It’s drummed into us that breast is best, but that may not always be the case. Ursula Hirschkorn investigates
Breast is best: the most sacrosanct belief when it comes to feeding a baby. The UK government and World Health Organisation both recommend that babies should be exclusively breastfed for six months. The Department of Health states that breastfeeding helps to protect your baby against diseases including asthma, eczema, obesity, diabetes, ear infections and stomach bugs. It also claims that it helps mothers to bond with babies and that breastfeeding mums regain their figures faster.
This being the case you might wonder why any woman would choose to feed her baby in any other way. Yet despite the decades of effort and millions of pounds spent promoting the idea that breast is best, in the UK only one in 100 mums exclusively breastfeeds for the recommended six months. In fact, while more mums may attempt to breastfeed – though even this figure is open to scrutiny as this simply means that a baby has had a single contact with its mother’s nipple – within just one week following the birth of their baby over half have given up exclusively breastfeeding.
Perhaps the message that breast is best isn’t quite as straightforward as it might first appear. First, let’s take a closer look at those health claims.
‘There is a huge gulf between the definitiveness of these [health] claims about breastfeeding and what you could say on the basis of evidence,’ says Dr Ellie Lee, director of Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent and author of the study Health, Morality And Infant Feeding. ‘With asthma, eczema, diabetes, obesity – in fact, everything other than tummy bugs – these claims are made on correlations rather than a randomised scientific trial, so many other factors may come into play other than breastfeeding.’
Lee goes on to say that the promotion of breastfeeding is ‘detached from anything to do with science and instead it has become a political and moral project’.
This is backed up by the findings of Michael Kramer, a professor of paediatrics at McGill University and an advisor to both the World Health Organisation and Unicef, who has said: ‘The public-health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date. There is very little evidence that it reduces the risk of leukaemia, lymphoma, bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure [and] I think some of the advice promulgated on obesity or allergies is false information.’
So it turns out the health benefits of breastfeeding are not so clear-cut after all.
But what about the all-important issue of bonding with your baby? Linda Cohen, who breastfed all three of her children for at least six months – one for two years – says that one thing that motivated her was that she ‘had to go back to work quickly so [breastfeeding] was a way of maintaining a strong bond with my children’.
While no one would dispute that successfully breastfeeding your baby is one way to forge a good bond between mother and child, it is far from the only way to create this relationship. In some ways, the heavy-handed promotion of breastfeeding, which extends as far as charity Save The Children’s suggestion that that formula milk should carry health warnings, could even be detrimental to bonding between a mother and her newborn child.
Lee says that during her study she talked to many women who said their experience of attempting to breastfeed and the guilt they felt if they were unsuccessful ruined their experience of early motherhood.
Liat Hughes Joshi, parenting expert and author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, strongly agrees. ‘The messages about breast being best, while perfectly valid, are pushed onto mothers too far,’ she says. ‘So there’s too little acknowledgement that not everyone can [breastfeed] and then you’re made to feel tremendously guilty. The new mum who can’t breastfeed or is really struggling with it is being given the message “you aren’t doing your best for your baby”, which isn’t an easy one to take.’
This view is even backed up by successful breastfeeding mothers such as Cohen, who agrees that if she had been unable to breastfeed her children she would have felt ‘very disappointed [and] a failure’. Lee says that some of the women she interviewed felt so guilty about bottle feeding their babies that they wouldn’t leave the house for fear of what other people would think of them.
While successful breastfeeding may be a bonding experience, the blanket promotion of the message ‘breast is best’ could be seen to be detrimental to the development of positive relationships between mothers and babies if they struggle or fail to establish breastfeeding.
Another claim made in favour of breastfeeding and quoted by breastfeeding support organisation La Leche League is that ‘breastfeeding has a positive effect on the intelligence of a baby’. But this theory has been debunked in a study entitled Effect Of Breast Feeding On Intelligence In Children published in the BMJ. It found that when the mother’s characteristics where taken into account, all IQ differences between breast- and bottle-fed babies were eliminated. It also found that in households where one sibling was breast fed and the other bottle fed there was no difference in their IQ levels.
The one area where it would appear that breastfeeding obviously trumps bottle feeding is cost. It is often declared that breastfeeding is free, while bottle feeding is estimated to cost more than £600 for the first year. However, US academic and author of Is Breast Best? Joan B Wolf declares: ‘One of the greatest lies promoted by breastfeeding advocates is that breastfeeding is free. It’s not free if you count mother’s labour. For many, you could say it has an extraordinary cost and is probably not worth the effort of continuing to do it.’
This is supported by the findings of US study Is Breastfeeding Truly Cost Free? Income Consequences Of Breastfeeding For Women, which revealed that, on average, mothers who breastfed their children for a period of months or years experienced much steeper and more prolonged earnings losses than mothers who breastfed for shorter durations or not at all.
Oh and if you think that breastfeeding will help you shed the baby weight faster, then you will be disappointed, too. A study carried out by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found that women who breastfed shed 2.5lb less than those who bottle fed, as they tended to exercise less and their higher levels of the hormone prolactin stimulated their appetite to aid milk production.
While no one would suggest discouraging women from breastfeeding, it is perhaps time that a more measured approach was taken to the question of how to feed a baby. ‘It’s really quite simple,’ says Lee. ’It’s just about finding the best way to get milk into your baby. That women have options about how to do that is a good thing.’