Momma Data

Debunking the latest studies about children's health and well-being

Breast Is Best: Hello, Are You There Psychology?

Do psychologists have anything to say about breastfeeding?

My fellow psychologists,

I write to you about a pressing public health matter affecting a number of families across the country—breastfeeding. As professionals who are concerned with the well-being of parents and children you are keenly aware of the importance of breastfeeding. You know the reduced risks of ear infections, colds, gastrointestinal distress and the other often cited but less rigorously documented benefits. You probably know the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends mothers breastfeed for at least twelve months, the first six months exclusive of other types of nourishment, namely infant formula.

You might also remember several other memorable breastfeeding promotions:

Health officials in addition to elected officials like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, lactation specialists, celebrities and breastfeeding researchers joining forces to ban formula samples in Baby Friendly hospitals and in some instances lock them up alongside the narcotics.

Public service advertisements comparing not breastfeeding to the dangers of smoking, log-rolling or riding a mechanical bull during pregnancy (note the ads are no longer available for linking purposes).

Harvard researchers claiming over 900 child deaths from diseases like leukemia and asthma could be prevented every year if only 90 percent of mothers would breastfeed exclusively for six months. As if breast milk could have saved them.

In sum, you know breast is best.

Except of course when it isn’t.

As psychologists, we know the real-world conditions that can make mommy putting baby to her breast every few hours for months and months a bit difficult: postpartum depression, stress, anxiety, guilt, a history of depression, a history of eating disorders or distorted body image, unrealistic goals, fear-inducing health messages, the demands of new parenthood including negotiating a new identity, balancing work and family, ministering to the needs of the neglected spouse or older child, coping with sleep deprivation, financial changes and the realization you might never squeeze into your favorite jeans again.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to recognize breastfeeding is not always best.

It doesn’t take an expert to recognize the breast does not come without costs and complications.

There is no free lunch here. Anyone who has ever lactated or watched someone lactate knows this. We all know this and yet our community has remained relatively silent. We have ceded the early days of infancy and parenthood to the real doctors. It’s as if we’ve come to believe psychology has nothing to offer parents until kids start disrupting preschool.

Where have we been all these years of breast-is-best?

Where we been when the media touts the latest (correlational) evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding without mention of the limitations including relatively moderate effects?

Where we been when authorities speculate about what’s best for babies without any consideration whatsoever for a mother’s well-being, emotional or otherwise?

Where we been when new mothers are lectured, humiliated, disrespected even bullied for not providing enough breast milk?

Where are the studies that include the costs of breastfeeding or the costs of the breast-is-best atmosphere?

Better yet, why haven’t we been telling parents what or how they feed their children in the first few months if not year of life is not all that important to their child’s long-term health, success or happiness?

New moms need a reminder there are many, many other things they can do for their children that far outweigh how much breast milk they sucked down as infants.

I hate to be a boob but it’s time, speak up.

Yours,

A concerned mom who, yes, breastfed all three of her kids.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media. more...

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