‘Fed Is Best’ Is Fine, But We Can't Gloss Over The Benefits Of Breastmilk

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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In my time working as a lactation consultant (IBCLC), I watched mothers make very difficult decisions about breastfeeding. Although it was my job to help make breastfeeding work for each mom and baby, sometimes it was my job to help mothers let go of the idea of exclusive breastfeeding (most often because of low milk supply issues), or help them wean altogether.

There were times – like when a baby was failure to thrive, or when a mother was deep in the throes of postpartum depression – where it was my job to actively encourage formula supplementation or full weaning. I didn’t hesitate to do that either.

Besides crisis situations like these, there are so many reasons why a mother might decide not to breastfeed: a history of sexual abuse, medical issues that prohibit breastfeeding (like a need for cancer treatments), military deployment, or simply no desire to pursue breastfeeding.

I feel strongly that is not my place to judge a mother’s feeding choice – it’s a very personal thing, and anyone who tells you that breastfeeding is the only path toward being an in-touch, responsive parent is completely wrong. There are so many ways to bond with your baby, and so many amazing mothers out there who choose not to breastfeed.

So, in many ways, I’m on board with the “Fed Is Best” movement and campaign – the idea behind it being that the most important thing is not whether you breastfeed or formula feed your baby, but that your baby is well fed and happy … and that you are too.

However, there is something I see very often within the Fed is Best movement that disturbs me, and that is how quickly the whole thing morphs into an equivocation of breastmilk and formula. As much as it feels more comfortable to say that formula is really just as healthy for your baby as breastmilk, the fact is that that simply is not the case – and we do a disservice to mothers by glossing over the truth, or feeding them falsehoods.

For example, I recently wrote an article for Scary Mommy about a newly discovered benefit of breastmilk: that it protects mothers against liver disease. It was based on a study published in a reputable medical journal and carried out by physicians and experts in the field. I also included quotes from physicians not directly affiliated with the study, backing up the claims in the study.

And yet, the comments section was filled with Fed Is Best supporters trying to take apart the research, saying that it must not to be true, that the results were overblown, and that there really isn’t a discernible difference between breastmilk and formula. Often these claims are based on anecdotal evidence (“Well, my baby was formula fed and was healthy!”), which are not scientifically sound methods to prove a claim.

The fact is, breastmilk is a healthier food for babies than formula. It has immune and disease fighting factors that formula is simply unable to replicate. It has benefits – some of which science has only scratched the surface of – that last a lifetime for both moms and babies. These are facts that every major medical organization backs up as well (Academy of American Pediatrics, World Health Organization).

That doesn’t mean formula is terrible for your child – far from it. With good overall healthcare and nutrition throughout a lifetime, most kids in developed countries will do really well whether they were fed breastmilk or formula as babies. And again, breastfeeding is not the only way to bond with your baby. In fact, for some women, formula feeding might be the better way to bond with your baby.

But to say that there is no benefit to being fed breastmilk just isn’t true – and taking every study and turning it upside down to try to prove this is misguided. There is a way to wholly support either choice (or lack of a choice if a mother simply is unable to nurse) without messing with science here.

Especially these days, we need to rely on scientific evidence as we make health choices for our families – and not all the pseudoscience mumbo jumbo that seems to be at our fingertips all the time. What’s more, we need to be able to talk about these things clearly and thoughtfully, without worrying that we are automatically shaming someone just by stating facts.

Women should be able to make informed choices when it comes to whether to breastfeed or not. The hope is that in most cases, a woman will get the support she needs to breastfeed — things like adequate leave time, workplace support, as well as top-notch, affordable lactation support. Many mothers do not get these things, which is horrible, and part of the reason so many mothers are unable to meet their breastfeeding goals.

And certainly for some mothers, not breastfeeding is a better choice. When it comes to decisions like this, you need to take in the whole picture – like a mother’s mental health, her need for medical treatments that may be contraindicated for breastfeeding, and her ability to produce a full milk supply for her child.

Deciding to breastfeed or not is a complex choice, one that can sometimes be very painful for a mother to make. Moms need awesome support as they navigate these challenging waters. But erasing the scientifically proven facts about breastfeeding is not helpful when it comes helping a mother make this decision.

Mothers are smarter than that, and don’t like to be lied to. I believe that mothers are more powerful than they know, even when they are at their breaking points – and the way to fully empower mothers is to give them good, clear information, along with honest, non-judgmental, deeply loving emotional support.

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