Choosing not to breastfeed

"Why breastfeed when there's perfectly good formula as a substitute?" This was my opinion before I began breastfeeding research. To me breastfeeding on the whole seemed weird, hippyish, time consuming, and boring. It wasn't something I felt was fluent with an image of a professional, modern woman I wanted to be. Why would I choose to do something that made my boobs sag, took a lot of effort, hurt, and was socially embarrassing, when it didn't provide any great benefit?

Five years on I have three children, I'm breastfeeding my 20 month old, and I'm an advocate for 'full-term breastfeeding' (by definition this is when a child self-weans, though in my opinion full-term would be at the age of 6 when a child's immune system has fully developed). So what changed? Well I got educated. In an effort to make sense of motherhood I scoured the net, I read every breastfeeding related study, article and discussion available. I discovered breastmilk is beneficial in ways formula can never mimic. It strengthens a child's immune system, reduces the likelihood of illness including ear infections, respiratory illness, diarrheal disease, allergies, dental cavities, obesity, juvenile, diabetes, high blood, heart disease, cancer, and even reduces the risk of psychological, behavioral and learning problems as they grow older. For more info on the risks of formula see this post.

My dilemma then became, "Ethically how can I feed my child an inferior food, risking his health? Do I have the reasons to justify feeding my child anything but breastmilk? I have breasts, they can produce the milk, I'm healthy, I have support, so what reason can I come up with to deprive my child my breastmilk?" I couldn't justify not breastfeeding, so I breastfed my children.

Yet mother's know the facts and still choose not to breastfeed (opposed to women who have no choice due to a serious reason preventing them from breastfeeding). But who are we to judge a mother for her decisions and reasons regarding breastfeeding her child; is it really our business? As a society we have always made the welfare of all children within our society our business, and have built laws regarding child safety and welfare accordingly. But we're talking about breastfeeding here, not a life or death decision that warrants some kind of law to protect children, right?
  • Researchers have observed a decrease in the probability of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in breast-fed infants. If 80-90% of women in the U.S. breastfed their newborns for at least six months, between $10.5 and $13 billion would be saved in health care and other costs each year, and more than 700 lives, mostly of newborns, would be spared.
  • Breast-fed children are less likely to contract a number of diseases later in life, including juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer before the age of 15. Formula-fed children are eight times more likely to develop cancer than children who are nursed for more than six months. (It is important to note that children who are breast-fed for less than six months do not appear to have any decreased cancer risk compared to bottle-fed children).
  • Mothers who breastfeed are less likely to develop osteoporosis later in life, and have a lower risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.
That said, it's one thing to declare it is necessary that a child be fed breastmilk. It's another to demand all mothers use their breasts to breastfeed their child. You are talking about a woman's own body, to force anyone to do anything with their body gets ethically very hairy. You can educate a mother all you want on the benefits of nursing, but at the end of the day it's her body that she will use in whatever way she wishes. After all "breastfeeding is a woman's choice", there is no law that forces women to breastfeed. Actually there is a law in Indonesia that states a mother must breastfeed her child for a minimum of 1 year unless she has a substantial medical reason.

Is this crossing the line into overbearing breastfeeding dictatorship, or are they trying to create a baseline standard for infant health and welfare based on the immense nutritional benefits of breastmilk consumption that will last a lifetime?

While I don't believe women should ever be forced to breastfeed, I strongly believe feeding babies breastmilk should be enforced - no child should receive subpar nourishment during such an important time of growth and vulnerability. Instead of formula as a substitute how about subsidized milkbanks and wetnurses? Then if women cannot or do not want to breastfeed for whatever reason, at least their child will still receive the fantastic health benefits of breastmilk - which is what it's all about.

At the very least all women should have the opportunity to be taught professionally how to breastfeed - the benefits, potential problems, remedies etc. It needs to be taught in schools, men need to be taught how to support their breastfeeding partners. There needs to FREE lactation consultants for all breastfeeding women.

A lot of us have been raised in a culture that has pitted every societal pressure possible against us not to breastfeed. Until government policies change to further educate, support and encourage breastfeeding, we need to be educators, supporters and examples.


Benefits of Breastfeeding
Natural Resources Defense Council
Breastfeeding Studies Point to Health, Economic Benefits
by Kevin Banet

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  1. great post! one-handed typing due to feeding, so not a long reply, but just wanted to saY GOOD FOR YOU!

  2. Woot! for the breastfeeding, multi-tasking mama's! Not just 'good for me', but 'good for my bub', his health is astonishing compared to his other non-breastfed baby friends. Thanks Tess!

  3. Great post except for one thing. you are not an extended breastfeeder. you are feeding full term. people giving up breastfeeding at 6 months (or whatever arbitrary number you put here) are early weaners. The term extended breastfeeding merely continues on the idea that babies need to be weaned by 6 months and on a bottle with pureed "solids" on the side.

    juggling nursing twins sorry for typos etc :)

  4. Vera, thanks for your comments. Yes I've heard your argument before, and I agree the term 'extended breastfeeding' should be replaced with 'full-term breastfeeding'. I haven't put much thought into it, but I may just go change it!

    My definition of 'full-term' is when a child hits 6 years, when the immune system is fully developed. Though I'm guessing my son would be drinking expressed breastmilk from a cup by then.

    Congrats for nursing twins. You have a lucky pair of twins with such a switched on mama!

  5. What an interesting argument! This was such a persuasive stance and by the end, I waas very much so on your side. I am a breastfeeding mother also (12 months now) and have always supported and encouraged nursing mothers. I am a huge advocate for nursing and I very much so enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  6. Hey Handsome, so glad you enjoyed reading it! It's wonderful you're breastfeeding, I take my hat off to any nursing mother, providing children with premium nutrition and the skin to skin contact children crave - such an important job you're doing :)

  7. Thank you so much for such a well-written, informed and totally logical post! You have said just what I've been thinking - it is so hard to talk to mammas who formula feed their kids - they say it is none of our business what they feed their kids. In some ways, true, but you have so eloquently put the reasons why perhaps it IS "our" business. Love your work!!

  8. I agree- It is very hard to talk to moms who formula feed their children. Even when you're only trying to inform, they assume you're trying to make them feel guilty, and that creates a HUGE barrier to education on the issue. I used to feel awful when that would happen, and double check my language to make sure I wasn't guilting them... it's a hard conversation to have. But what's even harder is a pregnant woman who has decided not to breastfeed and won't hear a word against her choice. I'm in the middle of a discussion about that right now on a forum, and I saw that a lot at the WIC office I worked in in Texas. I would have women come into the breastfeeding support office with a big beautiful pregnant belly, hear all the good things about breastmilk, see comparison charts about formula and breastmilk composition, and still say .... "Nope. Not going to happen. Not my boobs. The baby will be fine on formula."

    Your post was really well-done. If I were a formula feeding mom, I wouldn't feel pressured by your writing style. Maybe the key is that you've been there before- before you started researching, like you say in your opener. I think that makes the argument in your piece much more approachable. Anyway, great piece! Keep it up!

  9. Thanks ladies, I really appreciate it,

    That could be a great post: How to talk to FF mothers about breastfeeding. I don't ever approach a woman directly, no matter how well I know her, unless she initiates it. That's where the web is so fantastic, women can research on their own terms, in their own time, and see all perspectives.

    A twitter friend just sent me a great tweet: An uninformed choice, isn't a choice. That's where formula companies win with endless marketing.

    As for women not wanting to 'ruin' their breasts - for me it wasn't until I took charge as mother, stopped caring what society thought, and put my relationship with my son above everyone else, that I felt proud and relaxed to breastfeed.

    And Kotete, checked out your site - it's awesome! Let me know when you get a button or logo and I'll link to you :)

  10. i can appreciate this post. i am a formula feeder, but not by choice-- i did everything i could in my power to make breastfeeding work with my little one. i was devestated when i had to accept the reality that it was not going to happen for me. i continue to encourage new moms to breastfeed and i use my experiences with formula (which haven't been too great) to help encourage moms to see that breastfeeding really is best. but with that in mind, it truly hurts me to see "formula-bashing" posts. i don't WANT my little one on formula, but that's the way it had to be and i am doing everything in my power to make sure she is happy and healthy. i encourage you to continue educating everyone on the benefits of breastfeeding, to breastfeed in public, and to get the word out there how beneficial breastfeeding is. but please remember that not all mothers who formula feed are doing it by choice, and it's an awful feeling to have someone put guilt on a mother for something she has no control over.

  11. Anonymous,
    Thanks for your comment, ofcourse it is a given that there are women who cannot breastfeed, there's no deate. My only wish for mothers who can not produce enough milk, is that there be abundant milk banks or donors available so no mother EVER has to feel their child is receiving sub-par nourishment during such a critical period of their growth and development. I know this seems a far off reality, but many countries are implementing this already, and times are definitly changing as more evidence emerges about the importance of breastmilk.

    Well done for trying as hard as you did, and never feel guilt about something you have no control over.