Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Emerging Truth on Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is one of the most controversial topics surrounding babyhood today. There was a time when women had to breastfeed without any choice. Wealthy women or those who could not breastfeed for whatever reason chose a wet nurse, another woman who had recently had a baby, to feed their children for them. When commercial formula came around in the second half of this decade, women relished in the fact that they could decide whether or not to breastfeed.

In the aftermath of the modern feminist movement, many women opted not to breastfeed because it granted them more freedom and flexibility. Then came the research. Early studies showed that breastfed babies held all types of advantages from closer bonding to their mothers to higher IQs. How, in the face of such research, could women opt not to breastfeed?

Doctors began pushing breastfeeding as the only real option, and women began to make each other feel guilty about the decision. Now, however, the research is beginning to settle down. The first study to suggest that perhaps earlier praise of breastfeeding was overblown came from the University of Kentucky. Researchers there looked at infants who had breastfed and compared them to infant who were bottle-fed but held in the same way. In other words, was the benefit in the milk or in the experience of feeding?

Those researchers found that breastfed babies held a slight IQ advantage, only a couple of points, but that in large part controlling for the way a baby is fed negated the effects of breastfeeding. That study was the first to suggest that perhaps breastfeeding advocates, while still making an excellent point about the nutrition a baby needs, do not have the moral high ground they had claimed. Studies over the last few years have shown the same effects for other documented benefits of breastfeeding, such as the immune system benefit.

Early in 2006, a new study came out that suggested that perhaps the crazed breastfeeding wave was coming to an end. Scientists took a group of babies and divided them by breast and formula feedings. Then these scientists controlled for other factors that go into how well a child performs in school, such as the socioeconomic status of the family, the IQ of the parents, and the educational level of the parents. These researchers found that when one controls for other life issues, breastfeeding held no advantage for the mental capacity of the children involved. That is, life experience is more important (or at least equally so) for children.

Now, what does an expectant mom make of these studies? Basically it means that choosing not to breastfeed or being physically unable to do so will not hinder your child for the rest of his or her life as many advocates of breastfeeding claim. In fact, your child will be just fine.

Although you may be planning to breastfeed, it is important to note that not being able to do so will be okay for your child. Many moms who find themselves unable either because of the milk supply or because of an immature suck reflex in the baby, which happens more often than most of us think, should not allow themselves to feel guilty about the decision. Nor should these mothers permit other women from making them feel guilty. Even if you chose to formula feed because it worked better for your life or because you thought it would be best in your situation, you should take pride in that decision.

This choice, like many thousands you will make over the course of parenting, has to be one with which you are comfortable. You have to feel confident that you are making the right decision for your child.

Breastfeeding can be a rewarding experience for both mom and baby and can be a great way to bond. Formula feeding, though, also can be a great way to bond. Plus using a bottle opens up the bonding experience to more players than just mom. Dad, or even Grandma, can be in on the bottle-feeding experience, which will give your baby a wealth of people who are spending time with him or her and creating strong emotional ties for life.

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