On Friday, I came across science journalist Tara Haelle’s latest piece in Forbes, titled “How Toxic Is Your Breastmilk?” The headline is pure clickbait, but the article itself is a well-written discussion of a recent medical study. Breastfeeding mothers need not worry: the “toxin” in question has no known major effects on humans, and the study was conducted on a small, isolated population and may not be widely applicable.
Besides the well-researched reporting, what I really liked about this piece was its overall attitude toward breastfeeding, namely, that it’s good and has known healthy benefits, but it won’t make your child into Superman or Wonder Woman. The article starts with this:
Contrary to popular belief in some circles, breastmilk is not the pure and magical serum of the Earth goddess which ensures an eternal life of prosperity and good health to all who partake. That’s unicorn milk — it doesn’t exist.
And ends by affirming:
The real take-away, it would seem, is that there is no perfect, “right” way to feed a baby. […] But breastfed and formula-fed children all across the world are all leading happy, productive lives. So carry on. Feed your baby.
Absolutely. Ab-so-fricking-lutely. I want to write this on a sign and shout it from the rooftops.
I’ve written before about how the media and zealous breastfeeding advocates tend to over-exaggerate the benefits of breast milk. It was so nice to see a balanced, positive take on this frequently guilt-inducing issue that I shared the article, first on Twitter (where I am pseudonymous), and then on Facebook (where I am not).
“Don’t panic, your breast milk is probably fine,” my Facebook post began, followed by a brief note about the way the advantages of breastfeeding tend to be over-hyped. The first few comments I received were normal conversational stuff. Some friends and I commiserated about how the study referenced in the article was woefully limited, yet the article itself described it well.
Then stuff got weird.
Specifically, a trio of my husband’s relatives started commenting, led by a woman I’ll call J. All three of them work in health care. J is the mother of a toddler, whom she breastfed throughout his infancy. Like many women, she struggled with latch and other issues early on.
J et al. COULD NOT DEAL with the idea that breast milk might be anything less than 100% perfect baby food for 100% of children. Over the course of a number of comments, they took it upon themselves to inform me that:
Breast milk contains hundreds of compounds that we don’t know how to synthesize and so aren’t in formula.
Yeah, I know, that was the third slide in breastfeeding class.
Breast milk transfers mom’s antibodies to baby, so baby is less likely to get sick.
Uh-huh, that was mentioned in the article, and, you know, everywhere else.
Breast milk has evolved to be the perfect nutrition for babies.
OK, but you realize this article was about man-made contaminants, right?
The article and specifically my “Don’t panic, your breast milk is probably fine” comment are “scaremongering.”
I see where you’re coming from on the article title, but are we working off of different definitions of “don’t panic”?
Breastfeeding reduces postpartum depression because it promotes “connection and bonding.”
Wait, are you trying to imply that mothers who bottle-feed have trouble bonding with their babies? The research is also more complicated than that: if you try to breastfeed but fail, your risk for postpartum depression is much higher than if you formula-feed from birth.
The man-made chemicals in formula and the potentially-contaminated water it’s mixed with are way more risky.
I’m not sure the best response to “don’t freak out about chemicals” is “freak out way more about these OTHER chemicals.” Also, everyone involved in this conversation lives in developed countries with safe water supplies…
Also, opened cans of formula can be contaminated with bacteria.
Uh, guys, you’re turning this into a hate-on-formula party and I’m not OK with that.
And parents mess up formula mixing all the time.
I’m starting to really not be OK with this conversation.
They are offended by the last paragraph of the article.
Uh, you mean the paragraph that says formula-fed children are leading happy and productive lives and feeding your baby is the most important thing? Um…
This article and/or study might’ve been funded by formula companies.
(Actually, they wouldn’t come right out and accuse the study of this, but just kept trying to passive-aggressively imply it.)
Mothers who “can but won’t” breastfeed are “selfish.”
Oh. No. You. Didn’t. You did NOT just say that.
Did I mention that J not only works in health care, she cares for newborn babies in the hospital? That’s right, she’s looking after infants while judging the snot out of how their mothers choose to feed them.
Needless to say, the rest of the conversation did not go well. I did learn what had set J off so intensely, though. In the course of an increasingly angry back-and-forth, she brought up her own struggles with breastfeeding, telling me that she found it “very insulting” to be told that she “could have saved all that trouble and just formula fed him and he would be just as well off.”
Way to insult everyone who’s ever given their baby formula, J. Good on you for persevering, but you do not get to make yourself a martyr and decide that everyone who makes different choices is “selfish.” Because you know what? Formula-fed babies ARE perfectly fine. Sibling studies show that pretty clearly.
So yeah, it’s been an emotionally exhausting weekend.