Claiming breastfeeding has major benefits is politically correct, but sadly not true

Caution - Politically Correct Area Ahead

In a world of vicious clashes over ideas and even over facts themselves, there is one thing on which everyone can agree. Thought leaders on the left and the right, among every possible ethnic and religious group, among scientists and lay people are united in their insistence that breastfeeding has major benefits for babies.

Too bad it’s not true.

Consider these papers detailing the dangers of aggressive breastfeeding promotion. Even they start with the premise that breastfeeding has major benefits.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactivists have constructed a narrative about breastfeeding that allows them to insist — against factual evidence to the contrary — that they are being discriminated against.[/pullquote]

The revised United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) guidelines

There is convincing evidence that breastfeeding provides substantial health benefits for children …

The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and the ten steps for successful breastfeeding. a critical review of the literature

There is no doubt regarding the multiple benefits of breastfeeding for infants and society in general…

Or this opinion piece:

Are Breastfeeding Messages Actually Hurting Mothers?

There is no dispute that breast milk and feeding has innumerable benefits and is the gold standard.

But the scientific evidence shows the opposite. The benefits of breastfeeding in industrialized countries are limited to a few less colds and episodes of diarrheal illness across the entire population of infants in their first year. While there are a variety of mathematical models that claim to show how much money and how many more lives could be saved if breastfeeding rates were higher, there’s no evidence that the tripling of breastfeeding rates in the past 40 years has saved any lives (except for premature infants) or any money.

The insistence that breastfeeding has major benefits is political correctness run amok.

According to Wikipedia:

The term political correctness is used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense … to members of particular groups in society. Since the late 1980s, the term has come to refer to avoiding language or behavior that can be seen as excluding, marginalizing, or insulting groups of people considered disadvantaged or discriminated against …

No one dares offend lactivists and professional breastfeeding advocates, people whose self-esteem or income depend on their insistence that breast is best. Lactivists have constructed a narrative about themselves and breastfeeding that allows them to insist — against the massive amount of factual evidence to the contrary — that they are disadvantaged and being discriminated against.

For lactivists and lactation professionals, the history of formula begins in the 1970s when Nestle, in an immoral effort to increase market share convinced African mothers to forgo breastfeeding in favor of powdered formula. Thousands of babies died because the water used to prepare that formula was contaminated with pathogens, a fact of which Nestle was well aware. To hear lactivists tell it, formula use is rarely necessary and was foisted on mothers by an avaricious industry with the collusion of doctors who were both ignorant and greedy.

Though it was black African women whose babies died as the result of corporate malfeasance, lactation professionals — almost exclusively white and well off — expropriated the tragedy to insist that they were victims of the formula industry, discriminated against for their heroic efforts to feed babies the best way, the way nature intended.

The truth is that formula was invented 100 years before Nestle ventured to Africa and it was invented to save the lives of countless babies who were dying for lack of breastmilk because their own mothers had died or couldn’t produce enough. Those babies were being supplemented with raw cow’s milk that proved to be deadly for many.

Doctors, far from discriminating against breastfeeding, were the original lactivists. As Jacqueline Wolf explains in the chapter Saving Babies and Mothers: Pioneering Efforts to Decrease Infant and Maternal Mortality, in the book Silent Victories: The History and Practice of Public Health in Twentieth Century:

The custom of feeding cows’ milk via rags, bottles, cans and jars to babies rather than putting them to the breast became increasingly common in the last quarter of the nineteenth century progressed… In 1912, disconcerted physicians complained bitterly that the breastfeeding duration rate had declined steadily since the mid-nineteenth century “and now it is largely a question as to whether the mother will nurse her baby at all. A 1912 survey in Chicago … corroborated the allegation. Sixty-one percent of those women fed their infants at least some cows’ milk within weeks of giving birth…

The medical community deemed human milk so vital to infants’ health that doctors even feared that providing clean cows’ milk to babies might be counterproductive since it tended to exacerbate low breastfeeding rates…

Infant formula, far from being a corporate plot to harm infants and discriminate against breastfeeding, was designed to save babies from the reality that breast is often not best.

But in 2018 very few dare to point that out because they will be subjected to a torrent of lactivist abuse.

And that brings us to the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. I’ve been told (and I can find no evidence to contradict this) that the BFHI is the only private organization allowed to operate within and determine policies for hospitals. Until the BFHI, private organizations were prevented from operating within hospitals because it was understood that their beliefs, no matter how well intentioned, might be in conflict with patient values, provider values or even safety.

And that’s exactly what has happened with the BFHI. The BFHI privileges a process, breastfeeding, over the outcome of healthy mothers and healthy babies. It privileges belief over scientific facts. The facts are that insufficient breastmilk is common (up to 15% of first time mothers), formula supplementation makes successful breastfeeding more likely, pacifiers prevent SIDS and extended skin to skin contact lead to babies falling from their mothers’ hospital beds or suffocating while in them. In addition, it is well known that the leading cause of jaundice induced brain damage (kernicterus) is breastfeeding.

I have no ax to grind. I breastfed four children successfully with minimal problems. My babies were fat and happy and I enjoyed breastfeeding. But as a physician I have become increasingly alarmed at the number of babies and mothers who are being harmed by aggressive breastfeeding promotion. These harms are often justified by the claim that breastfeeding has major benefits. There’s no doubt that it is politically correct to say so, but there’s also no doubt that it is absolutely untrue.