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(Artem Meshcheryakov/Artem Meshcheryakov/iStockphoto)
(Artem Meshcheryakov/Artem Meshcheryakov/iStockphoto)

Margaret Wente

The tyranny of mother's milk Add to ...

Teena Campbell was horrified when she learned her baby son was starving.

"When my son was born they said everything was good," she recalls. "But he was very, very fussy, and never seemed to be satisfied." As everyone had urged, she was breastfeeding him. No one seemed concerned that he wasn't happy, or might not be getting enough nourishment. Things didn't improve when she took him home. He kept losing weight, so she started taking a drug to increase her milk supply. "Just keep trying," the public health nurses said. They showed her how to pump her breast milk and put it in a feeding tube that went over her shoulder. Nobody suggested baby formula. The message was that using formula would make her a bad mother.

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Ms. Campbell took a test to measure her milk supply. By the time the test results came back, her son was nearly four weeks old. The pediatrician told her she'd been starving him. "I felt horrible," she says. "I cried and cried and cried."

She told her story to Brian Goldman, who hosts a CBC radio show called White Coat, Black Art. Earlier this month he tackled the subject of mothers who had trouble nursing, and was flooded with stories like hers. These women had been made to feel that failing to nurse their babies was tantamount to child abuse.

In Canada, public-health officials have mounted an aggressive campaign to boost the rate of breastfeeding. New mothers are bombarded with the message that breast milk is crucial for their baby's health. The Toronto Public Health website is typical. "Benefits of breastfeeding last a lifetime," it says right off. These benefits are illustrated with cute little cartoon pop-ups. The first pop-up shows a cartoon baby with a mortarboard on its head. "Breastfeeding is associated with higher intelligence," it says.

And that's not all. Breast-fed babies enjoy lower rates of obesity, asthma and diabetes, better eyesight, better teeth, fewer ear, nose and stomach infections, and less baby cancer, according to the official propaganda. No less an authority than the OECD recommends that all babies be breast-fed exclusively until they're six months old. Public-health officials sigh that Canada has a long way to go. Nearly all new mothers try to breastfeed, but fewer than 20 per cent manage to make it to the six-month mark with breast milk alone.

Dr. Goldman wants the bullying to stop. It's unfair to moms who can't breastfeed - and also potentially harmful to their babies. Some heretics go further. They argue that the benefits of mother's milk have been vastly overblown.

"The evidence to date suggests it probably doesn't make much difference if you breastfeed," says Joan Wolf, the author of a daring book called Is Breast Best? Ms. Wolf, an American academic, has examined the medical literature in detail. The science clearly shows that breastfeeding provides babies with some protection against gastrointestinal infections. Beyond that, the evidence for the sweeping claims made by the advocates for breast milk just doesn't exist. And women like Teena Campbell have been sold the biggest mommy-guilt trip of all time.

Ms. Wolf is not alone in saying that moms are being misled. One of the world's most authoritative sources of breastfeeding research is Michael Kramer, professor of pediatrics at McGill University. "The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date," he says. The trouble is that the breastfeeding lobby is at war with the formula milk industry, and neither side is being very scientific. "When it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational."

Today, some parents (and a lot of midwives and public-health nurses) regard infant formula as risky, even harmful. The reasons are partly cultural and partly historical. When it comes to pregnancy and child-rearing, the educated classes have rejected all things "artificial" and embraced all things "natural." Many people are offended by the aggressive marketing of formula companies. And back in the 1970s, infant formula sparked an epidemic of illness and mortality in the developing world when mothers mixed it with contaminated water or didn't store it properly. Since then, the OECD has urged mothers everywhere to breastfeed. In Mali, this advice makes sense. But Canada isn't Mali.

Joan Wolf, a writer on feminist subjects, argues that the cult of breastfeeding isn't simply bad science. It's profoundly oppressive to women. "Breastfeeding is part of what I call total motherhood, the belief that mothers are both capable of and responsible for preventing any imaginable risk to their babies and children," she told one group of moms. "We are making mothers crazy by telling them that they have the power, if they are willing to put forth the effort and make sacrifices, to prevent all sorts of bad things from happening to their kids." In other words, nothing much has changed in the past hundred years. The medical establishment is still blaming moms for not being good enough.

Nor is breastfeeding necessarily the blissful experience it's supposed to be. Cracked nipples, sleep deprivation and mastitis are among the drawbacks. Plus, you've got to be on call pretty much full-time.

So by all means nurse your baby, so long as both of you enjoy it. Otherwise, says Ms. Wolf, don't bother, and don't feel guilty. There'll be plenty of other opportunities for that.

 

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