My hope for 2019: we recognize the harm we are doing to mothers and babies by promoting the “natural”

Countdown to midnight

Why do good mothers feel so bad?

Because in the guise of doing what’s “best” for them, we are harming women and their babies with the dominant parenting ideology of natural mothering.

How do I know? Because for decades, I have served as a witness. First as a practicing obstetrician and then as blogger, I have been present literally and figuratively as women cried their hearts out over the many ways they are supposedly failing the infants and children they love so desperately.

Mothers should trust themselves … and be kinder to themselves.

Our views on mothering have changed dramatically in the past 70 years. It’s easy to see when you compare the advice of the legendary Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare, to the advice natural parenting experts offer today.

Dr. Spock told new mothers:

Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.

Natural parenting experts tell new mothers, ‘Don’t trust yourselves, you know nothing until you’ve read my book.’

Dr. Spock said:

The more people have studied different methods of bringing up children the more they have come to the conclusion that what good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best after all.

Natural parenting experts say, ‘If you love your baby you’d do exactly what we tell you because that’s what mothers did in nature; otherwise you are a lazy, selfish cow.’

He was remarkably perceptive and forgiving:

All parents do their best job when they have a natural, easy confidence in themselves. Better to make a few mistakes from being natural than to try to do everything letter-perfect out of a feeling of worry.

Natural parenting experts are notably unforgiving. They tell women, If you don’t have an unmedicated vaginal birth, breastfeed for more than a year, and practice attachment parenting, your child will end up obese, illiterate and unhappy and it will be YOUR fault.’

Dr. Spock counseled:

Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense.

Natural parenting experts say, ‘All your friends on Facebook expect you to follow my advice. But ignore what doctors say; they’re all in the pockets of Big Pharma.‘

The result?

While women stake their self-esteem on having an unmedicated vaginal birth and obstetricians obsess endlessly about the C-section rate, poor women of color die in ever increasing numbers for LACK of obstetric interventions.

While new mothers torment themselves in making sure not even a drop of formula is allowed to touch their precious baby’s lips, breastfed babies are being re-admitted to the hospital at double the rate of formula fed babies and brain injures and deaths from dehydration and jaundice are making a shocking comeback.

While women imagine themselves as educated for refusing newborn vitamin K injections, their babies suffer ghastly injuries and deaths from bleeding into the brains.

While women preen over refusing vaccines, their babies die of pertussis as measles and other nearly eradicated infectious diseases return.

While new mothers tell themselves they are responsive and exhaust themselves catering to a child’s every whim, those same children show no evidence that their mental health is improved and considerable evidence that they are less resiliant, less capable of handling disappointment and less able to cope with the demands of adulthood.

So who has benefited?

Natural parenting experts and no one else.

The lactation profession is the paradigmatic example. Prior to the 1990’s if you needed help with breastfeeding, you could consult a La Leche League volunteer. But that was a matter of your discretion; you sought help and support only if you felt you needed it and wanted it. No one was getting paid for providing breastfeeding advice.

Now breastfeeding is a multibillion dollar business with lactation professionals providing breastfeeding advice for money whether you want it or not. The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, to my knowledge the only private group that is allowed to operate within hospitals, has forced hospitals to promote breastfeeding and demonize formula feeding, pacifiers and well baby nurseries. They have whipped up hysteria about breastfeeding rates as if breastfeeding rates had anything to do with infant health. Thus far NONE of the claimed benefits of increasing breastfeeding rates has been realized and the only obvious health impact has been making some babies suffer starvation related brain injuries and deaths … and making mothers suffer guilt if they can’t or don’t want to breastfeed.

The ultimate irony is that there is nothing natural about natural mothering.

Can you imagine an indigenous woman refusing pain relief in labor if it were available? That would be unnatural.

Can you imagine a prehistoric foremother refusing a C-section that might save her baby’s life? That would be unnatural.

Can you imagine a woman in a developing country letting her baby die of dehydration just so she could brag to her friends that nothing but breastmilk was allowed to touch her baby’s lips? That would be unnatural.

Can you imagine any mother from any age up to the present one refusing possible protection of her child from hemorrhage or infectious disease? That would be unnatural.

In truth mothers in nature, including many animal mothers, fight fiercely to give their offspring EVERY chance of survival. They also fight fiercely to protect themselves, recognizing that their ability to mother is critical to their baby’s survival.

My hope for 2019 is that we recognize that natural mothering is a cultural construct that has nothing to do with mothering in nature. May both mothers and obstetricians focus on maximizing maternal and child survival. I want to see the demise of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative; it’s only a matter of time before we stop sacrificing newborn brains and lives on the altar of breastfeeding. May anti-vaxxers recognize that they are victims of a massive effort on the part of charlatans to sell worthless services and products.

But most of all my hope for 2019 is a return to the philosophy of Dr. Spock, encouraging mothers to trust themselves and be kinder to themselves. May they stop trying to be letter-perfect in recapitulating an image of mothering in nature that never actually existed and concentrate on simply doing the best they can.

  • K

    Dear Amy,

    I just came across your website and it’s a relief to find a writer tackle these subjects. The world of child birth is riddled with disinformation. I am a father to be and regularly need to engage in discussions with mother to be. We keep looking for sources to convince eachother of our viewpoints. I would love to use your writings but I can’t find any links to the sources you base your arguments on. Could you point me in the right direction?

    • Cartman36

      Check your library for her book. All of her citations would be listed in the book format. Also, check out Joan Wolf’s is breast best. She is a professor so the book reads a bit like a textbook but it is extraordinarily thorough review of the literature on breastfeeding.

  • Anna

    I cant trust my instincts. Theyve been deadly wrong before. I want someone to tell me what to do. I need that person to be as highly trained and experienced as possible and always have my baby’s needs at the forefront and a view to my mental health and the needs of my other children. Nature fairly consistently tries to kill my babies.

    • Who?

      With you on this.

      I have zero sense of direction-none. To the point where if I’m lost, and I think I should turn right, I turn left, because that’s what experience has taught me will get the better outcome.

      The bigger lesson is the same as yours-if I think maybe I don’t know, and the decision matters, I check with someone whose judgment is better than mine.

      • demodocus

        Dem once got lost on his way to the bathroom from our bedroom. Granted, he was really sick, but we’re talking about 2 doors at right angles less than 3 inches apart. Our toddler has better directional sense, XD

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    The more people have studied different methods of bringing up children the more they have come to the conclusion that what good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best after all.

    This is a little deceptive. “Best” in this case does not necessarily mean the best outcome. It means that it is the best decision for their situation.

    But this approach has also been the source of a lot of modern problems. We read it all the time in parenting literature – trust your instincts, they are usually right. And, in fact, that is absolutely true.

    However, as I’ve explained before, the problem comes when that gets turned on its head – it’s not just that “trust your instincts, they are usually right,” the modern approach adds in, “…and everything else is wrong.”

    The reason Dr; Spock’s advice works is because there are lots and lots of right ways to do things when it comes to parenting. Therefore, one parent’s instincts can say one thing, and another’s can say the opposite, and they are both right. That’s what Dr. Spock is talking about.

    Modern parents, however, see it and say, “My instinct tells me to do this, and Dr. Spock says that is right. You do something else? You must be wrong.”

    Add in social media where you get to tell others they are wrong, and can find a community of like-minded to help you convey that message, and this is what you get.

    • Cat

      The other trouble is that it can be bloody hard, especially as a first-time parent, to separate the voice of your instincts from the voice of your echo chamber. As a new mother, I remember stumbling across a lot of posts on forums saying stuff like “my instincts are telling me that my baby will be fine if I sleep in a chair tonight with her in the sling attached to me, so that should be safe, right?” or “I don’t have a car seat with me but my mama instincts are telling me that wearing my baby in the car is just as secure so can I go with that?” , or “two health professionals have told me my baby is dehydrated but my instincts are telling me breastfeeding is going really well so I want to ignore them”. If you told these women to listen to their own instincts and not the messages from their in-crowd, they wouldn’t understand because they clearly believed they were tapping into their own ancient maternal wisdom.

      PS Happy New Year, all!

    • AnnaD2013

      I agree with you; i think people need to realize that what works for them in child-rearing will not necessarily work for other people. What I think Dr Tuteur is trying to highlight is the stress Mothers in particular are under to conform to what is the “best” way to raise your child. For example, the BFHI and “Breast is Best.” Instead of looking at breastfeeding for what it is (one potential way to feed an infant), mothers are inundated with messages about how breastfeeding is the end-all, be-all. We are told lies like “almost all women can breastfeed,” and “you just have to keep trying,” “you’ll feel like a goddess”, despite physical pain, sleep deprivation, baby losing weight, etc. Then, online it seems like every mother with a blog is out there telling stories with skewed information; for example “How I Breasfed my Children Through Whooping Cough.” It creates an atmosphere where even if a mother says to herself “this is wrong for me and my baby. I am miserable and can’t continue this,” she is guilted into either continuing or feeling shame over bottle-feeding her baby.

  • space_upstairs

    I’ve been contemplating the notion that the secret to doing well in today’s society is not how you choose your goods and services, but how you choose your desires. The risk of today’s society for those of us with privilege (basic needs met and adequate social respect) is letting commercial algorithms and superficial social feedback, artfully combined on the Internet, choose our desires for us without being consciously aware of it. When this happens, those desires are that much more likely to be frustrated, because our frustration leads to the search for fulfillment in more goods and services and keeps the machine running. We will not save ourselves and our children from misery by rejecting mass marketed technology in favor of “back to nature” low-tech or pseudo-low-tech alternatives. We will only mitigate the risk of misery by rejecting excessive sales pitches for any kind of good or service, in favor of something more essential to our humanity. I think those who buy into the “natural” niche are right that something important to human thriving is hard to find these days, but misled about where to find it. I hope the latter can change on a larger scale.

    • Who?

      I agree with this. Once you decide that what you have is ‘ample’, then you only consume, or desire, something else when your circumstances change. That might lead to letting go of a lot of stuff or, after much consideration, replacing something or even buying something new.

      And if people less fortunate become more fortunate, and can afford new stuff, they can pick up all the buying I’m not doing and thus keep the wheels turning.

    • space_upstairs gg