Breast feeding and the mismatch between idealism and realism

Against the backdrop of life as it is really lived, the decision to breast-feed or bottle-feed is minuscule. 

Whether or not you decide to breast-feed your baby — and for how long — is, in the scheme of things, just one decision out of a million. And ultimately, you should do what works best for you and your family.

Full disclosure here: I never wanted to breast feed. I don’t know why. But I knew that’s how I felt. My husband and I always shared the night feedings, I never wrestled with a breast pump, we nuked bottles of formula in the microwave, and I never looked back. And I’m a registered nurse.

And guess what? Our kids — now in their twentie – turned out just fine. They have no allergies. They are smart. They’re not fat. They’re healthy. They are kind, and funny and athletic, and you couldn’t pick them out in a crowd. But if you read some of the research and most of the women’s magazines, you’d think we’d be hauled in for heresy for disclosing this seldom-talking-about fact: in the end, whether you breast-feed or you bottle-feed, no one — not even a physician, a nurse, a teacher or a psychologist –  will ever be able to tell the difference.

Here’s the common sense explanation. From fetal life to adulthood, there are millions of things affecting a child’s health and well-being, from your own level of happiness and mental health to your culture, your values, your faith, the meals you serve, how careful you are about safety, your lifestyle, whether you smoke, or exercise, or expose the children to books and words and new experiences. There are the friends you allow your child to spend time with, there is fast food and slow food, and there are 18 or so years of all these factors and more churning until that baby becomes an adult.

So that’s why I was pleased to see the World Health Organization announce that although they recommend breastfeeding for the first six months of life, they say it may not be a realistic option for many.  The report was published online March 14, 2012 in the BMJ Open.

In essence, the researchers say there is a mismatch between idealism and realism. The participants said that over time, the general well-being of their families — the hassle factor of breast feeding — made people switch to giving their babies solid food or formula. Some people feel horrible when they switch to bottle feeding, and they need not.

Meanwhile, there is a ton of research with headlines like, “Breast-Feeding Linked to Fewer Behavior Problems in Children,” “Longer Breast-Feeding May Not Protect from Childhood Eczema,” “Breast Feeding Linked to Higher 14-Month Mental Development,” and on and on. Most of the research is solid enough, but it’s very difficult to control for all the variables, which means there’s too much going on in real children’s and real families’ lives to know just how strong a role breast feeding did or didn’t play.

So I’ll just say it. Do you what you want to do. Don’t feel guilty if you bottle feed. Know that you’ll have a gazillion other decisions to make for and about your child, and, if you do it right, you’re likely to end up with a happy, healthy adult. And if you’re really lucky, your kid will call home.

-Barbara Bronson Gray is a nurse who blogs at BodBoss.

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