THE BLOG
06/21/2006 11:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Breast Feed or Else? NYT, HHS Boost Sketchy Science, Neglect PPD

The New York Times recently reported on a controversial public health campaign by the Department of Health and Human Services which compares not breast-feeding one's baby to riding a mechanical bull while heavily pregnant.

While the Times noted some concerns of women who cannot breastfeed, it was completely uncritical of the strength of the research connecting breastfeeding to health and failed to mention the dilemma faced by women with postpartum depression (which affects 10-15% of women) in relation to breastfeeding. It actually quoted someone identified as "senior scientific adviser to the Office on Women's Health" for HHS comparing the risks of failing to breastfeed with those of smoking during pregnancy.

My stats colleague, Rebecca Goldin, just looked at the science-- and for all the "breast is best" bullying from this campaign, she found that the research alleged to prove the benefits is remarkably slight.

Now, before I get inundated by people saying I'm in with the formula companies or opposed to breastfeeding, let me say this. My sister is a childbirth educator and one of the strongest supporters of breastfeeding that I know. I was breastfed-- I think it's a wonderful thing to do and mothers should do it, if possible.

But America does not support breastfeeding moms with paid family leave or decent workplace accommodations for pumping or national healthcare which provides home visitors to help with nursing, as many European countries do.

To suggest that the problem here is that women don't know the risks of not breastfeeding, is absurd. And, in a climate where mothers are attacked every day by expectations of perfection and experts propounding conflicting advice-- all of which will cause your kid to become a serial killer if it's not followed to the letter-- it is simply offensive.

Women are shamed and depressed when they can't breastfeed or can't do it as much as they would prefer. One telling example: At a meeting of a mothers' internet group that my sister and one of my close friends participated in, one mother offered a case of extremely expensive formula to the others that she couldn't use. None of the rest of the roughly ten women there would admit she was no longer breastfeeding. After the woman left it atop a trash can, one mom snuck back to take it when she thought the others could no longer see and embarrass her for her "failure."

And another thing the Times completely failed to address: postpartum depression. This puts new mothers in a completely untenable position: either face the risks of harming infants by exposing them to antidepressants or face the likely more substantial risks of having a depressed and possibly unresponsive and potentially suicidal or even homicidal mother.

The research on the negative effects of maternal depression on infants--unlike that on the negative effects of bottle-feeding in developed countries-- is substantial. Both HHS and the New York Times should try not to increase maternal stress with campaigns and articles like this.