How much should a baby be forced to suffer to establish breastfeeding?

Crying newborn infant in white blanket

Readers often ask me why I breastfed my four children despite the fact that the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial.

The simple answer is: because I could. Sure, I had problems with pain and mastitis, five bouts including two with a temperature of 104 and shaking chills. Sure it was often inconvenient; I was working 70 hours per week when my first child was born. Moreover, it was before a myriad of studies made it clear that lactation professionals were grossly exaggerating the benefits.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A baby shouldn’t be forced to suffer at all![/pullquote]

But there was never a moment that I worried that breastfeeding was making my babies suffer.

It was obvious that they were satisfied by breastfeeding. They nursed vigorously 5-10 minutes per side and always from both sides. They fell off the breast “milk drunk,” with milk dribbling down their chins and slept for several hours between nursing sessions, and even longer at night. They were fat and happy, growing like weeds.

I was lucky; that was just how I was told it would be. Had there been any sign they were suffering from hunger, or worse, failing to gain weight, I would have supplemented with formula immediately.

So here’s my question for lactivists, lay and professional:

How much should a baby be forced to suffer to establish breastfeeding?

Here’s my answer: A baby shouldn’t be forced to suffer at all!

I’m appalled at what lactation professionals recommend for women who aren’t making enough breastmilk, counseling them to breastfeed every two hours PLUS use a SNS breastfeeding assist system PLUS pump their breasts afterward to further stimulate milk production. That leads to tremendous maternal sleep deprivation and suffering and is nothing short of barbaric. Yet because mothers love their babies, and because we have lied to them about the benefits, they are willing to put themselves through this torture.

But it also involves tremendous infant suffering. It means these babies are spending most their waking hours experiencing gnawing hunger. They are never, ever fed to satiety. They never, ever drift to sleep content with a full belly, but rather cry or nurse themselves into exhaustion. Their suffering is made manifest in their failure to gain weight and their failure to thrive. It’s heartbreaking because it is not their choice to suffer and it is infuriating because their suffering can be alleviated easily with a few ounces of formula.

But isn’t breastfeeding dependent on a feedback loop? The more you nurse, the more milk you produce, right?

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but it has a high failure rate. Up to 15% of first time mothers can’t produce enough milk to fully support an infant in the first few days. More pumping can’t change that.

Insulin production depends on a feedback loop, too, but no one would suggest giving a diabetic a candy bar in order to produce more insulin. If the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar, flogging it with more sugar isn’t going to do the trick. Similarly, if a woman’s breasts can’t produce enough milk to support her baby, flogging them with extra nursing and pumping isn’t going to solve the problem.

How did we get to the point where we are allowing babies to suffer hours of hunger and cry themselves into exhaustion? We got here because lactivists have an obsession with exclusivity. There are countless articles produced by the lactation industry to scare women into believing that “just one bottle” dooms both the breastfeeding relationship and infant health. There is precisely ZERO evidence for these claims. They have been fabricated by an industry of extremists who value process (breastfeeding) above outcome (healthy babies). Indeed, the evidence shows the opposite, that judicious formula supplementation can save a breastfeeding relationship.

This is especially important to keep in mind in the face of mounting evidence that inadequate breastfeeding has significant risks and aggressive breastfeeding promotion leads to significant harm. The study I wrote about a few days ago, Health Care Utilization in the First Month After Birth and Its Relationship to Newborn Weight Loss and Method of Feeding by Flaherman et al. shows that breastfeeding doubles the risk of newborn hospital readmission. With 4 million births in the US each year and more than 75% hospital breastfeeding rates, that means we could expect 60,000 excess newborn hospital admissions at a cost of more than $240,000,000 each and every year — nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. And that doesn’t even count the downstream impact of brain injuries, a consequence that was beyond the purview of this study.

Think about that. Aggressive breastfeeding promotion could causing the suffering of tens of thousands of babies each year, suffering so great that it requires hospitalization. That’s a lot of suffering and all of it unnecessary. It could easily be alleviated by formula supplementation.

Don’t get me wrong: there are times when parents must make their children endure suffering for the benefit of their health. There’s no doubt that vaccinations cause babies to suffer for at least a few moments in order to give them years of protection from deadly childhood diseases. But that’s a small amount of suffering for a big benefit. In contrast, forcing babies to suffer for hours or days at a time, becoming so ill that they need to be admitted to the hospital, just to preserve exclusive breastfeeding is trading a large amount of suffering for a trivial benefit.

How much should a baby be forced to suffer to establish breastfeeding? A baby shouldn’t be forced to suffer at all!