Prompted by an interesting point read at Dispelling Breastfeeding Myths in their article: “But I breastfed my baby and he still got asthma!”, I began reflecting on my own beliefs about the magic of breast milk.
Growing up, like most girls, I was led to believe that bottle-feeding was just how babies were fed by their mothers. I had all the right toy paraphernalia for my dolls: bottles, baby bassinets, highchair with plastic cutlery and baby food jars, strollers, etc. The typical ‘normal’ baby stuff. Interestingly as I grew older and started reading parenting books and started asking questions, my idea of what is healthy and normal for babies changed drastically. By the time I had my son I was baby-wearing, co-sleeping, practicing baby-led solids, and of course, exclusively breastfeeding. I realised that babies really don’t need all those ‘tools’ to have their needs met and believed that what comes natural is far better. I worked hard to succeed at breastfeeding my son although I was also very well supported and so I was lucky in that respect, but I know that other mothers have experienced differently. Anyways, my research led me to advocate, sometimes aggressively, the benefits of breastfeeding to others, believing that it was this awesome liquid of magical properties. And essentially it is, and yet at the same time, it isn’t.
In comparison to alternative feeding options, the specific milk a mother produces for her child is the optimal option but it isn’t always desirable/possible for many reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. However because of this truth, many have jumped to the conclusion that it is somehow an all-powerful elixir that prevents all sorts of diseases from taking root in our babies. The reality is that breastfed babies can still get sick, can still develop asthma, eczema, well pretty much everything that a formula fed baby can develop. The only difference is that breastfed babies are LESS LIKELY to develop these issues because of the immune boosting properties of breast milk, among other things. But it does not prevent them entirely. There are other mitigating factors to the development of diseases, and it cannot simply put down to being breastfed or not.
I think that because nursing has taken the backseat as the norm, women started to identify themselves as being a part of either group: those that believe that breastmilk is comparable to formula, and those that vehemently do not. This great divide has led to the extreme belief (in an effort to sway more women to feed their children biologically) that breast milk will cure and prevent everything under the sun which is not only unlikely, but damaging to a woman’s self-esteem when it inevitably doesn’t. The truth is that the toxins in our environment, and our family genetics will also determine our children’s health as well, not simply whether they are breastfed or formula fed. We have to be wary of the mommy-guilt that can accompany every 'cold' our child gets if we breastfeed because we jump to the negative thought of "...but I'm breastfeeding! He shouldn't get sick!", which is an unlikely expectation. Better to keep in mind that by breastfeeding we are helping our little ones develop the right immunities to fight most diseases they might encounter and help soothe them while they heal themselves by nursing them. That being said it does not mean that those who feed their children differently are not capable of providing other ways of boosting their children’s immune systems or soothing them, because they obviously can.
Those who promote breastmilk as being a magic elixir are setting up mothers for disappointment and self-doubt when it does not deliver. The simple reality is that breastmilk is pretty standard stuff and so other things still need to be done to ensure optimal health in order to combat illnesses. The question that should be asked is how we can strengthen the immune systems of those babies who do not or cannot receive breastmilk themselves, because they are the ones who are more at risk. However we all could benefit from knowledge on how to boost our immune systems regardless of what we were fed as infants. Assuming that breastfeeding is the only key does not help anyone.