Science

Boobs: not just for adults.

We live in a society (and by “we” I refer to the majority of my readers who do not live in abject third-world poverty) in which corporations take free or inexpensive things, place them in appealing packaging, and sell them back to us at a steep profit. Take, for instance, bottled water. You can turn on your tap at home and fill up jugs of the stuff, all for a few pennies (or for nothing at all, if you live in an apartment like mine). The water is regulated by the EPA and fit for human consumption. Yet, still people pay a premium to drink water sold in bottles — often, this water comes from the very same kind of tap as the stuff in your sink.

It’s little wonder, then, that enterprising corporations are successfully selling people a concoction that is a pale imitation of a fluid that a large percentage of the population can easily manufacture themselves: breast milk.

Infant formula may have some nutrients and calories necessary for growth, but researchers are discovering more and more benefits related to breast feeding. So why are so many kids hitting the bottle when they could be getting the good stuff on tap?

A small percentage of women can’t produce breast milk at all. Some women are hindered by disease or past breast surgery. Then there are women who feel that breast feeding is too much of an inconvenience, perhaps interfering with their jobs. Now, I am not a mother (IANAM). Because IANAM, I am woefully ignorant in the demands of motherhood, so perhaps some mothers can correct me on this — is it really that much of an inconvenience? I mean, you already have a wailing baby who requires constant attention and butt cleanings. Is it that much more of a problem to squirt out milk every now and again?

The other possible reason why women continue to buy formula when they could be breastfeeding is simply bad PR. The charts at the right come courtesy of this NY Times article about the preponderance of evidence suggesting huge benefits from breastfeeding that has lead to groups like the World Health Organization campaigning for awareness and possible warning labels on formula. According to that survey, 26.4% of women believe formula is as good as breast milk and a whopping 45.7% don’t know that research suggests breast milk helps prevent illness.

The companies manufacturing the formula have done a very good job of fooling people into thinking their product is necessary for newborns. Nestle in particular has accomplished some incredibly heinous acts in the third world, where the planet’s poorest people are struggling to survive. The company has been repeatedly bitch slapped by the WHO for marketing their products to nursing mothers, informing the women that the formula was better than breast milk. When mothers mixed the powdered substance with the only available poorly sanitized water, children died. They’re still dying today, 1.5 million a year dead because of the effects of this campaign.

Yet still, Nestle continues to promote formula. Here’s a rundown courtesy of the WHO concerning the company’s past and present activities. From the site:

Code violations by Nestlé are condensed into a table format because the sheer volume of violations reported would take too many pages. All countries involved in this survey reported evidence of Nestlé violations.

Yowch.

The New York Times article includes one other ridiculous counterargument to the promotion of breast milk: an educational campaign could make some women feel bad. Aw.

But critics say the new campaign has taken things too far and will make mothers who cannot breast-feed, or choose not to, feel guilty and inadequate.

“I desperately wanted to breast-feed,” said Karen Petrone, an associate professor of history at University of Kentucky in Lexington.

When her two babies failed to gain weight and her pediatrician insisted that she supplement her breast milk with formula, Ms. Petrone said, “I felt so guilty.”

“I thought I was doing something wrong,” she added. “Nobody ever told me that some women just can’t produce enough milk.”

While I sympathize with Ms. Petrone’s inability to lactate, I’d like to humbly suggest she get over herself if she thinks that we should halt a campaign designed to educate women on how to use their own natural bodily fluids to raise healthier babies just because someone might have their feelings hurt. (To be fair, there’s a chance Ms. Petrone doesn’t believe that at all and is merely being quoted out of context in order to fit the opinion of the generic “critics” mentioned.) If the campaign makes women who “choose not to” breastfeed feel guilty, good. If a campaign to educate people on the benefits of vaccinating children made Christian Scientists and anti-vax proponents “feel guilty and inadequate,” then we’d rightfully tell them to go to hell.

As stated in the NY Times article, all the benefits of breast milk haven’t been fully explored yet. At this point, though, nearly every expert agrees that the science shows breast milk to be the clear victor over formula. So let’s dump the politically correct garbage and get the word out.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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24 Comments

  1. It's sad that so many women feel it is inconvenient. Several companies now have "lactation rooms" where mothers can go pump. Granted this isn't the funnest thing to do, but knowing you are helping your child makes it all worth it.

    It is also sad that society gawks at breastfeeding mothers. I breastfed my son until he was 6 or 7 months and I would "whip it out" pretty much anywhere. I was discrete, but still had some horrendous looks from passersby.

    While there are some women who can't produce enough (that ended up being my problem and why he went to formula eventually), getting as much in as you can will help the baby.

    I envy your brutal honesty and wit :) Keep it coming :)

  2. My wife breast fed our two boys (I can't say we; I wasn't really involved in that process) for about 6 months. Try as she might she just couldn't produce enough milk. Eventually she had to switch to formula. (Irony is that she is rather well endowed, but her sister has a more modest bosom and could produce like a Gurnsey cow. Size doesn't matter.)

    With our first child we thought that breast feeding was natural, so soon after he was born we tried hooking him up. Since women have been feeding their babies like this for a long long time. You would think that it would be natural and all you need to do is get baby near the nipple and away you go. Yeah right! My wife had two lactition nurses assisting her. I just stepped back and got out of the way.

    I found it insteresting that the graph shows differences in breast feeding by education. I remember reading a Scientific American article years ago about how to reduce poverty and population growth. Educate women. Studies had shown that educational dollars spent on women had a very positive effect on a countries development. (third world countries was the focus of the article) Educated women had a tendency to have fewer children, their children were healthier, better educated and their children tended to pass on those practices. Educating men had less of an effect.

  3. I have to chime in here, my wife was one of those that could not produce milk, and it freaked her out. Also we had a women from the LaLeche(sp?) League calling everyday and barraging my wife with guilt that she could not produce milk. It was so bad that I finally had to tell the LaLeche Nazi to stop calling, and in rather forceful terms.

    But I have to say that my wifes loss, the inability to produce milk and breast feed was my gain, I was able to assist more readily, I could make the formula, and feed my daughter giving my wife the chance to have a break from caring for her.

    Now, I don't know if my daughter suffered from not have mother's milk, but she is now 15 and seems no worse for wear. :)

  4. I am not a woman, but I do one on TV.

    My daughter destroyed my wife's nipples. I'm serious. They still aren't fully healed 3 years later. I and my mother-in-law were finally able to convince her to go to formula after two weeks of her screaming throughout breastfeeding. Why did it take 2 weeks? Because she knows that breast milk is best for babies. Perhaps it is because we live in Canada, but everyone seems to know that up here. The people who use formula tend to have reasons for doing them, and I'll leave it for people like Paul to judge those reasons.

  5. I agree with most of everything that have been said here and I agree with you Rebecca that women should breastfeed their babies…

    BUT, I'm wondering about one thing that you didn't mention in your article. I'm sure you're aware of it but just didn't want to adress that side of the question at the moment… What about the different toxic chemicals that one can find in women's milk these days? I'm no expert and I haven't done too much research about it but, I remember hearing about that ( http://tinyurl.com/g9fdc ). Is it possible that, although breast's milk contain stuff that can help the baby to have a better immunitary system and is more nutritive, it can also, on the other way, feed your baby with toxic substances because of the pollution that is all around us?

    Maybe, the formula contains less of these toxic products and is therefore more appropriate for certain people, expecially if one lives near industries who use lots of chemicals?

    Of course, that is a sad thing to think about…

  6. I am a mom. I am currently nursing my second child. I nursed my first for over a year and a half. I suspect this one might go a bit longer. I am very pro-BF.

    One thing we have to realize is that some women must work in order to help support their families. Many families need both parents to have an income. Given that, I think it more a reflection of society than of the women when companies do not provide the resources for these women to pump. It takes time and a quiet space — things not easily found in many jobs. I think the lack of support in the job environment is why it is "inconvenient". And I think "discouraged" might be a better or more accurate word.

    Society (at least in the US) as a whole still seems to have big issues with nursing. I am amazed, regularly, at stories of breast-feeding moms who are told to go to a bathroom or leave the restaurant or some other equally inane thing. While they could be sitting right next to a bottle-fed infant whose mom is getting no flak. It's that lack of respect and attitude that makes women feel uncomfortable and that it's "inconvenient".

    You seem more boob on the beach! Get over it!

    As for developing countries… I think formula should be banned. Or close to it. There is absolutely no reason those women should be using compromised water to feed their infants when breast milk is easily had and far far superior.

    I think our society needs to be more comfortable and more supportive of breastfeeding before many women will not see it as an "inconvenience".

  7. Thanks to everyone for some very well-put comments. I'm afraid I did skimp on a few points in the sake of time and space, so I'm glad you're bringing them up.

    First, I wholeheartedly agree with girlcarew that our society (in particular America, since I'm not sure how feelings are on the subject elsewhere) needs to suck it up (so to speak) and accept the fact that breastfeeding is not lewd, and should be able to be done in public.

    Second, Dan is correct that there may be problems with toxic chemicals making their way into breastmilk. Here's a very good article about it.

    Cam, here is where I show my mothering ignorance. Aren't there pumps available that allow a woman to safely extract milk into a bottle? Or would that have been just as painful for her? I have read that many women find the experience pleasurable. Sometimes, er, very pleasurable. Kind of weird, but better than painful I suppose.

    For people like Greg and his wife, of course it is completely out of line for someone to be badgered because she cannot produce milk. Of course I'm encouraging the education of the majority of women who do produce milk, and not any sort of villification of people who have no other options.

  8. haha :)

    Unfortunately, the pumps were just as bad, though I suspect that may have been because she didn't try them until after she'd tried breast-feeding. She certainly didn't find it… very pleasurable.

  9. This is a very interesting topic for me because I am pregnant right now with my first child and trying to figure out what I'm going to do about breastfeeding. Everything I've read indicates that breastmilk is better than formula, so I want to bf if I can. However, my income sustains the household and I will likely be taking only a couple of weeks off after delivery. It will be my husband staying home with our child. So I will have to pump each evening for him to have milk for the next day. Is that how it works? Can you pump anytime you want and the milk is there? What if one evening I'm "out of order"?

  10. The fact that some women think it’s inconvenient is a sad statement about the nature of our society, and an indication of what is the basic underlying problem with children today. People are having children without making the commitment to rearing that child that is necessary. Deliberately bringing a child into the world is the single most significant decision any person will ever make. You have a responsibility to care for and provide for that child for at least 16-18 years to come. Having a child, and then not devoting yourself to that child 100% from that moment on is selfish and irresponsible.

    Now, before some women jump up swinging at me, let me say, I am not talking just about women, but about families. I am not suggesting that women should give up a career and stay home with a child. What I am suggesting is that both a mother and a father have to, absolutely have to put the needs of the child before their own for a very long time after that child is born. If that means not going out to society parties and get togethers several times a week, or spending less time at the club, or simply making a sacrifice at work in order to be home earlier in the evening, or leave later in the morning, so be it. You brought the child into the world. failing to provide him or her with the absolute best care that you are able is a failing.

    Another thing: the benefits to a child of being breast fed go far far beyond mere nutrition.

  11. My experience with my wife and breastfeeding was far from typical, but there are other problems besides not producing enough milk. Breastfeeding also messes with hormones more severely than pregnancy does, and there may well be some link between breastfeeding and postpartum depression. In my wife's case, we had to take her to the ER several times because she was so delusional and depressed from the hormones that she was a danger to herself and our daughter. Just something to consider.

    Getting her to stop breastfeeding was very hard, and it took almost six months and the vigorous urging of two OB/GYN's and our pediatrician. Her mental state improved drastically in a matter of days.

    Also note: Every piece of literature I saw from the formula companies had huge statements front and foremost stating "breast milk is better for your kids than this formula, but if you choose to use this instead here are some of the things it does provide." I thought that they did a pretty commendable job of making clear that you were not getting everything in formula that you do in breast milk.

    I recall that Levitt has a bit in Freakonomics about breastfeeding, but I don't have it at hand to see what their research showed.

  12. I just finished reading a book about pregnancy and it was interesting to learn that breast feeding can have benefits for the mother. Rev_matt mentioned the hormones linked to breast feeding above in a negative context but I read that for some women the change from pregnancy is less abrupt and is in fact helped by breast feeding. Also the hormones associated with breast feeding help your body return to its pre-pregnancy state by shrinking the uterus (for example). Finally I read that breast feeding will help you lose the weight you put on while pregnant. Bonus!

    Obviously different women have some very different experiences. I hope I am one of the lucky ones. Sorry but I can't for the life of me remember the book title (I went to have a look on Amazon and man there are a lot of books on pregnancy!!)

  13. I guess, as with everything involving hormonal responses, it really just comes down to individual cases. All we can really say for sure is that the science shows that breastfeeding is superior nutritionally to formula feeding and let individual mothers decide from there. Says the 22 year-old unmarried male. ;)

  14. One of my favorite topics, so I'm back to respond. =)

    For Stacey – I would recommend 'The Breastfeeding Book' by Dr. Sears. In a nutshell, you have to pump at regular intervals through out the day (usually around the time that the baby would normally feed if you were at home). You can only get so much at a time.

    And in response to rev_matt, I too had PPD. With my first child I never addressed it and had an awful first year. I was dreading having a second child. This time, however, I am taking medication, and the difference is like night and day. There is medication that is safe to take while BFing. And, contrary to what Tom Cruise might think, there is nothing wrong with taking medication to help with a hormonal imbalance that you have no control over. It sounds like your wife had a far worse case of PPD that I did, and maybe meds would not have helped. As someone said, it often just comes down to individual cases.

  15. Nobody seems to have mentioned the very simple fact that milk production is also heavily dependent on what a mother eats. If you consume the wrong kinds of food, you'll produce less milk, just like consuming the wrong kind of food/drink will also produce other unwanted effects, such as gaining fat deposits on hips, thighs and bellies, or kidney stones, or liver cirrhosis, to name but a few of them.

    In other words, I doubt if you'll be able to producs as much breastmilk if your diet consists of McD and Coke. Or would having to alter your diet and eating healthier also be one of those "inconveniences"?

  16. I'm not a mother and barring rather revolutionary medical technology, I am VERY unliekly to become one. However, I have a mother who, for sane and reasoned medical necessities ended up having to bottle-feed me (can't say if it was formula or pumped milk, though). I was born with a full set of front teeth and my first ever meal was, she says, a mix of mother's milk and mother's blood. So rather instant switch to bottle happened and when things started healing up, I got to repeat that feeding experience once more.

    Saying that, I think breast-feeding is a better choice, when it's possible.

  17. In response to exarch: About the only thing that will cause your milk production to decrease is not getting ENOUGH food. The all-Big-Mac-and-fries diet might not be the healthiest, and might not be providing the correct nutrients, but as long as your caloric intake is okay, you can produce milk. Caloric deficiency or dehydration can lead to milk production problems, but eating crappy junk food just means your kid might need a vitamin supplement. As might you. (Is that grammatical?)

    And in response to everyone in this thread and the millions of other threads on the blogs and message boards of the world in which this has come up who have helpfully provided us with the single data point of, "I/my niece/my child/this guy I know was fed formula, and I/she/he turned out just fine": well, sure. The plural of "anecdote" is not "data." Breastmilk has been proven to be a nutritionally more sound option than formula and to decrease the risk of a number of different diseases. This does not mean that you are magically protected from those diseases if you are breastfed, and it doesn't mean that if you are formula-fed you will automatically contract them. It just means that your risk is much lower with breastmilk than with formula. The fact that Great-Aunt Sally formula-fed all nineteen of her kids and not one of them had a single ear infection EVER is really great for them, but is statistically meaningless.

  18. It's awful that Greg and his wife had such a bad experience with La Leche League. That, too, is individual; La Leche is a support group for women and their families who share information about lactation. I don't think it's really their mission to make the mom feel guilty.

    For the mother, it's not an instinct; it's learned, and we have few role models in this era. The problems mentioned here are addressed on many resources: sore nipples can be a consequence of poor latch-on; the baby has to be turned facing the mom's breast, not looking adoringly up into her face. The baby's mouth should be all around the nipple and areola — a lactation consultant can help with this process. I googled for breastfeeding instruction Los Angeles and a zillion links to resources came up, here's a good example
    http://www.breastfeedingtaskforla.org/DirData2006
    Also, supplementing the breast milk with in-between formula discourages milk production. More frequent feedings encourage it; the nursing baby stimulates the production. This is linked to on-demand feeding. The baby doesn't have a clock in her tummy.

    I would also mention that some prescriptions for chronic conditions are found in breast milk, and are, unfortunately, probably not good for babies. Dilantin is one; usually that information is included in the paperwork that comes with the prescription from the pharmacy.

    I think it's beautiful to see a baby having a little drink with mom.

  19. Breastfeeding is great, but I do think sometimes its greatness is overstated a bit. Which is why women like myself who have problems breastfeeding end up feeling like total crap about it. That, and the way people seem to assume you're just not trying hard enough/feeding often enough etc.

    The early colostrum and such is very helpful to the newborn, and breastmilk continues to confer some temporary immunities from the mother to the baby for a long time. But I've come across people who think it prevents asthma, and I don't think that's true.

    The properties of breastmilk are actually more important in a third-world country with dirty water, due to its immunity-boosting properties. But even in third-world countries, some women just can't nurse, and formula can be a lifesaver.

  20. Formula and bottles are the modern solution to a problem that must always have existed. Wet nurses were and still are another solution to the dilemma.
    http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/studentwork/cns/2004-
    Sorry for my clumsiness. I was only able to nurse my own baby for a short time; there are many good reasons to find alternatives. I would have preferred it otherwise, but it was a wise choice at the time.

    Families are trying to practice a natural process that had been labelled as "old fashioned" and had been largely given up for generations. Trying to separate information about what works, and what stories are old wives' tales is useful to maximize the success rate. The NYT article Rebecca mentioned alludes to a connection between bottle feeding and asthma, but I didn't notice anything substantiating the connection.

    Nestle has been selling formula to third world mothers for 40 years, and I am surprised that they are still at it. There used to be a boycott of Nestle products in reaction; but I wonder if they are giving away their little six-packs of baby formula in US hospitals. That's all it takes to interrupt the lactation pattern and stick the family with the cost of purchasing their product, which is a shame if there is no other reason or desire to discontinue breastfeeding.

  21. Cam,

    I thought I was being clear. Many women want to breast feed but are unable to, for many different reasons. At least three have been mentioned in this thread. My position is simply that "because it is inconvenient" is not an acceptable reason. I have bad news for anyone who is contemplating bringing children into the world. Kids are inconvenient. They continue to be inconvenient for almst two decades. Deal with it. When you made the decision to have a child, you made a decision to accept inconvenience; to make inconvenience a part of your life. In short, to put the needs of others before your own for the next twenty years. At least I hope you did. If you did not factor that into your plans, you had better start now.

    Wendy,

    You may have had a positive experience with La Leche League. My wife and I did not. The word Nazi is not out of place in describing them, and the accusation of them laying a monster guilt trip on women who do not breast feed (even if they have a legitimate reason, like severe depression, or badly cracked and bleeding nipples) is accurate in my experience. I recommend to anyone who wants honest, unbiased, and guilt free information on breast feeding to search out a local community health association/nurse. Best thing that ever happened to us.

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