Guest Post: The breast feeding scapegoat
At times, this blog probably needs a break from the α-male attitude exuded by your host. Therefore, Hysell Oviedo, a senior postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Tony Zador at CSHL will periodically bring a woman’s perspective to scientific publishing and life as a scientist. Having grown up in the Dominican Republic, she will also speak on her experiences as a minority breaking into the world of science. Once I force her to sign up for an account at NN, she will be glad to reply to your comments. Enjoy, but be warned, she is extremely opinionated and is not afraid to speak her mind…
A recent piece by the journalist Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic entitled The Case Against Breast-Feeding has gone where no one has dared to go in the last 50 years. She uses a combination of personal vignettes and selective review of the medical literature to push the idea that breast milk is not all it’s cracked up to be. Her greater context is that breast-feeding puts a huge burden on mothers that may not be worth it after all. This piece would seem like a relief to professional mothers, especially scientists, who struggle with balancing time with the family and who are in a profession that expects long work hours in a setting that’s often unsafe for children (can’t stash baby next to harmful chemicals). However, I feel that her arguments are a misrepresentation, focusing all of the challenges of motherhood on an odd scapegoat.
One sentiment I do agree with in Rosin’s piece is that in the upper echelons of American society there is a fascist and competitive attitude about mothering. This is not the case in lower economic circles in America or in Europe. When well-off American pregnant women tell their European friends that they’ve cut out coffee and wine, the usual response is: “why would you do that? My doctor said I can do anything in moderation, except smoking.” (cont.)
The biggest problem with bottle-feeding (whether it’s breast milk or formula) is that there is an emphasis on the baby finishing a specific amount of milk. I watch it every day at the daycare center where I have my daughter; worried mothers call constantly to ask how many ounces their babies have consumed. I’ve watched fathers force feed their babies formula while growling “Finish it buddy!” The baby does finish it, and a few minutes later the baby pukes all over his shirt. With breast-feeding, the infant can regulate how much and how often to feed; this is a more natural, personalized feeding system. Studies have already linked bottle-fed babies with obesity.
From a scientific stand-point, a quick PubMed search reveals a plethora of research papers studying the components of breast milk and their role in the development of an infant’s immune system (reviewed here). Even though we have been studying human milk since the 1980s, our understanding of its role in the development of an infant’s immune system is still far from complete. We still don’t understand the role of some of the components in breast milk. Also, the scientific literature does not support Ms. Rosin’s statements regarding maternal antibodies not entering the infant’s bloodstream. The antimicrobial substances in breast milk tend to be resistant to breakdown in the infant’s gut. As far as studies looking at long-term benefits of breast-feeding/breast milk, it is true that there will be some inconsistencies across infants because, as she highlighted, it’s hard to do controlled studies with humans.
The only positive outcome of Ms. Rosin’s piece was that it inspired a discussion on the issue of extended maternity leave by NY Times columnist Judith Werner (who jumps right on Ms. Rosin’s bandwagon). This is the real issue American women should be livid about. At most, we can take off 3 months, fathers rarely get paternity leave, and only precious few work places offer any daycare assistance. If academic institutions truly want more women to stay in academia they need to step up to the plate and offer on-site daycare facilities, which would allow mothers to continue breast-feeding on demand as well as be more present. Unfortunately, I get a sense that women in science will not be at the forefront of this battle, at least in America. In a profession dominated by people (i.e. men) who work endless hours (albeit inefficiently), women tend to rush back to work after having a child. Watching recent mothers returning to the lab, I’ve seen everything from one stressed soul working on a paper hours after having a c-section to others going back to the lab only after one month away from the bench. The first woman never published that paper and, tragically, even any of her Ph.D. research. The other mothers consistently expressed regret for only taking a short leave.
I think there is a silver lining for mothers in science. We can exploit the flexibility of our jobs to spend more time with our children. This includes going to see/nurse baby during experimental down time (e.g. gels running), working at night while baby sleeps (let dad take over if baby wakes up) and don’t forget that you don’t have to attend every single talk (you get so much more from reading the paper…perhaps while cradling baby to sleep if you must!)
Putting breast-feeding at the forefront of women enslavement is misguided and I suspect Ms. Rosin is using it to attract attention and be controversial, while having the safety net of being a breast-feeding mom. Considering the amount of effort and time diligent mothers spend watching over their children, putting them to sleep, entertaining, and educating (just to name a few biggies), breast-feeding is a breeze (my daughter empties both my breasts in less than 10 minutes). In this so-called age of parental equality, women still end up doing a lot more domestic work than men, even when they both work. If you really want to highlight issues enslaving women with children, Ms. Rosin, how about turning up the heat on the fathers!
- Hysell Oviedo