Breast-feeding: A response to readers

Posted: Nov 18, 2003 12:00 AM

"You are so stupid that I almost feel bad being so harsh on you."

"Get your head out of your ass and have a little sensitivity to those of us who are doing what is best for our kids. BREAST IS BEST."

In my last column, I argued that the passion and preoccupation in Western society with breast-feeding and the stigmatizing of bottle-feeding needed to be explained. The benefits, I believe, do not justify the passion.

I expected angry mail, and I received it. Within three days of the column's publication, I received over 300 e-mails, most from women, and most angry.

That did not surprise me. What was surprising was the content of some of the recurring arguments and the many women who thanked me for saying what almost no one says in public.

First, two recurring arguments. One was that the primary, even sole, purpose of the female breast is to provide milk to a baby. The number of women who cited this argument suggests that an additional reason for the breast-feeding passion is a desire to desexualize the female breast. The motivation may be understandable, but the argument is not sustainable. If the sole purpose of the breast was to feed infants, women, like all mammals, would only have breasts when nursing their young. But the female human always has breasts.

Many women also wrote that Jesus was breast-fed, and if it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for their children. The desire to emulate Jesus morally is a noble one, but when carried beyond morality, it is foolish. Jesus was circumcised. He never married. He had no children. He wasn't vaccinated. Should Christians therefore have their children circumcised, never marry, not have children and refuse to vaccinate their children?

As for the many women who wrote to thank me, I wish a column were long enough to print all of these letters. Here are excerpts from a small fraction of them:

"I have breast-fed five kids. My oldest is now 17 and my youngest, 10. Of the five, two have food and outdoor allergies, one has asthma, two had chronic ear infections (no day care -- I am a stay-at-home mom), and two were extremely colicky. Both my husband and I are allergy-free (both were bottle-fed), neither of us had colic, and neither of us have any kind of health problem." -- Lori D., Minnesota

"When my daughter was born, I bought into this hysteria and actually believed if I fed formula, I would do my daughter some terrible disservice. I gleaned this hysteria from what I presumed would be nonpartisan breast-feeding advocates I had turned to for education and support. When I encountered significant problems with breast-feeding, I sobbed hysterically the first time we fed formula. I continued to breast-feed desperately to the detriment of my emotional health, my sex life and my sleeping patterns. When I weaned it was like a hormonal cloud lifted from my mind.

"I want you to understand that there are women out there who are deeply pained and burdened with guilt and depression because they do not wish to or cannot breast-feed and actually believe they are failing to adequately nourish and protect their children from illness. It is extremely painful for a new mother to believe that, even temporarily. You do a wonderful service by challenging this bizarre movement in a public way." -- Jennifer J., California

"I have known too many women who were reduced to tears when breast-feeding didn't work out (i.e., bleeding nipples and infection are common) -- believing this lie that mothers who bottle-feed are somehow less loving or less committed to motherhood than breast-feeding mothers." -- Alyssa S., Minnesota

"I have a theory regarding the fanaticism that many women feel toward breast-feeding. (I am speaking as a mother of five who has nursed all of her children until the age of 2.) It is an innate tendency of women to suffer from the "martyr syndrome." We want to believe that we are giving our everything, sacrificing our all for our families and most especially our children. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that we like being in control: Only I can feed the baby, she's mine, and only I can comfort and nurture her." -- Timmy C., California

Finally, a male physician:

"I am a 69-year-old physician, and in my generation's child bearing years formula-feeding was the norm. These babies have been exceptionally well nourished with no detectable problems. I agree it makes NO difference as long as general good health rules are followed for a lifetime." -- Bruce Herndon, M.D.

Many readers may be surprised that I would write about this one time, let alone twice. But I am very concerned about our society's values. In particular, I am convinced that the preoccupation with health has come at the price of character development. We have raised a generation jaded with respect to sex, coarse in its language, morally confused, alienated from their American and Judeo-Christian roots, and uncommitted to marriage. But we drum into their heads not to smoke or bottle-feed.

A society that stigmatizes bottle-feeding but not out-of-wedlock birth or abortion is in trouble.