A new study published in Pediatrics journal concluded that breastfeeding has major life- and money-saving benefits. The study found that "if 90 percent of U.S. families could comply with the medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States could save $13 billion [per] year and prevent an excess 911 deaths annually, 95 percent of which would be of infants."
The $13 billion figure came from examining occurrences and associated costs of 10 common illnesses that occur less often in breastfed children, as well as calculating the lost potential wages of infants who die. The preventable deaths are due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and several infectious diseases that breastfeeding has been shown to reduce.
Breastfeeding came easy for me and my babies. They latched on, my milk came in, they gained weight. It is not so for many women. Their babies are tired, their breasts hurt, the nurses are overworked, the grandmas won't stop asking if a bottle might be easier, the calendar careens toward the end of maternity leave, and they crave nothing more than the uninterrupted sleep they might get if their husbands could give bottles of formula.
While 43 percent of American mothers do some breastfeeding, only 12 percent breastfeed exclusively for the first six months as recommended. Advocates argue that breastfeeding's life-saving qualities should convince mothers to do it, and everyone else to support them, without all the drama about choices and guilt. The blogger Feminist Breeder, for example, had this to say: "You know what else saves lives? Car seats. So, why aren't people spitting mad at the [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] for saying that? Why aren't they leaving thousands of comments on car seat articles saying, 'But I just couldn't afford a car seat, why are you trying to make me feel guilty?!' Well, maybe it's because our society will admit that car seats save lives, and we're willing to give them out free at fire stations and hospitals if we have to because it is that important."
I agree with the Feminist Breeder, medical experts (including the Pediatrics study authors and physicians who commented on it), and others who argue that mothers struggling with breastfeeding should focus on the support they need and don't get, not feel guilty. Breastfeeding can be beautifully simple, but it is not always easy, in part because of cultural and employer expectations. We expect new mothers to bounce back and return to the daily grind ASAP, whether that means returning to work or to the carpooling, chores, and errands that fill most stay-at-home mothers' days.
This latest study makes clear that nursing is much more than a personal lifestyle choice the rest of us have no obligation to support. New mothers need hospital policies that give priority to breastfeeding; low-cost or insurance-covered lactation assistance; paid maternity leave; flexible workplace policies; and husbands, relatives, friends and neighbors who help care for other children and manage the household during an infant's first months.
We should support breastfeeding not only because it is good for babies, but also because it honors women's bodies as God's gifts, capable of giving babies exactly what they need. But we should also acknowledge that breastfeeding does not always feel like a gift to mothers wrecked by fatigue and overwhelmed by the challenges of breastfeeding while raising other children, managing households, and working. While informed, healthy choices honor our God-given bodies, even healthy bodies are limited (guaranteed to fail, actually) and are only one part of the human story. Our salvation comes from God, not from exclusive breastfeeding, organic diets, natural childbirth, baby-wearing, or any of the myriad other ways that women are encouraged (or commanded) to achieve optimal health for their children.
Because breastfeeding involves unpredictable, limited human bodies, it is not directly comparable to life-saving technologies. Using an infant car seat, for example, does not require a mother to wake up every 90 minutes throughout the night, grit her teeth as her baby latches onto sore nipples, and lock herself in a bathroom stall at work to attach a mechanical contraption to sensitive body parts (although the recent health-care overhaul, which requires large employers to provide a private, non-bathroom space for women to pump breast milk, should make this task less unpleasant for some).
Even if a woman's breasts are producing milk and her baby is drinking it, she can bump up against physical and psychological limits that make long-term, exclusive breastfeeding more burden than gift. I have a friend who breastfed her baby for several months but found it, overall, to be exhausting and difficult, even though her body did its thing and the baby thrived. She eventually stopped nursing, with trepidation and guilt, but immediately felt happier and better able to enjoy her child. Breast milk is good for babies, but so is a peaceful, happy mom.