Breast is Not Best
I have pretty much never written about breastfeeding because it’s a subject that brings out the hate words. People drop by your blog who don’t even read the post — they simply skim to get a sense of where you fall on the breastfeeding/formula debate, and then unleash their rage in your comment section. And personally, I never like my blog being used as another person’s soapbox — especially since blogs are free, and people can start their own sites to discuss their ideas rather than use mine.
And that is the first key point to make — if you have the term “breastfeeding” on a Google alert and are coming here for the first time because my blog popped into your inbox, there is a terrible problem with the way you are communicating, which isn’t educating insomuch as it is berating. I am all for friendly debate backed by sound research, but I’m not for name-calling. And using Google alerts in that manner seems predatory rather than illuminating.
After all, this is my blog and I am entitled to express my own opinion. And just as I wouldn’t enter your house and tell you how you are living your life is wrong wrong wrong if you were kind enough to invite me in, I expect that people who visit my comment box politely disagree and not hatefully disagree — and I think we’re all adults here and know the difference. If you want to write your own blog post about your own feelings in your own space, I support that fully and will probably pop over to read it and comment nicely over there (though “nicely” does not equal “agree.” It simply means comporting myself politely.)
Is my title inflammatory? Yes. But so is the “breast is best” campaign. Any time we name something “best” and ignore all other possibilities, we are being inflammatory. The way we feed someone isn’t a car or a computer or a dishwasher — it isn’t something quantifiable that lends itself to a ranking system. It is a product of circumstance and ability just as much as it is a product of choice.
This is my story:
I wanted to breastfeed, very badly. I heard “breast is best” and I wanted to give the twins the best. I took a breastfeeding class with Josh so he could even help me when the time came. I practiced holds with dolls.
My breasts never changed with pregnancy — they didn’t grow larger, the nipples didn’t get darker. Though I was concerned, my OB wasn’t worried because not everyone experiences breast changes and it was more likely than not that I would be able to breastfeed.
The twins were born and my milk didn’t come in. I never became engorged or felt my “milk come down.” There was no colostrum. But rather than have people treat this as a problem, the breastfeeding specialists at the hospital simply told me that I needed to pump more, eat more, and rest more.
The twins were premature and needed to be fed at first by IV. I still tried to breastfeed them, and we have many pictures of me sitting with my boob in their mouths while they starved. I pumped 8 times a day. With 8 pumpings combined, I could sometimes get 30 ccs of fluid — which is one ounce. The fluid looked vaguely like sweat or water. It certainly did not look like the breast milk stored in the refrigerator by the other mothers.
The doctor wanted to switch the twins to an ng-tube, which meant that they would be fed formula and my sweat-milk via a tube in their nose. A nurse pulled me aside and told me that if I loved my children, I would continue to feed them via IV and not allow them to take formula. She promised that it was healthier to never give the twins formula, healthier to replace an IV several times a day — an IV that carried with it a higher chance for infection. The lactation consultant backed her up and encouraged us to tell the neonatologist that we wanted the twins exclusively breastfed — no formula allowed.
I was a hormonal, terrified mother who had finally given birth to live children and what do you think happened to me when I looked up at the wall where the “breast is best” posters were hung (they were every few feet on the walls in the maternity ward and NICU), and was told by a medical care professional that it was better to continue with the IVs rather than start formula?
We luckily had an excellent neonatologist who knew what was best for our twins, and she stepped in and not only had the nurse reprimanded and removed from the twins’ care, but she explained that while breastfeeding is wonderful, it does not trump getting our twins off IVs so they could learn how to swallow and put on weight. That to keep to a mantra that does not take into account specific situations is to cause damage.
The twins thrived on formula and put on weight and learned how to regulate their body temperature so we could hold them for longer than 20 minutes. But I always felt guilty because I had been told that breast was best (and I was reminded daily by the posters), and here were my children in the hospital with compromised immune systems, and I was not giving them the best. If something was “the best” it meant that everything else was sub-par.
Our story continues with pumping and a medication to increase supply (Reglan) that gave me a horrible reaction that almost killed me and severe depression because I was spending every second I wasn’t with the twins hooked up to a pump and never seeing any progress. I saw a slew of breastfeeding specialists who all let me know that my problem was that I wasn’t eating/drinking/pumping/sleeping enough.
And then finally, someone did a blood draw. And it turned out that I produced no prolactin.
And still, deciding to stop pumping was one of the most painful decisions I’ve made as a parent. It wasn’t even really a decision — no prolactin = no breastmilk no matter how much I ate, slept, or pumped. But still, everyone had said along the way that I just needed to try harder, therefore, it was difficult to step back and see that there was a clear-cut problem that no amount of work was going to circumvent. I still tried to get the twins to take my breast, even after Josh returned the pump to the hospital. Because the psychological scars ran that deep.
Do I think breast is best? Well … no. I don’t. The research is conducted in a vacuum, without actual regard to the people who read and internalize the studies. Is breast best for the average child who is born healthy to a mother who produces an ample supply of breastmilk? Sure, I can believe that is the case.
But there are too many of us who can’t breastfeed because our bodies don’t produce breast milk, or we adopted without time or inclination to prepare our body for breastfeeding, or we simply have a personal reason for why we don’t want or can’t breastfeed. And in those cases, formula is not the enemy. It is the saviour. Without formula, my children would not be alive today.
And I say that utilizing the same research that people hold up to claim breast is best. Breast milk is specially designed by the woman’s body to feed her particular child and it is formulated with a nutritional ratio that
… Changes it’s composition throughout the feedings, as well as throughout the day. As baby grows, breastmilk continues to change to meet the needs for optimal growth, at each stage of baby’s development . This means that mom’s breastmilk at four months is perfectly suited to the needs of her four month old baby, and at six months, perfectly suited for her six month old.
Therefore, I cannot believe that the random milk contained in a milk bank could ever deliver what my child needs at that particular time better than formula. It’s why we didn’t choose banked milk over formula, since our specific problem was weight gain and studies have shown that formula exceeds donor milk in terms of helping preemies put on weight.
See, another case of where breast is not best. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not best.
I cannot believe anything is best in terms of body functions that has limited accessibility. Where would we start a campaign called “sight is best” in order to get kids to stop using circle lens? We wouldn’t, because it would be rude and reductive to people who are blind. Where would we start a campaign called “hearing is best” in order to get kids to turn down the volume on their iPods? We wouldn’t, because it would be rude and reductive to people who are deaf.
And frankly, if you’ve ever spent time within Deaf culture, you would realize that hearing is not necessarily “best.” Is it preferable in certain situations — of course. But can it also be a drawback in others? Yes, this is true too. And therefore, rather than spending time arguing which is best — hearing or deafness — we agree that whatever works personally is best for that person. We don’t always have a choice, and best should be used as a measurement for places where everyone has a choice to make.
And that is how I wish we’d approach breastfeeding. There are those who argue that they still need to fight in order to combat the formula industry, but my question is why we need a war? Why it can’t be a personal choice; one that we believe women are intelligent enough to make on their own? In all facets of life, we receive what amounts to advertisements for choices whether it’s a peanut butter brand or having a water birth. And I believe that we’re all intelligent enough to make a choice that works for our particular situation.
If we ever get lucky enough to have another child, I will probably try breastfeeding again, even though there hasn’t been a clear-cut method found to combat a lack of prolactin. I will pump and give it a go for a few weeks; not because I believe breast is best, but simply because I want to have the experience of breastfeeding. And it will hurt a lot again if I have to stop, but I also believe that something that causes mental distress can never be best. A woman’s emotional health is just as important as a child’s physical health. One does not trump the other.
And if it turns out that I still don’t produce prolactin, I will do what I did for the twins to balance out using formula. My children have never had jarred food. I made everything from scratch. The steaming and peeling and mashing and freezing — these were the physical ways I fed my children. Do I believe my food trumped jarred food? No — I’m sure the nutritional difference was negligible. But I needed a way to be physically involved in their feeding that went beyond the twisting off of a jar top. It was the leveled playing field to breastfeeding — of utilizing my strengths (cooking) rather than mourning my foibles (my body).
My thesis: breast milk is great for some kids and parents. Formula is great for some kids and parents. The decision about which one to use needs to be weighed in each individual case rather than creating blanket slogans. And that decision needs to rest with the people directly affected by the decision. We do more damage than good when we believe we know what works best for another person when we don’t have all the information of their specific situation.
And my lord, anyone who actually reads this blog (rather than swinging by here due to a Google alert) knows that I am a kumbaya-loving hippie freak who obviously would support another woman’s decision to breastfeed. But I’d also support a woman’s decision not to breastfeed. Because I’m an open-minded kumbaya-loving hippie freak who would really like to preserve individual’s self-esteem rather than question their choices.
* If you’re here for the first time on my blog, I apologize for this rant. I just read yet another blog post that touts “breast is best” which demonizing formula. And for those of us who didn’t have a choice, who are being told that we gave our kids second-rate nutrition and missed out on the bonding experience of a lifetime (which, apparently, men or non-breastfeeding women never get to have), it’s incredibly hurtful. While I tend to shy away from hot-button topics, I realized I’d get nothing else accomplished today if I didn’t release this.