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How medicine’s push toward breastfeeding is hurting families

Illustration: iStock

AAt first it seemed funny to me. Our doctor’s office always provides age-appropriate parental health information as well as the post-visit report for our children’s appointments, and my 2-month-old daughter’s checkup was no exception. . This time, however, mixed in with the most rudimentary and controversial advice – Talk to your baby! Use a car seat! Do not smoke ! — was a section on the paramount importance of breastfeeding. As with most heteronormative things that come my way as a gay dad, I smiled and tried to ignore him.

Except I couldn’t. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how inappropriate it was for my provider, Michigan Medicine, to include this warning as a general rule for everyone – and that it’s a symptom of a trend in neonatal pediatrics that has disappeared. too far.

Here’s a shocker: breastfeeding isn’t for everyone. It’s not a universal truth that breastfeeding is always the best option or an irrefutably correct opinion – like, say, not letting a baby’s room get too hot – that it’s better. And yet, since the advent of formula milk, there has never been a time when the pressure to breastfeed has been more intense.

It starts within an hour of birth and doesn’t stop for months. A nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago encouraged my daughter’s birth mother to breastfeed the newborn because – switch to blueberries, goji berries and chia seeds – the first squirts of breast milk, known as name colostrum, are superfoods. If you buy the hype and enough people do, there is in fact a market for goat’s milk colostrum, this product has Lewis Carroll level magical qualities. Never mind that everyone at Rush Maternity knew this child was adopted; the idea of ​​encouraging a woman who places her baby with another family to start and then stop breastfeeding is ridiculous — and cruel.

This surge is causing real damage to mothers and families. My niece, Arielle Zellis-Paley, had a baby boy in 2019, two weeks after my son was born. About a year later, she opened up in detail for The Layers project magazinean online journal for Jewish women, about how her struggle to heal exacerbated postpartum depression that the rest of the family didn’t even know she was suffering from.

Arielle wrote: “I had a low amount of breast milk and was trying 24 hours a day to breastfeed, pump, breastfeed and pump. The pressure was there. YOU MUST GIVE YOUR BABY YOUR LIQUID GOLD. The nurses had yelled at me on the first day postpartum, and they grabbed my breast and pushed it into Nafshi’s mouth. I was sobbing. It really hurt and I already felt like a failure.

Yes, researchers have identified some health benefits of breast milk for babies – lower incidence of allergies and asthma, antibodies that can fight viruses and bacteria, less constipation – and these benefits are worth acknowledging. to be taken into account. But the data on this lacks context; the vast majority of people don’t have asthma or allergies, for example, and that means most children do well with or without breast milk.

Illustration: iStock

But the emotional damage done to mothers who cannot breastfeed – including non-biological mothers through adoption, surrogacy or same-sex co-parenting, as well as women who have had mastectomies and women, like my niece, whose bodies don’t cooperate – are rarely weighed in the all-too-cute axiom that’s actually the World Health Organization’s motto on breastfeeding, “Breast is best.” There’s also World Breastfeeding Week (first week of August, for no apparent reason) and a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics to exclusively breastfeed for a baby’s first six months.

That’s not to say that pediatricians and healthcare providers should stop encouraging women to breastfeed if they can and want to – although it can help women relax and learn how from experts lactating if they are not also told that they are bad mothers if they end up being unable to do so. From an economic perspective alone, I know from continuous experience how great it would be to have a “free” food supply for our children; for families who cannot afford formula, nursing offers relief from financial stress that can also
be emotionally taxing.

There are, however, better ways to strike these balances. Grabbing a breast and putting it in a baby’s mouth while a mother screams in pain is not one of them. Covering all parents, regardless of circumstance, with edicts that suggest breastfeeding is as fundamental to raising children as holding your baby is offensive and unproductive.

In this case, Michigan Medicine claims that the fact that only breastfeeding information was included in the document after the 2-month visit was a mistake. Materials distributed at under-month and 4-month visits “balance breastfeeding and formula content,” writes Dr. Jill Noble, head of the division of general pediatrics at CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, via email.

And Dr. Rosalyn Elizabeth Maben-Feaster, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Michigan whom the press office made available to me for an interview, went to great lengths to agree with just about everything I said. said about it. “I have many patients who have had difficulty breastfeeding – I saw 100% what your niece mentioned in terms of exacerbating both their anxiety and their depression, and I myself have- even had trouble breastfeeding my first baby,” Maben-Feaster says. . After then reciting the science on the benefits of nursing, she returned to empathy. “I agree that we have a long way to go in thinking about how we can be more inclusive about the materials we provide to patients and our sensitivities.”

Good. Still, I question the inclusion of such sensitive information in such a general way. Presumably, the parents and child had just had an in-person visit with their doctor. This doctor would seem to be the only one to determine what the nutrition and family structure situation is and to voice concerns or offer advice. If a baby is thriving and going through all the milestones, there shouldn’t be any need to lecture anyone, right? And if there is a document to provide, the doctor can make this decision on an individual basis.

Obviously, it’s a bit silly to pitch this material to gay daddies with no breastfeeding boobs to offer. And most gay men understand that this type of material exists to fit most common circumstances. It is very good. But it is cruel to impose such information on all women with babies. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, except this: Parents who cannot or choose not to breastfeed deserve exactly the same level of respect as those who can and do.

This story is taken from the 2022 edition of the Health Guide. Read more stories here.

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