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Breastfeeding and the Mommy Wars

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  August 5, 2013 11:39 AM

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breastfeeding 2.jpgWhen I read the latest study about the benefits of breastfeeding, I thought: I should write about this! 

And then I thought: if I do, it will fuel the Mommy Wars.

As a pediatrician, I can't help but be a big fan of breastfeeding. The benefits for babies are just so clear: it lowers the risk of infection, allergy, cancer, chronic disease, obesity and other health problems. It helps with bonding. It is good for brain development and even IQ.

That's what the latest study showed. My colleagues at Boston Children's found that the longer babies breastfed, the higher their vocabulary scores at age 3 and their intelligence scores at age 7.

Of course I want to write about this. Yet when I write about breastfeeding, some mothers who breastfeed take it as further proof that they are better mothers....and some mothers who don't take it as further proof that they are being made to feel like lesser mothers. Whenever I write about breastfeeding, there are always some comments that make me cringe--and make me nervous about writing about it again.

Ultimately, breastfeeding is a deeply personal subject. It's literally personal; it involves not just a woman's body but her breasts, which in our culture are very sexualized. It can be hard to think of breasts in a purely utilitarian way; using them to feed, and exposing them in public, is something that makes some people understandably uncomfortable, no matter how natural breastfeeding may be.

Also, breastfeeding--especially prolonged breastfeeding--is not easy for working mothers. This feeds into all sorts of emotionally charged issues of how we parent, take care of our families and define ourselves as mothers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released a report saying that over the past decade we've made great progress in increasing the number of babies who are breastfed. In 2000, only 35 percent of babies were still breastfeeding at 6 months, which is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. In 2010, it was up to 49 percent. This has huge implications not just for breastfed babies but for the overall current and future health of our society.

More mothers are breastfeeding at least in part because of more public awareness, encouragement and support. I want to be part of that. Given the benefits of breastfeeding, I would be an irresponsible pediatrician if I didn't talk about it and do everything I can to encourage mothers to breastfeed.

But in my practice, as soon as it becomes clear that breastfeeding isn't going to work for a particular mother or family, I back off. Because I know that there is way more to parenting and health than breastfeeding. You can keep your children healthy by giving them a healthy diet, making sure they are active, watching their weight and teaching them good health habits like hand washing and brushing their teeth. You can help them do well in school and life by talking to them and reading and playing with them, by turning off the TV and building and exploring and making stuff. You can bond with them by spending time with them and making sure they know you love them. 

All of this makes a huge difference--together, much more than breastfeeding.

We all know this. And yet, too many of us use breastfeeding against each other. Which is sad, because being a mother is hard enough. 

I think we need to be ground rules when it comes to talking about breastfeeding, something along the lines of:
1. Nobody may berate any mother for her breastfeeding choices.
2. All mothers deserve not just information about and support for breastfeeding but the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the choices they make.
3. We all need to acknowledge that there is more to parenting than breastfeeding.

I think that if we could agree to ground rules like these it would help all mothers, whether or not they breastfeed. As a pediatrician and a mom, that's what I want most of all.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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