Putting Breastfeeding into Perspective

As a new mother, I was anxious that I would ruin my daughter’s life!! I had studied development and child psychology for ten years before she was born, and thus knew in theory what to trust in terms of parenting advice and science and what to discard as sensationalized and/or inaccurate. However, in the emotional haze of new parenthood and facing the overwhelming fear of doing something wrong, I began to read popular parenting books, blogs etc and to wonder if I could every do anything correctly.



The first crisis I experienced was around breast feeding. I was determined to breastfeed and felt extreme pressure to by the medical staff at the hospital. I cited research, found in many popular parenting magazines as well, about how breastfed babies tend to have benefits like a stronger immune system. Studies in reputable peer-reviewed journals have found statistically significant positive associations between breast feeding and child outcomes. The size of the effects, however, tend to be small. I point this out not discredit the positive effects of breastfeeding but rather to put the importance of breastfeeding in perspective. Effect sizes (the actual difference between two groups) for social and cognitive outcomes are much greater for maternal depression, stress and anxiety. Researchers have also identified links between the inability to breastfeed and maternal depression and anxiety. I wonder if when breastfeeding comes at the expense of maternal health, how beneficial it is?


I am grateful that due to biological considerations and a flexible work-schedule that I was able to breastfeed my first daughter. As we pursue adoption, I realize if I am lucky enough to have a second that I will not be able to breastfeed them. At first I was worried that my second child would somehow have a “lesser” experience of childhood by not being breastfed. I now realize that is not true. It was not the actual act of breastfeeding that was so special but rather the time I had to snuggle my daughter. My breastfeeding time was often the one time in the day when others understood my prioritizing her above all others. I could have just as easily snuggled and read to her with a bottle but I may not have been afforded that same sacred time by others.


Summary:

-Breast is best but a bottle can be great as well.


-Many of the benefits of breastfeeding are related to the social connection between mother and child and not just the milk itself.


-Causing anxiety and stress around breastfeeding can ultimately harm what is best - a sensitive and responsive caregiver/child relationship.



Victora, C. G., Bahl, R., Barros, A. J. D., França, G. V. A., Horton, S., Krasevec, J., Murch, S., Sankar, M. J., Walker, N., Rollins, N. C. (2016). Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. The Lancet, 387, 475-490.