baby-proofed? Do you have childcare providers that you trust, or family support? Breastfeeding won’t automatically make your baby safe, but there are clear and simple actions you can take to make that happen.
4. Is your baby loved?
You can breastfeed your baby but still be an inattentive mom. At the same time, you can formula-feed your baby and be the World’s Best Mom. Breastfeeding alone doesn’t equal love — love equals love. Show your child the affection they need and remember that bonding doesn’t have to happen through breastmilk.
5. Are you a happy parent?
I truly believe that when parents are happy, their children happy. And being a happy parent has nothing to do with breastfeeding, but more to do with having the freedom of choice and the daily support you need to raise your child — however that may be.
In the end, the most important thing is to keep things in perspective. Because while breastfeeding your child happens for such a relatively short time (most moms in the U.S. exclusively breastfeed for just 6 months), you will love your child forever.