When my daughter gave up breastfeeding for the bottle, I was wracked with guilt. Guilt because I knew I could be doing more to make her breastfeed. And guilt because I was relieved that the months of bleeding nipples and searing pain was at an end. I ended up pumping for nine months. Each pumping session took 20-30 minutes. I pumped through conference calls and car rides. I felt like a cow, but it was for the best, I told myself. It was all for my baby.
When my second was born, the idea of pumping again made me sob. I told my husband through tears that I couldn't do it, I couldn't pump. Not again. One night, delirious with a fever from mastitis and in pain from the cuts on my nipples I asked my husband if he would hate me if we used formula. He hugged me. "Our kids will be fine. Do whatever you need to do."
It's easy to be the voice of reason when you don't have a temperature of 108 and aren't full of raging postpartum hormones. But my husband wasn't wrong and now there is science to back it up.
Research led by Cynthia Colen, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, reveals that the advantages of breastfeeding may be inflated. Colen's research tried to do what no other breastfeeding study has done before, namely control for selection bias. The initial research showed that breastfeeding had more positive outcomes for children. But when the researchers "restricted the sample to siblings who were fed differently within the same families, the scores showing breastfeeding's positive effects on 10 of the 11 measures for child health and well-being were not statistically significant..."
By comparing within families, the researchers were able to take into account household information, parents education, housing, employment, and a variety of other control factors. The results showed that while breastfeeding is still beneficial, the impact of breastfeeding is not statistically significant.
This may relieve you if you were unable to breastfeed for whatever reason. But even for me, as I still struggle to breastfeed my 8-month-old through the rest of the year, I feel like a little bit of the pressure is off my shoulders. That come what may, there is a lot more affecting our children than the difference between the boob and the bottle.
Back when I was lamenting my failure to breastfeed my daughter a wise friend told me, "They don't ask them if they were breastfed on their college applications." And she's right. This decision that we make on how to feed them is completely eclipsed by the overwhelming everything else that fills up our lives.
The researchers, while not downplaying the importance of breast milk, wisely pointed out that perhaps this study can move the conversation forward to other issues that may have more impact on children like quality health care, better maternity leave policies, and a living wage for low-income mothers.
I hope so too. Because if all we do is talk about how women should breastfeed but don't bother setting up a society that supports that decision, then we are shooting ourselves in the societal foot. Or boob. And that hurts.
-By Lyz Lenz