What To Say When Someone Tells You ‘Breast Is Best’

This originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.

There is evidence that 54% of babies who are bottle-fed die. Oh wait, no, that was 17th century Britain.

Research indicates that out of 132 orphans who were bottle-fed, only five survived. Um, no, that was 18th century France.

Oh, that’s right, this is the year 2013. Feeding babies properly manufactured and prepared formula, from a bottle, doesn’t tend to kill them.

“But BREAST IS BEST!” I hear you say. Yes, it certainly is, and so is exercising regularly, not watching any television in the first year of life, avoiding artificial colors and flavors, eating organic, vegetarian, unprocessed food, wearing natural fibers, using renewable energy, and avoiding anything that may be carcinogenic (alcohol, smoking, the sun, donuts, processed meat, car pollution, plastic food containers, french fries, crackers, etc.).

OK, so breast is best, you’ve convinced me. Perhaps we could do what our noble ancestors did when a mother couldn’t or wouldn’t breastfeed her own child: Reintroduce wet nursing.

Wet nursing was very trendy in the 17th century among wealthy moms who allegedly complained that breastfeeding ruined the figure, stained their clothes, and interfered with their social life (sound familiar?). Unfortunately, the wet nurses didn’t necessarily take such good care of the babies.

One countess Elizabeth Clinton sent away 18 of her children to be wet nursed: only one of them survived. Funnily enough, the decline of professional wet nursing in the second half of the 19th century correlated neatly with the improvement of artificial milk for babies.

Given there was a fair to good chance your baby would die if you didn’t breastfeed it back then, it was probably fair enough that mothers who chose not to breastfeed because they wanted to retain their youthful figure were subjected to much criticism (in Sweden, they were fined by the government).

But today? Let’s put it in perspective. In Australia specifically, our infant mortality rate in 2012 was 4.55 per 1,000 births, which means that more than 99.5% of babies born in Australia now live beyond their first birthday.

At the end of the 19th century, the Australian infant mortality rate was over 100 per 1,000 births. That means there was about a 1 in 10 chance your baby would die before you got a chance to put a candle on its first birthday cake.

I breastfed my first son for 16 months. Why? Because it worked for both of us. He took to feeding with great gusto and my body was happy to oblige with an oversupply of milk.

My second son started out well with breastfeeding but at some point around four months decided he’d had enough of this caper and would just yell and come off the breast repeatedly. Every feed was a struggle, but struggle we did until he was five months old—I’d tried everything and we’d both just had enough. From then, he drank formula from a bottle during the day and breastfed at night (when he didn’t fight me) for another few weeks. Five months on, he’s fully bottle-fed and we’re both happy and thriving.

Breastfeeding is a wonderful thing if it works out for both mother and baby. It’s convenient, cheap, and healthy. Sometimes, though, it’s not possible and there are too many moms who are criticized, or feel guilty, for not breastfeeding “long enough.”

Instead of putting yet another burden on new moms, let’s celebrate the fact that we now have a really great back-up if breastfeeding doesn’t work. Let’s be excited that we have the luxury of nitpicking over the question of whether formula has any negative effects on child development: One study suggests exclusively breastfed babies could be more likely to develop nut allergies; another study links formula feeding in infancy to obesity in later life (though I suspect that obesity in later life also has a strong correlation to excessive consumption of refined sugar and saturated fat when baby has grown up and left home and mom can no longer supervise the weekly shopping).

Sure, breast may best but compared to the “good old days” bottles have never been safer.

Happy, healthy moms and babies are the best thing of all.

Bec Bowyer is a Melbourne writer and mom with two inquisitive non-stop preschoolers, a loving husband, and a deep desire to spend a month in the south of France sipping champagne. She deals with the hilarity and hysteria of raising kids by blogging at www.becbowyersblog.com.

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