Breastfeeding is like orange juice

A couple of weeks months ago (thank you, 8-month sleep regression) mothers all over the globe took to the trenches again over this breastfeeding study from Brazil, suggesting that breastfed babies end up smarter, richer and more educated than their formula-fed counterparts. Knowing I’ve lived in Brazil, perhaps you think I’m going to weigh in with my own experience of breastfeeding in Brazil, and whether I think the study’s location totally validates or completely negates the supposed results.

I’m not. In fact, I don’t even care what the this or any other piece of research has to say about breastfeeding and its effects on the baby. It’s not that I don’t believe in science (I actually have a background in Biology) or that I think all research is funded by formula companies or biased breastfeeding activists. I just don’t believe we need a study to tell us that breastmilk is the best possible food for our babies.

Imagine I offered you two drinks: first, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice that I have prepared right before your eyes from organic oranges grown in my backyard. The other, a glass of store-bought orange juice from concentrate with added vitamins and minerals. Do you really need a study to tell you which glass of juice is better for you?

No? We’ll the same logic holds for breastmilk and formula.

We have evolved to feed our babies breastmilk. Millions of years of natural selection have finely tuned a system that apparently started off as a nutritious gunk that was secreted around eggs. As a result, breastfeeding simply has to be beneficial to the baby and mother in a thousand different ways; from optimal nutrient supply, to fostering attachment, calming the baby and helping the mother adapt to her new role. There is no way natural selection would have favoured something that was detrimental either to the mother or the baby.

Does this mean breastfeeding is always easy? Of course not. Just because we’ve evolved to give milk to our babies doesn’t mean every one of us 21st century women is going to have an easy time or even be able to breastfeed. Our, otherwise wonderful, modern lives get in the way. Breastfeeding simply hasn’t adapted to our fast-paced mode of living, replete with hospital births, nuclear families and older mothers. There are so many things missing from our modern lives that our ancestors probably took for granted: walking around topless, seeing women breastfeed all over the place and perhaps even practicing ourselves through comfort feeding other people’s children, being supported through pregnancy, labour and birth by a close-knit group of family and friends. The list could go on.

Does this mean formula is the fruit of the devil? Don’t be ridiculous. When you’re parched in the desert that can of highly processed orange juice concentrate is a lifesaver; the same applies to formula. In an unnatural world, it is completely normal that we need modern forms of support, from breast pads and nipple shields to formula.

What shocks me is that there is so little research to inform this support. While scientists, newspapers and blogs are fighting about a tiny percentage increase in IQ level, mothers all over the world are still flying by the seats of their pants for much of the time. Just google “heat treatment for engorgement” and you’ll find (credible-looking) information telling you it’s a cure-all or certain doom. How is a stressed, tired new mother with a screaming baby and bleeding nipples to know what to do?

We are  sorely in need of evidence-based information on how to support all modes of infant feeding. How can you use formula when you need a break but not jeopardise your efforts to breastfeed? What is the best way to formula feed an infant and confer as many of the benefits of breastfeeding as possible? Why do some women have more problems than others? How can we prepare pregnant mothers better for breastfeeding, both physically and mentally? How can formula and breastfeeding go hand in hand?

That’s the kind of research I want to see making headlines. Now excuse me while I go squeeze an orange. I mean, nurse the baby.


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