When my son was five weeks old, I found myself sitting on the floor of a room filled with cushions and yoga balls, holding him in my arms while exposing my nipple to a roomful of other women.
We were in the back room of a cheerful natural baby store, but there was a feeling of desperation in the group of women, each one cradling a newborn baby. This unlikely sisterhood was gathered for a weekly breast-feeding support group. That meant that, in addition to being exhausted from feeding our babies every couple hours around the clock, each of us was encountering some difficulty in doing so.
I was lucky that I produced plenty of milk for my son, Nathaniel. He loved to breast-feed so much that he spent about 10 hours a day at it. But for some reason I couldn’t figure out, breast-feeding had suddenly become intensely painful.
Mothers go to great lengths to breast-feed: some laboriously pump milk and bottle-feed for months; others with low milk supply solicit breast milk donations. I’ve heard women describe biting into a washcloth to keep from crying out every time the baby latched on; some have said the pain of childbirth was nothing compared to breast-feeding. Women who face these problems often turn for help to lactation consultants and breast-feeding support groups—like the one I joined in San Francisco that day in August.
I was riding an intense wave of fatigue and anxiety in that postpartum period, and the stew of emotions made it hard to consider an option beyond finding a way to continue exclusively nursing. I would have felt like a failure to do otherwise. But the truth was that on an intellectual level, I didn’t believe breast-feeding was crucial for a baby’s development.
I had read up on it before Nate was born, and the claims about breast milk’s supposed benefits seemed exaggerated. I decided to try breast-feeding but not put any pressure on myself. If I had been able to step back in those first few months as a parent, I would have said there was no rational reason to put myself through the stress and pain.
And I would have been right. A recent study in Social Science & Medicine found that many benefits attributed to breast-feeding—from reduced rates of obesity and asthma to higher intelligence—have been overstated. The innovative study compared outcomes among siblings and found no statistically significant difference in 10 of 11 long-term health outcomes between children who were breast-fed and those given formula.
Most studies that compare the health outcomes of breast-feeding and formula feeding look at children from different families, which makes it difficult to isolate the effects of breast-feeding. Mothers who breast-feed are more likely to be white, older, and highly educated. Those demographic factors alone are likely to affect a child’s outcomes.
In her 2009 article in The Atlantic, “The Case Against Breast-feeding,” journalist Hanna Rosin reviewed the literature to determine whether mothers who breast-feed (as she did) have healthier children. She found that while some studies showed minor health benefits, others found none, and many studies contradicted one another. In the end, she concluded that the benefits of breast-feeding are slight and drowned out by the many other factors that influence a child’s health and development.
And yet: the message that “breast is best” has fully permeated parenting circles and the American medical establishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breast-feed for at least a year, and many ob-gyns and pediatricians advise new mothers to breast-feed. At the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, where my son was born, a lactation consultant roamed the halls, and nurses appeared at the push of a button to coach me through every feeding. No one ever mentioned the word “formula.”
Breast-feeding is now akin to providing appropriate developmental toys, serving organic meals, and limiting screen time: a parenting best practice that will give your child the very best chance to thrive. Lactation experts claim breast-feeding does everything from raise a child’s IQ to ward off disease. They regularly refer to breast milk as “liquid gold.”
Even though I hadn’t developed a strong commitment to breast-feeding during my pregnancy, I latched Nate on shortly after he was born. It took him some time to catch on, but with the encouragement of my nurses, I kept latching him over and over again in the first days after his birth. At home, I celebrated when my milk came in three days after delivery.
It turned out Nate loved to nurse, and he thrived, zooming to a top percentile on the growth chart. His pediatrician gave an approving “wow” at his three-week check-up upon seeing how much weight he had gained. And so I continued, nursing around the clock.
I barely got a break to use the bathroom, let alone eat meals, so my husband brought me food, drink, and burp cloths. And though he helped in any way I asked, he also (mostly) slept at night; there was no use in both of us getting up to feed Nate.
I had never experienced such gender disparity in our relationship. Sure, I had carried the baby for nine months, but I had an easy pregnancy filled with sweet anticipation. Now our roles seemed entirely determined by gender, and most of the responsibility fell to me. It felt like something was off-kilter between us.
What’s more, breast-feeding tethered me to my son in a way I didn’t anticipate. When the baby needs to eat every two to three hours, leaving him at home to go out with friends for the afternoon is more trouble than it’s worth. My husband could give Nate a bottle of formula or breast milk, but I’d still need to pump at the time of the missed feeding. And while I had no problem breast-feeding in public, I wasn’t willing to hook myself up to a breast pump in a restaurant bathroom or movie theater.
But I watched the rolls develop on Nate’s arms and legs, and I felt proud that I had made them. He was a fussy baby and cried a lot during those first few months. But anytime I put him to my breast, I knew he would be instantly soothed. I felt powerful.
So when breast-feeding became painful in Nate’s second month of life, I was conflicted. I couldn’t give a rational reason why it was worth suffering. I didn’t believe my breast milk had magical powers. And I desperately wanted to better share the baby care with my husband. But it was hard to think about depriving Nate of something he so clearly enjoyed. And even though I didn’t think it really mattered, my pride was attached to the idea of exclusively breast-feeding.
I couldn’t get to the bottom of what was causing my pain in the support group setting, so I hired the lactation expert who ran it for a private consultation. She promised to help me transition Nate to formula if I couldn’t find relief. But, after a few false starts, we realized a tiny, nearly invisible milk blister on the surface of my nipple was the culprit for all that pain. Slowly, over the course of weeks, the pain got better and finally went away.
As Nate got older, he slept better and ate less frequently. By the time he was four months old, a feeding took 10 or 15 minutes instead of an hour. And something surprising happened: I grew to love breast-feeding. Instead of feeling like a painful sentence, it became a welcome break in my day where I got to hold and cuddle my sweet, soft boy. When he woke up in the middle of the night, I would gather him up, bring him into my bed and wrap my arm around him in the quiet and the dark while he nursed.
Nate is now 22 months old, and he still breast-feeds occasionally. Nursing him is no longer a quiet, relaxing experience; he bounces around and jumps on and off me, often nursing for less than 30 seconds at a time. I think he’s starting to wean himself; he regularly goes a few days at a time without nursing at all. My milk supply is low, normal for the mother of a toddler who eats big meals throughout the day.
But I still let him nurse when we are at home together and he asks to. I never expected to nurse a toddler, and I’ve been surprised by the fact that I continue to enjoy it. My big, active boy now spends much of his time running away from me, climbing and jumping. Nursing is a time when he comes back to me, when he wants me to hold him close, when he touches my face and chatters to me. It’s an excuse to cuddle and bond, and it’s fulfilling and pleasurable for both of us.
And to me, pleasure is the thing. As contemporary parents, we are so focused on giving our children every advantage that we try to justify every parenting choice through its results. We breast-feed because we’re told that it will help a child’s development, health, and intelligence. But if that’s not true, then what’s left? Pleasure. And that’s enough.
Many women, like me, find that after the first few difficult months, breast-feeding becomes easy and enjoyable. For other mothers, it never gets easy, or the drawbacks aren’t worth it. In the absence of clear medical truths about the benefits of breast-feeding, I chose to follow an easy universal prescription: Enjoy my child. Develop a healthy relationship with him. Do what works.