Questioning the integrity of those who question breastfeeding
I’m often asked how long it takes me to write my columns. “ That depends,” I always answer, “on the amount of research I need to do.”
Some columns practically write themselves. I ask a question on the Facebook page or get into a conversation with a few mothers and I’ve got a well-worked out piece with quotes built in. Other weeks I decide to write on something that requires a little research. Or a lot of research.
Fortunately, I have friends in just about every discipline of study there is. So if I need a copy of a full study rather than just the abstract, it doesn’t take too many calls before I have it.
Sometimes I am stuck using secondary sources. In that case, I always find at least three people to verify the information. This might be an opinion piece, but as a decent and intelligent person I don’t believe in basing my opinion on half-known or partially understood facts.
That is why it galls me to read the opinion of Margaret Wente in her article, The Tyranny of Mother’s Milk in the Globe and Mail. Wente has a journalism degree and far better access to research and sources than I do. I even believe she’s an intelligent woman, though her last column did little to prove that.
Instead of basing her opinion that public health officials are bullies and breastfeeding has no benefits on actual research, Wente instead chose to listen to a radio show, read a three-year-old article in the UK Times, and read some blogger’s reviews of a controversial book. On the blog Media Culpa, you can read a full breakdown of her sources.
Her “sources” are a story (a very brief segment) from the CBC program “ White Coat/Black Art” and the top two results on a Google search for the terms “ joan wolf is breast best.”
Wente may be older, wealthier, and more highly educated than me, but I have to ask my readers: who do you trust more? The woman who spent five minutes on Google, or the one who has spent more than five hours just to write this much?
Wente presented the unfortunate story of Teena Campbell, a B.C. mother who tried breastfeeding but was one of the few women with low milk supply. Her son cried, was fussy at the breast and never seemed satisfied.
Campbell says she asked the public health nurses for help and was never offered the option of supplementing with formula. At her son’s four-week checkup, she says her doctor accused her of starving her child — an assessment no caring mother should ever have to hear. She related this story to CBC’s “ White Coat/Black Art.”
I’m not going to say anything about Campbell’s personal story. I don’t know her or her circumstances. I do, however, know that breastfeeding can be hard.
Like Campbell, I too had a child that fussed and never seemed satisfied. For more than four months I struggled with nursing him for a half-hour every 45 minutes.
I didn’t get a lot of help or support from the public health nurses available to me. My child was gaining weight so no one was concerned.
During that time I saw a handful of women whose children were not gaining weight. I saw a nurse sit and comfort a breastfeeding mother who has just been told she should supplement with formula. I also saw a woman who had switched to formula two months prior still worried about her infant’s lack of weight gain.
One thing I know is that it is very rare for an infant to reach the condition where it is literally starving for lack of nutrition in our country. There are any number of checks and measures in place to prevent infants from failure to thrive situations.
And one thing I can say about breastmilk is that it will never be watered down to make it more affordable and there’s no risk of the mother mixing it wrong because she doesn’t understand or can’t read the directions on the bottle. These things happen regularly with formula.
I can certainly understand peo- ple questioning whether breastfeeding is right for them based on the difficulties, time requirement (especially for moms who must supplement), or lack of suitability for their lifestyle. But choosing not to breastfeed because you refuse to believe in the benefits of breastmilk is ridiculous.
Wente blames Campbell’s situation on the “aggressive campaign to boost the rate of breastfeeding.” She claims that public health officials are spreading propaganda about the benefits of breastfeeding in order to bully mothers into choosing breastmilk over formula.
She quotes author Joan Wolf, whose controversial book “ Is Breast Best” calls into question many of the claims of breastfeeding advocates, writing that “ the evidence to date suggests it probably doesn’t make much difference if you breastfeed.”
Of course, this quote is not from Wolf ’s book, but from an article written by Helen Rumbelow in 2009 for the Sunday Times. I, also, have not read Wolf ’s book, but I do know that I’d rather trust 100 scientists in infant nutrition over one writer who has a stance on the anti-feminist pressure of breastfeeding.
Wente further goes on to quote a world-famous infant nutrition expert from right here in Canada. Unfortunately, this quote, also, was taken from the Sunday Times article and has since been refuted by Dr. Michael Kramer as having been a misquote.
In a followup story appearing in The Independent, Dr. Kramer insisted he was misquoted and went on to state that “there really isn’t any controversy about which mode of feeding is more beneficial for the baby and the mother ... I’m not aware of any studies that have observed any health benefits of formula feeding. That’s important, and any mother weighing the benefits of breastfeeding versus formula feeding needs to know that.”
Indeed, they do. But if people like Joan Wolf and Margaret Wente had their way we’d all remain ignorant. The message that breastfeeding provides the best health outcomes puts women under pressure. So much so that it causes them to break down in distress and go against their own instincts to keep their child alive.
Funny that two strong women, feminists and intellectuals, would feel that most women are so weak that they can’t make their own decision based on evidence and personal circumstance.
No one has said we should stop handing out Canada’s Food Guide in schools because it makes parents who don’t feed their children five servings of fruit and vegetables a day feel too much pressure. We have no problem admitting that there are families where those five servings aren’t possible, whether because of economic situation or lack of education.
But instead of attacking the message, we attempt to address the problems that cause that disparity. Why should breastfeeding be any different?