The cruelest lactivist lie has been exploded: breastfeeding does NOT promote bonding

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Most lies are cruel, depriving people of information they need. Lies about breastfeeding are particularly cruel because they are used to shame women and often harm babies. But the cruelest lactivist lie has just been debunked: breastfeeding does NOT promote bonding!

That’s not what the authors of Mother-infant bonding is not associated with feeding type: a community study sample expected to find.

The believed they would find the exact opposite:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Contrary to our hypothesis, and to commonly held beliefs, breastfeeding was not associated with the quality of mother-infant bonding.”[/pullquote]

The first hypothesis was that there will be a negative correlation between breastfeeding and bonding difficulties … Second, that this relationship would be age-dependent such that breastfeeding would have a greater impact on bonding during the first weeks of life … Finally … we further hypothesized that breastfeeding would be protective against the ill-effects of mood and sleep disturbances on mother-infant bonding.

Instead, they found that breastfeeding had NO positive effective on bonding and some negative effect:

Contrary to our hypothesis, and to commonly held beliefs, breastfeeding was not associated with the quality of mother-infant bonding. Moreover, and in contrast with previous reports, breastfeeding did not attenuate the association between depression symptoms or sleep-related daytime symptoms with bonding. In fact, a positive association between mood symptoms and bonding difficulties was observed among mothers who were actively breastfeeding, but not among those who never breastfed or stopped breastfeeding.

How could that be? The idea that breastfeeding facilitates bonding was fabricated by lactation professionals in the ABSENCE of evidence, as the authors acknowledge prior to detailing their investigation:

However, only a handful of studies have directly tested the existence of a positive association between breastfeeding and bonding in humans with inconsistent results… Thus, it remains unclear if breastfeeding considerably contributes to bonding among healthy mothers.

Sadly, this is a common tactic employed by the lactation industry. For example, at the inception of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, there was literally no evidence for most of the recommended Ten Step and it was a full decade before anyone tried to find any (and often couldn’t).

The authors acknowledge this, too:

Arguably, the notion that a link exists between maternal bonding and breastfeeding originates in cultural norms. Although human mother’s milk has been the primary form of infant nutrition for thousands of years, in the absence of appropriate alternatives, wet nursing (AKA, adoptive breastfeeding), whether paid or via communal sharing of maternal responsibilities, was very common well into the eighteenth century … Only in the later decades of the twentieth century, with the surgence of breastfeeding advocacy, which recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and beyond (e.g., ‘Breast is Best’) has breastfeeding also been linked with maternal affiliative bond to her child.

This is part of a larger trend of trying to force women back into the home by problematizing infant attachment. As I noted recently, before the past century in highly industrialized societies, the bond between mother and child was understood as spontaneous and not contingent on any specific practices. Natural mothering advocates, in contrast, imagine mother-infant attachment to be a fraught process constantly shadowed by the looming risk that mother and child will fail to bond. Therefore, they have medicalized it, prescribing specific behaviors like breastfeeding.

This paper is so important not merely because it explodes the lie that breastfeeding facilitates bonding but because it analyzes the history and purpose of the claim:

In the past several decades public health policies have actively promoted breastfeeding adducing three apparent evidence-based benefits to the health and development of the infant the health of the mother the quality of the relationship between mother and infant… [D]irect evidence in support of a positive effect on maternal bonding is scant, at best. It has been argued that implicit in the assumption that breastfeeding has positive effects on maternal bonding is the notion that lactation activates endocrine cues that reinforce engagement with the infant.

Indeed, an elaborate hormonal theory was advanced without any evidence at all and some evidence of the opposite:

Oxytocin release, specifically, has received the most attention, being a key pro-social biological cue that enhances parental care in both human and non-human animals. However, recent evidence suggests that oxytocin is released by parents in response to many innate infant behaviors, such as clinging, facial expressions and vocal calls. Feldman, Gordon, Influs, Gutbir & Ebstein also showed stable oxytocin levels across a three-year period, concluding that: “long-term stability of peripheral oxytocin suggests the notion that oxytocin represents a ‘trait-like’ dimension”. Thus, breastfeeding-related oxytocin release may not have additive effects to oxytocin release associated with other infant-parent interactions.

The authors recognize the pernicious effect of this cruel claim:

Despite inconclusive empirical support, the bonding function of breastfeeding has permeated social meanings of motherhood and is often cited as a major motivation for wanting to breastfeed, as demonstrated in a recent meta-analysis of 17 ethnographic studies … The study found that the majority of women identified breastfeeding as “important for bonding”, that the belief that breastfeeding is consonant with being a “good mother” was highly prevalent, and that women who ceased to breastfeed experienced guilt and failure. Thus, in Westernized cultures breastfeeding has become a “moral” choice, and a test of motherhood, while the psychological, social and economic costs to women have largely been ignored.

The take home messages from this study are deeply important:

1. Breastfeeding does NOT facilitate bonding.

2. The claim was made DESPITE the fact that there was little to no evidence to support it.

3. The claim originated in CULTURAL norms about the role of women, not biological facts.

4. The false claim was highly effective in attaining the goal of its fabricators: shaming women who can’t or won’t breastfeed.

As the authors conclude:

…[M]others may be reassured that we don’t currently have evidence that their bond with their child will be negatively impacted if they do not breastfeed.

  • Who?

    Have fun with this one, folks.

    I’ve been dipping in a bit, but I need to sleep now.

    There are some real gems in the comments.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/23/breast-best-lobby-women-unworthy-national-childbirth-trust#comment-128301305

    • rational thinker

      I just read some of the comments and I am fucking horrified. One lady on there is a special kind of evil. If you read some you will know who I am talking about.

      This one was on there –
      “From an early age we learn drought is better than bottled !” I dont know if this one was supposed to be sarcastic but if they were serious then then were basically saying better dead than bottle fed. I dont even want to read any more of the comments on there cause it is getting me too upset.

      • rational thinker

        I went back there I was curious I should not have now im close to tears. A lot of those assholes are just monsters and have no real knowledge whatsoever. Or they just seem to be okay with babies dying all for the sake of the misguided view of “breast is best”.

  • Megan Konz

    Foster mom here- I have seen children who have difficulty with bonding. It

  • KeeperOfTheBooks

    Anecdata, blah blah blah…but I think anecdata does have a certain value.
    I adore all three of my kids. Love ’em to pieces. Love each of them a different way, yes, because different people…but equally.
    All of that having been said, of the three kids, Baby Books 2 was the only one I didn’t even attempt to breastfeed, and the one with whom I had a less awful PPD experience, and a smoother one-more-kid transition.
    I do think there can be something about the newborn breastfeeding–experience? I felt more protective, more hormonal about Baby Books 3, who I nearly-exclusively-breastfed to all of two weeks, though I do wonder if that was because he was SO much smaller than the other two. Definitely more warm fuzzies about him in the initial newborn period. Maybe hormones, maybe having a DH who understood perinatal mood disorders better and acted accordingly. (With the first two, I think he kinda assumed that I knew and could do everything and that he’d be in the way somehow, whereas with the third, we communicated a LOT better, and he stepped up hugely.)
    All that having been said in however rambling a manner, not one bit of that would have mattered one single fuck if I had happened to fall to my right vs my left the night that I passed out from exhaustion while breastfeeding Baby Books 3 and fell across him–fortunately, on his lower half rather than across his face. I still shudder when I think about that. I had no idea I was that tired. I had no idea I even fell asleep until I woke up. I could have killed my baby–unintentionally, yes, but he’d have been dead nonetheless–if it weren’t for random chance. And all for the hope that maybe if I somehow got breastfeeding “right” this time, I wouldn’t have to live through another round of PPD. Ugh.
    Short version: breastfeeding won’t necessarily protect against PPD, and meds plus sleep plus small-but-happy baby are a far preferable combination to unmedicated mom with no help who unintentionally smothers her baby.

    • demodocus

      And “bonded” is a pretty flexible thing anyway. Both my kids bonded just fine, though the bf’d one never had any problem being held by anyone or running over to chatter at some strange adult. The latter still happens. The ff’d one clings to my metaphorical skirts any time an adult other than her parents looks at her.

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        Oh yes, that’s definitely a kid-by-kid thing. Kid 1 (combo-fed for 4 months, FF after that) was and is at 5 very shy and distrusting of anyone until she gets to know them. Kid 2 has never met a stranger; we were at a wildlife sanctuary a few weeks ago, and he stopped by a bench full of people to explain excitedly, “Birds! Up dere! Lotsa birds! See da birds! Like birds!” Kid 3 is more like Kid 1, a bit shy, if not as much so. All of them are very bonded to me.

  • Ayr

    I actually laughed a bit at the findings because I was unable to breast feed due lack of production, not really wanting too, and then was on blood thinners due to a pulmonary embolism when my son was 4 weeks old. While I was in the hospital my husband and mother took care of my son, when they brought him to the hospital and I held him, he would open his eyes look up at me and sigh snuggling closer into me. I would say that we were bonded just fine and we didn’t need breast-feeding to do so.

  • BeatriceC

    This should have been a “well duh” conclusion. There are all kinds of reasons a baby isn’t breastfed. Babies are adopted, spend time in NICU, mothers have lactation issues or just flat out don’t want to, fathers exist, etc. Yet we’re not experiencing a rash of children who aren’t “bonded” to their parents.

    • Cat

      I agree but there’s a whole industry out there dedicated to convincing women that there’s an epidemic of children who aren’t bonded to their parents. I saw someone on a parenting website the other day try to convince a new mother that she couldn’t leave her baby with its dad for an hour or so because the mother-child bond is “incredibly fragile”, FFS.

      • Cat

        I think one problem is that these people are working off a completely different definition of bonding to the rest of us. Their concept of bonding is based on exclusivity: a bonded baby is one that only wants the mother and can’t get comfort from anyone else. If your baby doesn’t scream to go back to mum as soon as it’s handed to someone who doesn’t smell of milk, or if it can get comfort from a pacifier and not just from comfort-nursing, then, whoops, must have an attachment disorder. Whereas most regular people would consider a mother and baby to be bonded if the mother is responsive to the baby’s needs and shows it affection, which is something that other adults who don’t have breasts can do just as well.

        • rational thinker

          I formula fed both my kids. When my daughter was an infant she would scream if anyone else held her for even two seconds. Then she would stop as soon as I took her back. Many people would say thats adorable. I suspected it at the time and will tell anyone now that it is a warning sign. Babies that are under 4 months old do not do that it is not normal.My daughter is 14 years now and severely autistic. There are a lot of warning signs even when they are just weeks old. We need to get better at spotting them early.

          • Cat

            I’m sorry nobody listened to your suspicions. Two of my family members have worked with autistic children for years and they are big believers that (I) there can be signs very early and (ii) we need to listen to mothers’ instincts about their babies and not leave them isolated.

        • Merrie

          My toddler is more bonded to my husband than to me, which makes sense since I work and my husband is a stay-at-home dad, so he spends way more time with the kid than I do.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        It’s all part of the evil dad plot….

  • mabelcruet

    The lactivist response to this will be that the authors are formula shills and the funding for the study came from evil formula companies and the results were deliberately skewed against breast feeding. And then when that is disproved, they’ll say emotional attachment and bonding can’t be dissected like this, and they know intuitively and instinctively with their secret knowledge and mama magic that their mama goddess breast feeding superpowers means they have bonded with their baby better than any mother-baby dyad has bonded before, they don’t need no stinking science to tell them what they know.

    • KQ Not Signed In

      They’ve already started on the “you can’t quantify bonding”

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        They’ve already started on the “you can’t quantify bonding”

        Admittedly, that would be my first concern about this study.

        However, that doesn’t help them, because it also means that their claims that breastfeeding leads to bonding are equally fraught with this problem.

        “There is no evidence that breastfeeding helps with bonding” – oh you can’t say that, because you can’t adequately measure bonding

        “Breastfeeding is important for bonding” – yes, obviously, what’s the problem?

      • Cat

        Bonding means whatever they say it means. Same with the AP people.

        I remember seeing a post on an AP forum by a desperate mother who wasn’t getting any time with her husband in the evenings because their co-sleeping toddler woke up every few minutes and screamed and screamed until she gave up and came to bed. The unanimous response was well done, mamma, your child is really secure and attached to you – you’ve shown her that you’ll always be there so she expects that 24/7. Don’t ruin your attachment by betraying her trust – your husband will just have to go to bed with you all at 7pm if he wants time with you.

        It was like looking into some crazy mirror world because, in my book, a toddler who becomes hysterical every time mummy is in another room clearly isn’t very secure. But the mother had followed AP processes to the letter and AP produces secure and bonded kids, so, by definition, however the child was behaving that must be the behaviour of a secure and bonded child.

        • rational thinker

          I would call that the behavior of a spoiled brat. The real fun will start when that child is a teenager and grows into a spoiled little bitch.

          • The Bofa on the Sofa

            Severe separation anxiety is usually considered to be not a good thing.

        • Merrie

          My friend’s kids (extended breastfeeding, babywearing, cosleeping) have been basically velcroed to her for what seems to me to be an inappropriate length of time and degree of attachment. It bothers me. I snuggle my kids but I also encourage independence.

          • Cat

            Definitely. Independence shouldn’t be a dirty word!

            There’s a woman at my daughter’s playgroup who did the really hardcore velcro thing for the first year. When her child was twelve months, she had to go back to work part-time and the kid spent three days a week at nursery. The mum’s reaction was to step up the velcro behaviour and pander (as she proudly put it) to her toddler’s every whim on non-nursery days. I’m a working mother too so I understand the urge to spoil your kids a bit when you’re at home, but we’re talking letting her toddler jump up and down on her and headbutt her when she was trying to eat so she couldn’t manage more than two bites of her meal, carrying her round all day even though she was a good walker, cancelling any plan (however important) the moment the toddler made a fuss, etc. The mum seemed convinced that she’d cracked the whole “how to have a secure child” thing, but actually the poor kid struck me as rather clingy and anxious due to the wild lack of consistency. Whereas those of my friends’ kids who had some kind of basic consistency of routine between nursery and non-nursery days seemed to be absolutely thriving at the same age.

  • Caravelle

    This reminds me of the statement you see everywhere on pages discussing infant sight: that newborns only see at about 20cm (or whatever), which is the distance they can gaze into a breastfeeding mother’s eyes.

    This sounded reasonable until I actually breastfed, and I have to wonder if any of the people making this claim ever breastfed, because aside from certain specific (and often awkward) positions, a breastfeeding baby isn’t looking anywhere near their mother’s eyes.

    You know what feeding method does spontaneously result in parent and child lovingly gazing in each other’s eyes forever? Bottle feeding. But that obviously played a minimal role in human evolution.

    It’s this weird little adaptationist claim that always seems to get tacked on to every “newborn sees 20cm far” statement but that I’ll have to guess no one ever questions because it sounds good, but it’s really an indication of how blindly breastfeeding is associated with bonding in our cultural memes.

    • KQ Not Signed In

      Mine stared directly into my armpit for the first couple months, if his eyes were open at all.

  • TsuDhoNimh

    So … who is going to bond better

    1 – A well-rested mother and a baby with a full tummy with nothing on their agenda except snuggling?

    2 – A sleep-deprived mother with sore nipples and a hangry baby?

    • PeggySue

      Gosh, let me think……

    • AnnaD2013

      Survey says #1!

  • rational thinker

    The whole bonding thing is bullshit. In my experience newborns will put anything that gets close to their face in their mouths. So if what lactivists say is true then they have a great special bond with their friggin hands!

  • MichLaw

    My first reaction is “No sh*t!” I mean, how could anyone have believed that breastfeeding was essential to bonding? By that measure, no adoptive mother or single father or mother separated by her own illness or infant illness could ever bond with their children.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      By that measure, no adoptive mother or single father or mother separated by her own illness or infant illness could ever bond with their children.

      Yes.

      Oh, you sat that like it is a problem for them or something.

      Sadly to say, no, it isn’t. That is in fact very much an attitude, although it is largely not admitted in public. But hey, just listen to them insisting on how adoptive parents could REALLY lactate and breastfeed, if they really wanted to….

  • Cartman36

    “Thus, in Westernized cultures breastfeeding has become a “moral” choice, and a test of motherhood, while the psychological, social and economic costs to women have largely been ignored.” – Wow, this hits the nail right on the head

  • Azuran

    That is so not surprising. Newborn just basically suck on everything that gets in their mouth, most of the time with their eyes closed and even if they had them open, their vision isn’t that good so they likely can’t see what they are sucking on very well, and even if they could, they sure as hell wouldn’t be able to comprehend what it is or understand the difference between a breast and a bottle.
    Basically, they are sucking on something generally nipple shaped that gives them milk while being held by someone. There is no reason they’d be emotionally affected in any way by what the nipple is attached to.

    • MainlyMom

      I remember staring at my first whine she nursed, waiting for that adoring gaze the book promised. Ha. She nursed to frikkin eat. I remember finally realizing that she’d suck on the tv if it gave her milk. But she’s 13 now and we have a great bond (when she doesn’t hate me!).

  • Amanda Begley

    This is by far the dumbest claim from lactivists. All you need is to see fathers who bond with their children to know that feeding them directly from a breast has absolutely nothing to do with bonding. Obviously if you enjoy breastfeeding and it works well it can AID in bonding by providing more time alone with your child. But so can bottle feeding. And so can holding them quietly….. As a pediatrician I have for years been telling mothers that this is BS, but glad to have a journal article to hand over if they are feeling particularly upset about the whole thing.

  • alongpursuit

    Thank you for this. It’s reassuring to know that my inability to exclusively breastfeed had no bearing on whether my baby would bond with me. But it makes me so angry that breastfeeding = bonding was pushed on me in the hospital at such a vulnerable time.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    BOOM! goes the dynamite.

    We need to make sure that we are clear: there is a difference between “this is nice to do and a lot of women like it” and “this is physiologically important for the health of the baby.”

    Next can they consider the question of “skin-to-skin”?

    • fiftyfifty1

      “this is nice to do and a lot of women like it”

      Sure, just as long as we add “but also a lot of women don’t end up finding it nice and don’t end up liking it, and whether you do or don’t says nothing about your quality as a mother.”

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        I would note that “a lot of women like it” does not say nor imply anything about the women who don’t, and, in fact, implies that they (ones who don’t like it) exist.

        I would hope that “it’s not important for the baby” would be enough to relay the message that it says nothing about your quality as a mother, but, true, it doesn’t hurt to state it explicitly.

        • fiftyfifty1

          Yeah Bofa, you’re missing the point. This is not about the rules of formal logic. This is about how women are manipulated. One major way they are manipulated is by being judged against The Normal Woman, by being told what woman find nice and like. “Breastfeeding is Nice. Oh, you don’t think it’s Nice? Really? Interesting. A lot of women really like it. I wonder what it means about you that you don’t like it.”

          • Cristina

            I felt like this. I chose not to and a lot of people seemed confused by the fact that I didn’t even want to “at least try and see if [I] would like it.”

          • AirPlant

            I do not even want to try either and I have honestly spent so much time trying to figure out what about me is making me different. I just see and hear so many women talking about how desperately they wanted to breastfeed and how they near killed themselves trying to make it happen and just none of that seems to compute in my brain. Breastfeeding just sounds terrible to me. I can’t make myself feel different and I don’t know why or what about me makes me not like all the other pregnant first time mothers that I have met. At my best I shrug my shoulders and move on but at my worst I feel unfeminine and broken.

          • alongpursuit

            Thanks for sharing that. I think I would have decided the same thing if I were more in-tune with my real feelings and not such a sucker for peer pressure. I have a lot of respect for people who can act on their preferences and not feel like they owe anyone a thesis on their decision.

            It’s been hard as a woman to say “I’m not doing this because I don’t want to” and leave it at that. I hope society’s attitudes toward what is feminine are evolving. Short hair, pants, and careers can be feminine. So can doing what *you* want to do. I wish I could find moms like you in my neighborhood.

          • AirPlant

            I am naturally pretty contrary, the quickest way to make me do a thing is to tell me I am not allowed to. I sometimes wonder if the only reason I developed an aversion to breastfeeding is that I was told it was mandatory,

            I think that there has to at least a handful of other women like me because I certainly didn’t get it from the men in my family but the love we have for our children is so overpowering that the concept of doing the right thing can crush the resolve of even the strongest will.

          • Cristina

            Haha, I’m the same way! And the quickest way to get me to not do it is to tell me I have to. Honestly, it never crossed my mind until I was 4 months pregnant with my first and my (now ex) husband was on the phone with his mom and they were pushing the idea. Then I started hearing from others about how it was painful and how often babies needed to be fed, especially in the beginning. By then I had decided I didn’t want to but the need to justify it caused me to dig into research that wasn’t funded by someone in the breastfeeding industry. That cemented it for me. I’ve never felt guilty for it but because so many of my friends looked forward to it one day, it did make me question whether there was something wrong with me emotionally. I’ve just come to realize I’m very self aware and I trust my instincts.

            Sometimes I think the people who insist we just try are also the ones who then insist that we keep at it since we’ve already started, why stop now?

          • AirPlant

            The message starts as “you have to try” which naturally means exclusive at all costs no bottles or pacifiers trying or you aren’t really trying and that morphs in “it gets easier after a few weeks, don’t quit on a bad day!” and then after eight or so weeks your kid won’t take a freaking bottle and then what are you supposed to do?

            I am probably tinfoil hatting right now but it seems pretty crazy that the recommended guidelines for successful breastfeeding just so happen to make bottle feeding exponentially more difficult.

          • Cristina

            Oh, and don’t forget, even if you can’t breastfeed, you can still mimic it! Take off your shirt, use SNS, allow your child to use your nipple as a pacifier instead of using a plastic one!

          • PeggySue

            I’m sorry–it should be perfectly fine to just not want to. Doesn’t sound all that great to me either.

          • alongpursuit

            It’s so patronizing this “try it and you’ll like it”. It reminds me of family trying to get me to eat things like liver pâté. Nope! Not for me. Maybe for you. Not for me. Pass the carrots!

    • Elizabeth A

      “Next can they consider the question of “skin-to-skin”?”

      Ohhhh, I have so many feelings about Kangaroo Care. Even for NICU infants! The original studies on KC were done in NICUs that had nothing but blow-by oxygen and antibiotics!

      This is not to say that there’s nothing to it. Being in contact with other humans may indeed help infants regulate breathing and temperature. The NICU is often a traumatic experience for parents, and baby snuggles help. Whether the baby bonds or not, the parents may form stronger emotional connections sooner when they get some physical contact with the baby. But I am not at all convinced that skin to skin changes a whole lot, compared with onesie to shirt.

      • mabelcruet

        Did they ever look to see if there is a difference between hairy male chests and less hairy female chests? Men always seem warmer to me-I think I’m a lizard in disguise, so would a hairy male body provide better temperature stability? I’ve never been pregnant, but my sisters reported that their breasts were really warm when full of milk, so is there a difference between a warm milk filled female chest and a non milk filled female chest?

        Plus a hairy male chest would give a baby a bit of a edge when doing the breast crawl to the nipple, give them something to haul themselves up with-maybe mothers should be wearing fake chest wigs!

        • PeggySue

          Maybe we could preoccupy the lactivists with designing and manufacturing chest wigs for optimum breast crawl. You know–color and consistency to match Dad’s chest? Or Mom’s preferred color? Or rainbow, with a little unicorn horn for the baby to grasp…

          • mabelcruet

            Business plan! We need employees who can knit. The design should be a combination of chest wig and kangaroo pouch for stashing baby in, with a nipple holes so that they have unfettered access.

          • PeggySue

            YES!!!!