why you should breastfeed

The title of this post is misleading. I’m not going to preach at you–chances are someone has already done that. Nor am I going to list all the health benefits of breastfeeding–I know plenty of people have done that.

Actually, I’m going to tell you why I think it’s totally fine if you don’t breastfeed. Or use cloth diapers. Or have natural childbirth. Or wear your baby. Or do any of the other things that somebody is probably telling you you should do. And why you should think the same.

You may have read the article in The Atlantic a few years ago about “The Case Against Breastfeeding.” It was (obviously) a controversial article (to put it mildly), and when I first read it I was frustrated. I felt sorry for her. She felt that breastfeeding was stressful, that it tied her down, that it made her husband an unequal parent. This struck me as sad, and I don’t mean that in a wow-she’s-such-a-sad-excuse-for-a-parent kind of way. I mean that if she were my friend, I would take her out for a drink and a pedicure and tell her to give herself a break. But I recently read it again–it came up on Facebook–and I realized, somewhat to my surprise, that I actually agree with a lot of what she says.

Here’s the thing. She talks about all the health benefits of breastfeeding–lowered obesity, fewer illnesses, higher IQ–and she argues that they don’t necessarily exist. Or if they do, the impact of breastfeeding is much smaller than the public health message implies. She points out that a true study that controlled for other factors would be unethical, so every study is based on correlations in breastfeeding populations, with no controls. All of which may very well be true.

But the reason why this is frustrating to me is because none of that should matter.

Did you hear me? Yes, I breastfeed. I love breastfeeding. I’m a breastfeeding activist. And I really don’t think the health benefits of breastfeeding should matter. Maybe in some places, yes. But in developed countries, where there’s plenty of access to clean water and sterilization, formula isn’t such a dire health risk. I doubt that it’s much worse than drinking alcohol while pregnant (which I do, in moderation, and don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about).

The AAP recently changed their policy statement on breastfeeding. Although much of the new policy is similar to the old one, there was a noticeable shift in emphasis. Most notably, the new policy states that the way babies eat “should not be considered as a lifestyle choice but rather as a basic health issue.” And a lot of people take issue with the new wording, because they argue that a woman should have the choice to feed her baby however she wants–even if her reasons are simply that she doesn’t want to be tied down by breastfeeding.

And you know what? Even though I agree completely with the AAP’s new statement (because even if the health benefits aren’t proven by double-blind, controlled tests, I think there’s still enough evidence that pediatricians and doctors ought to be actively involved in supporting breastfeeding, which is what it means to say something is a health issue), I also agree that a mother should be “allowed” to choose not to breastfeed. Without judgement or guilt. Even if it’s simply a lifestyle choice.

I make lifestyle choices on public health issues all the time. Vaccination, for example. It’s a public health issue, and I choose to delay my child’s vaccinations and selectively vaccinate. I do not do that because I’m counting on the immunity of the masses to protect my child from getting sick, but because I have weighed the dangers of vaccines against the dangers of diseases, and in some cases I’m just not worried about her getting sick. (Chicken pox. Hello. We all got chicken pox as kids. This is not a scary disease.) Yes, it’s a public health issue. But it’s also my personal choice–one I should be allowed to make. I should be allowed to weigh the risks and benefits of my own and my family’s health decisions and make up my own mind, even if it could indirectly affect other people’s health. And I should be allowed to do so without judgement, without criticism, and without the fear that my pediatrician is going to kick me out of her practice. It’s a free country, people. This is what freedom means.

So–you’re not breastfeeding? Please don’t defend yourself to me. Don’t feel like you have to explain how you tried everything and your supply kept dwindling. Don’t think you need to tell me how you took galactagogues and pumped every hour and struggled and cried and at last gave up in despair. Of course, if you want to share your story, I’d love to listen. But my point is that you don’t need to explain. You don’t need to prove that you tried. You don’t even have to have tried. It’s okay if you just decided you didn’t want to do it. Really. It’s okay.

Because as much as I love breastfeeding, and as much as I think it’s best, and as much as I believe in the benefits, I don’t think anyone should struggle to breastfeed when they don’t really want to. Please notice the key phrase here. I do not in any way want to suggest that it’s not worth it to work through the struggles and keep trying and eventually succeed at breastfeeding. I have many friends who struggled and kept on and were glad they did. If that is you, I salute you, from my heart, with tears in my eyes, because I know what a wonderful prize you achieved by continuing to breastfeed. But. If you just don’t want to breastfeed, if you feel tied down or frustrated or angry or embarrassed–or even if you simply believe that your partner should put equal effort into feeding your baby–who am I to tell you otherwise? Who is anyone outside of you and your partner to tell you otherwise? Do I really need to say this again? Trust yourself. You know your baby. You know your family. You know what’s right for you. Do that.

Because when you truly trust yourself and your instincts, when you make decisions in confidence and the knowledge that only you can know what’s right for you to do for your family, then no one can make you feel guilty. No one can make you ashamed or embarrassed. They can criticize and they can judge and they can do all sorts of offensive things, but you’ll shrug it off. Their bad attitude will slide off your back like water. And it should. Because their opinion doesn’t matter. Yours does.

This happened to me recently. Because, as we all know, the whole breastfeeding thing is a double-edge sword. Like a lot of women’s choices, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If you don’t breastfeed, then, you know, you’re making your kid dumb and fat and sick. But if you do breastfeed, well dear god of course you’re not going to do that here?!? And when I first started breastfeeding, I admit it: I was vulnerable to that kind of judgement. I was embarrassed to do “that” in public. Because I’m modest and I’m a nice girl and I don’t want to offend people. I spent most of my high school years desperately searching for fashionable shirts that wouldn’t show off my all-too-endowed cleavage, okay? I am not the kind of girl who wants to flash my boobs at people.

But you know what I’ve realized? Over time, as I became more confident in my choice to breastfeed, it mattered less and less what anyone thought. First I started breastfeeding discreetly in public but quiet corners, my sling held carefully in place. Then I discovered I could walk around with my baby in the sling, and people really couldn’t tell. And before I knew it I was whipping it out everywhere–not to make a point, and not to be rude, and not to be immodest, but simply because it’s easy and convenient and comfortable and I’m no longer ashamed. Because I’m confident in my choice, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

I realized how much this is true for me–now, anyway–last weekend. I was at a birthday party for a one year old. Although most of the guests were parents, a few were singles or couples without children. It was late afternoon, and as the day drew toward evening, Teddy started to fuss. “Time for the evening cluster feed,” I said laughingly to another mom, and I pulled out my boob.

Then I turned to another friend–a guy, not married yet, who doesn’t have kids. I’ve known him for years, and I’m sure he’s seen me breastfeed before (how could he not have?), but maybe he’d never seen it so obvious before. In any case, he held his hand up as if he were shading himself from the sun. At first I thought he was shading Teddy from the sun–how thoughtful!–but then I realized that the sun was coming from a different direction.

I gave my friend an odd look. “What are you doing?” I asked.

He sputtered. “Uh, I like breasts,” he said, “but I don’t want to see yours!”

And there it was–the moment when breastfeeding became uncomfortable. Had that moment happened earlier in my breastfeeding journey, it might have had a very different effect. I might have left the party. I might have stopped feeding my baby and let him fuss. I might have hesitated to go out in public again, especially in the evenings. I might have stayed home more and more until I felt tied down and frustrated. I might have decided breastfeeding was too embarrassing, too limiting, too much work.

Or I might have gone the other direction. I might have pulled out my lactivist card. I might have disowned my friend, right after I finished lecturing him about the rights of breastfeeding mothers. Nurse-ins have been staged for less, my friends.

But either of these reactions–the embarrassed retreat or the defensive attack–are both shaped by a lack of confidence. A lack of confidence in yourself, or a lack of confidence in society and its ability to support your choice. I respect both those reactions–really, I do, because I’ve had both of them at different times–but I think both of them are rooted in fear.

And for me, both of those types of fears have been part of my journey at different times.

But not anymore.

Because I’m fully confident in my decision. I’ve had the chance to fully think through the reasons why I’m breastfeeding and why I do it the way I do, and I’ve come to the point where I believe I’m doing what’s right for me and it no longer matters what anyone thinks.

And you know how I reacted now? I didn’t feel uncomfortable, and I didn’t judge my friend.

I laughed.

I didn’t laugh because I was trying to relieve the tension or because I wanted to brush off his remark. No, I laughed because his reaction truly struck me as funny. It surprised me. It didn’t shock me or offend me–it just seemed odd. Because I knew that what I was doing was normal. I knew it not just theoretically or logically–I knew it deep down, instinctively and emotionally, in the ways that really matter. It felt normal. His discomfort with it felt silly; it seemed childish and ignorant, and I laughed at him the way I would laugh (and quickly stifle it) if my daughter said she thought her Cheerios were going to eat her. I laughed in surprise, because it seemed like such a ridiculous and unexpected thing to be bothered by.

Because–I’ll say it again–what I was doing was normal.

I know it’s not yet normal in our culture (obviously); it’s not treated as such in the workplace or in society. But it’s normal in my world. It’s normal in my life. And the fact that it wasn’t in my friend’s life didn’t make me feel like there was something wrong with me. Because I know there’s not.

And even though I think there are a lot of health reasons to breastfeed, I don’t think those should be the reasons why a mother chooses to breastfeed. They might be the reasons why she keeps breastfeeding despite struggles, why she works through difficulties breastfeeding, even why she makes the decision to breastfeed in the first place. But ultimately, I believe that the reason to breastfeed is because it’s normal. It’s biologically normal, and it should be culturally normal. It should be unsurprising and expected. It should be the default, and not breastfeeding should be a choice.

But–I’ll say it again–not breastfeeding should still be a choice. A choice that only you as the parent have the right to make, and one that you should never feel guilty about or feel the need to defend yourself for. And one that you should feel confident in making your own normal. And that you should feel confident to do no matter where you are, without even considering what other people think of you. They don’t matter. I have a friend who fed her baby formula at a La Leche League meeting. Sure, she was there to get breastfeeding support, but in the meantime, her baby needed formula, and that was her normal at that moment, and she had no qualms about doing it in front of lactivists, because she knew it was necessary and she was confident in her decision to supplement. That’s the kind of confidence I mean.

And you know what? Nobody criticized her. Because much of the time–not always, but a lot of the time–confidence engenders support. When you believe you’re doing the normal, ordinary thing, other people will start to believe the same. They’ll assume you’re right. Because you are, and you know it.

In conclusion, let me drawn an analogy, in the hopes of avoiding drawing the wrath of lactivists down on my head. I practice elimination communication. I’m a big fan of it. I spend a lot of my free time volunteering with DiaperFreeBaby in an effort to promote the practice, to raise awareness about it, and to teach people how to do it. I’m an EC activist. And I know that right now it’s a really fringe practice that seems weird to a lot of people. But breastfeeding used to be the same way. And then a handful of moms got together and started local groups of peer-to-peer support so mothers could teach other mothers how to breastfeed, and now the entire shift of society has changed. Yes, people are still so embarrassed to see it in public that they shade their eyes from it like my breasts are a freaking fiery ball of sunlight. (Which in retrospect made me feel kind of awesome about my breasts.) But everyone knows that “breast is best.” Only a generation ago, everyone knew that formula was healthier because it was scientific and you could measure it. Now, the entire tenor of discourse on the subject has reversed. And a lot of it was just because of that handful of mothers in a living room talking about helping other mothers learn to do it.

DiaperFreeBaby uses a similar model to La Leche League–small, local groups in which EC’ing families can teach other parents how to do it–and I truly believe that someday, the impact of our work will be as widespread as La Leche League. I regularly envision a world in which EC is generally recognized as the best approach to baby’s elimination. Someday–maybe even in my lifetime–everyone will know that “no diapers is best,” and cloth diapers will be seen as a good-enough second choice.

But in that world, will disposable diapers still be seen as an “acceptable” choice? Will parents feel like they have to defend themselves for throwing a diaper in the trash? As much as I dislike disposable diapers personally, I truly, deeply hope not. God forbid that any advocacy work I do would ever contribute to the load of mommy guilt that we all have such a hard time putting down. There are far too many reasons to feel guilty already–I hope nothing I do would ever add to that.

And that’s why, when I teach people about EC, I always tell them to only do it when it’s fun. Take a break when it’s not. And I know it goes against the grain to say that about breastfeeding–because isn’t breastfeeding supposed to be hard, at least at first? Isn’t that normal? Isn’t it just something that we’re supposed to struggle through?

Maybe. But guilt and abstract studies don’t have a lot of power to motivate anyone long-term. Maybe it’s all right that we’re framing breastfeeding as a public health issue. Maybe we’re better off telling women to just do it because it’s best for baby, and push through no matter what. But I wonder. I wonder how the conversation would change if we stopped trying to guilt everyone into it. What if we started telling everyone that breastfeeding is supposed to be fun? What if we said to take a break when it’s hard? What if we said to relax and not worry and let it happen naturally?

Maybe our breastfeeding rates would go down. Maybe every mother’s supply would tank when she “took a break.” Or maybe–maybe–we would actually stop worrying. Maybe we would stop telling mothers to log every feeding and measure every pumping session, and instead tell them to enjoy their babies and feed them whenever they’re hungry or need comfort. And maybe we would discover that we don’t need to be scared into breastfeeding. Maybe if we relaxed about it and focused on connecting with our babies instead of focusing on how much weight they’re gaining, our breastfeeding rates would actually go up.

Maybe, that approach would give more mothers confidence to make their own choice–and to parent without fear. And shouldn’t that be the goal of any advocacy?

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