Politics & Policy

Breast Not Go There

Mammary matters.

When a my husband and I saw the bright blue lines on the pregnancy test, it was the first and last moment we were sure about anything. We were sure I was pregnant, but everything else soon disappeared in the fog uncertainty. For the next nine months, friends, coworkers, family members, and strangers at Wal-Mart gave totally unsolicited and often conflicting advice.

“You’re carrying that baby low,” the cashier said, “Must be a boy!”

“You’re carrying low,” the mailman said, “Better buy pink!

“Don’t gain too much weight, or you won’t shed it all,” said a woman at church.

“But remember,” replied her best friend. “You’re eating for two.”

But that was nothing compared to deciding how to raise my daughter once she arrived.

“Babies should sleep on their tummies,” my mother emphatically told me, as she flipped my bundle of joy over in the crib. Echoes of the warning from the nurse at the hospital rung in my ears, “Babies who sleep on their tummies are more likely to face SIDS.”

The lady at the park told me not to use a backpack-style baby carrier, because infant’s spines aren’t developed enough for them to be sitting up. But when I got a sling (and looked like a hippie, Volvo-driving, Hillary-voting liberal) my pediatrician looked at me and said, “What’s that? I’m not sure the baby can breathe well in there.”

If I ever had the courage to admit we’d settled on a name — Camille — people I barely knew wrinkled their noses and came up with any of a million potential playground taunts. “Not that. At school, they’ll call her…” They struggled to concoct the most vile mutation. “Chameleon.” (No one, in spite of all their malicious creative energy, predicted the first real nickname of my daughter, however: “Camilli Vanilli.”)

Amidst all the conflicting advice from friends as well as experts in child rearing, one solitary issue united everyone: Breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding. Doctors unanimously tout the benefits of breastmilk — it provides antibodies which protect from respiratory and intestinal diseases, increases immunity, protects newborn intestines, and — if you believe the hype — makes babies more likely to get into Harvard. World Breastfeeding Week, which started Wednesday, should have been a time for everyone on the planet to come together as one and celebrate the fact that even though we’ll go to the mat on issues like co-sleeping and childhood vaccinations, we all agree on one single parenting issue: Breast is best.

In the face of unity not seen since America came together as one to decry the farce that was Jar Jar Binks, it was apparently time for the government to step in. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the opportunity to announce that the city’s hospitals will no longer include free baby-formula samples in gift bags given to the frequently shell-shocked new mothers, as part of a $4.5 million “Take Good Care of Your Baby” campaign. The new gift bags will include breastfeeding tips, ice packs to keep expressed breastmilk cool, nursing pads, a baby T-shirt with the slogan “I Eat at Mom’s,” and a foam finger like they use at ballgames to point at any mother who has the gall to bottle feed in public.

Okay, that last one is an exaggeration — but it does seem Mayor Bloomberg is a bit of a scold. Government is a blunt and imperfect instrument, particularly so when one hears the self-righteous wail of “what about the children?” Too few women breastfeed, but it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature to believe that 48 hours of exposure to a socially engineered gift bag will have any discernable impact on children’s health. Already, nurses and doctors give unrelenting advice — sometimes quite emphatic — to pass on the Enfamil and whip out nature’s nipple. So now, courtesy of the taxpayers of New York, comes one more metaphorical stern look.

I was an accidental breastfeeding zealot. I nursed my first baby for 18 months solely because she’d never take what breastfeeding advocates call “foreign nipples” (bottles and pacifiers) which might’ve cause a very serious case of “nipple confusion” (when babies can’t easily switch from breast to bottle). But when I had my second child, he was immediately whisked away to intensive care after he developed profound breathing problems. Not only could I not breastfeed him, I couldn’t even hold him. Realizing I wasn’t able to comfort my new son — who was crying when he wasn’t panting for air — I broke down and asked for what is perfectly acceptable in the South, but considered gauche in the upstate New York “baby friendly” hospital in which I gave birth: a pacifier. The nurse refused this basic comfort, explaining the baby could be confused by foreign nipples.

Frustrated by her draconian adherence to these peculiar rules, my husband slammed his fist down. “In our family, we don’t believe in nipple confusion. We practice nipple diversity!”

A cry for diversity sounds strange coming from a conservative lawyer and his right-wing wife, but that’s what nannyism reduced us to. One size does not fit all, and not all babies — or parents — are the same. I have comforted many weeping (often older) moms who couldn’t manage to breastfeed. They faced enough challenges and heartbreak without having to look on the wall and see a poster of “Uncle Michael” Bloomberg, with his finger pointed straight in their face. “I want you!” says Uncle Michael “to breastfeed.”

Let’s leave mammary matters to the mother, father, baby, and doctor. Mayor Bloomberg, you have a city to run. 

 – Nancy French is the author ofRed State of Mind: How a Catfish Queen Reject Became a Liberty Belle.”


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