Bottle vs. Breast: The Controversy Continues

adult-art-baby-235243BY KATHY P. BEHAN

I have to admit that I disliked her right from the start. She was standing in front of me on the supermarket checkout line with a baby about the same age as mine, but that was where the similarities ended. There were big differences between us. The most annoying one was that I looked like I had given birth yesterday — not three months ago — and she looked as if she had just stepped off a model’s runway. My annoyance increased as I inspected the contents of her cart: junk food, cigarettes and formula.

As I watched her leave, I wondered why I felt so hostile toward her. After all, it’s not like she pushed past me on line, or stepped on my toes or anything. But in a different sense she had stepped on my toes. Yeah, I resented her for being thin, and I was angry at her for smoking (everyone knows the dangers of smoking to yourself, and to the people around you — especially a baby!), but more surprisingly, I was also annoyed because she was bottle feeding her infant. I was irritated because I felt this woman was shortchanging her baby. After all, everyone knows that breast is best. Why would you feed your child any other way?

This is also the way a lot of other breastfeeding moms feel. Some react as I did with silent reprobation, and others, with spoken disapproval. Is it any wonder that bottle-feeding moms sometimes feel as if they’re under siege? They’re often made to feel guilty about their feeding choice, and compelled to offer explanations for it. These feelings often lead to resentment and anger. And so, the battle lines are drawn. Instead of sharing the common bonds of motherhood, mothers are instead locked in a divisive dispute.

One of the reasons this struggle can become so heated is that motherhood has become the latest competitive sport, and everyone wants to “win.” Part of winning means having the biggest, the brightest and the most physically advanced child. Of course there’s no sure fire way of attaining this, but don’t tell that to the know-it-all mothers in every park. Hang out in any playground these days and you’ll hear more bragging and advice about kids than you will of a guy’s sexual conquests in a men’s locker room.

At the risk of sounding like one of the playground moms, the fact is nursing should be promoted simply because it’s healthiest for the baby. Many women mistakenly feel that bottle feeding is just as good — it’s not.

“All women need to know the benefits of nursing,” believes Judy Hershberger, R.N., a certified lactation consultant and a lactation specialist at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester. “A lot of them aren’t given the knowledge they need in order to make the best possible decision about their feeding choices. Because breastfeeding is best for the mother and the baby, all women should be encouraged to try it.”

Benefits of breastfeeding

The benefits of breastfeeding are very well documented. Breastfed babies undisputedly enjoy the best possible nourishment in terms of carbohydrates, protein and calories, and they also enjoy a host of health advantages as well. Nursing protects the infant against gastrointestinal and bacterial infections, and it’s also thought to lessen the chances of getting ear infections, colic, eczema, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and lymphoma-type cancers. Plus, some studies show that breast milk contains proteins that promote brain and retina development.

In terms of benefits to the mother, breastfeeding reduces the chance of hemorrhaging after delivery as it causes the uterus to contract, and therefore clamp down on the bleeding that occurs. Adds Leslie Hill, R.N., the clinical coordinator of Concord Hillside Medical Associates, and a nurse in the Pediatric Intermediate Care Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital, “These contractions also help the uterus to return to normal more quickly after having a child.”

Breastfeeding also offers what is sometimes described as, “a gift of economy, convenience and enjoyment.” Breast milk is obviously cheaper than formula and requires no preparation. The enjoyment comes from the unique closeness you and your infant experience, and from the knowledge that you’re nourishing your child with the best possible food — produced by your own body.

“Besides all the health benefits, there’s a special bonding that takes place knowing that no one else can feed that baby but you,” says Cathy Kessler, a 32-year-old mother of two daughters. “Nursing is so intimate and satisfying. I think all women should have this opportunity because it’s like no other.”

Interestingly, all the mothers I interviewed — even those who didn’t like breastfeeding or were unsuccessful at it — would encourage other mothers to try it. One of the reasons they cite is that once you opt to bottle feed, there’s no going back.

Adds Kessler, “If a woman tries nursing and decides later that it’s not for her, she can always go to bottles. But if you’ve made the choice to bottle feed right from the start, you’ve completely done away with the nursing option.”

Unfortunately, there’s less breastfeeding now than there was in the 1980s. According to Peter Greenspan, M.D., a pediatrician in private practice in Weston, and the director of education for the Children’s Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, “In 1985, 56 percent of women went home from the hospital breast feeding their babies. Now it’s down to 52 percent.”

A personal decision

“Deciding to breastfeed is an extremely complicated and personal decision,” says Greenspan. “It requires thought, feelings, behaviors and taking a family’s history into account. It’s also not for everyone.”

Many women choose to bottle feed for a variety of very sound reasons. Some need to go back to work and find bottle feeding easier. Others feel that after nine months of pregnancy they want, as one mother put it, her “body back.”

“The idea of being tied, 24 hours a day to a baby really bothered me,” explained a mother of two. “I needed more space. It was really important to me to be a good mother but to also preserve myself in the process.”

Other mothers may be squeamish about the idea of nursing, and embarrassed about the prospect of doing something so private in public.

“I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable feeding my baby in front of other people,” says Patty Hanchett, 35. “But I also didn’t like the idea of leaving the room every time my child wanted to eat.”

Adds Barbara Eriss, the mother of a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, “I liked being able to see how much milk my babies were drinking, and to have their father participate in the feeding process.”

Even if a logical explanation is given about why a woman opted to bottle feed, chances are it makes little difference to some breastfeeding zealots.

“When I switched to bottle feeding, women would often come up to me and ask me why,” says MaryAnn Long, a mother of two. “I’d oversimplify the reasons and not try to explain what really happened. That’s because I found that people weren’t interested in understanding my motives, they were only interested in expressing their own disapproval.”

Even though there are strong arguments in favor of breastfeeding it still doesn’t mean it’s right for all women. But part of winning a motherhood contest means making everyone do things the right way — meaning your way. Explains Long, “Everybody has the idea that the way they do something is the only way. They’re often not open to other viewpoints.”

Problems arise when women who are perceived to be doing things “wrong” are made to feel guilty and defensive. “I noticed that when I was bottle feeding I got much more of a reaction than I did for nursing,” says Kessler. “People would look at me as if to say, ‘Why are you giving your baby a bottle. You’re right here, why don’t you nurse her?’ I often felt as if I had to give an explanation of why I was bottle feeding my child.”

Vulnerable to criticism

Mothers are particularly vulnerable to negative comments because they’re so anxious to do what’s best for their child. “New mothers especially are riddled with self-doubts,” believes Long. “You’re so concerned about doing the absolute best for your baby that you’re easy prey to any suggestions that you’re not doing things correctly.”

Plus, anxiety about motherhood often causes common sense and self-esteem to go on the fritz. That’s why implied or stated criticism can be so devastating, especially for women who have unsuccessfully tried nursing. They often feel like failures. Explains one mother, “Everybody talked about how natural breast feeding is. I don’t think that’s true, I think it’s a learned skill. I gave it up because it was so difficult for me, and I’m still guilty about it.”

Guilt may pressure women into nursing even if it makes them uncomfortable. “I breastfed my baby for all the wrong reasons,” explains one Sudbury, MA mother. “My husband really wanted me to breastfeed and so I did. Not surprisingly, I had a very rough time with it. I ended up not only resenting my husband, but my baby as well.”

Even when women are doing it “right” and opting to breastfeed, they may still be caught up in the motherhood competition. Some mothers boast about the length of time they nursed their kids, or about the richness or profusion of their milk. “I had all these born-again breastfeeders bragging to me about their milk supplies,” says Long. “They’d say things like, ‘My milk was so rich my baby only had to feed for five minutes on each side. It’s too bad your baby needs to nurse for 20 minutes. Your milk must be thin.'” Unfortunately, women like this feel compelled to bolster their own egos at the expense of everyone else’s.

When all is said and done, it’s important to realize that babies will actually turn out fine even if they’re formula fed. “Kids can thrive on formula milk as well,” says Ronald E. Kleinman, M.D., chairman of the committee on nutrition for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the chief of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We don’t want to scare mothers who prefer to bottle feed into thinking they’re harming their infants in some way. Formula milk is now quite similar to breast milk as far as nutrition is concerned.”

It’s time for mothers to put aside their differences and unite. After all, we’re sure more alike than we are different in the dreams, desires and love we have for our children. Adds Hill, “In our society, mothers of young children already receive too little support. There’s no extended family around and we’re a transient society. Frequently, the only support a mother gets is from other mothers. That’s why it’s so tragic. If a woman is made to feel guilty by other parents that often means she’s not receiving any support at all.”

Let’s focus on what we really want for our world. We want a healthy baby and a healthy mother, not only physically but emotionally as well. Whatever feeding method a couple selects to achieve this goal is the best way for that particular family.

So, lady in the grocery store, I’m sorry. Now if you can only give up smoking…

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.

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