Breastfeeding: It’s About Free Choice, Not Statistics

Let me get this straight. It’s OK for more affluent mothers to breastfeed, but according to Ohio State University Sociology Professor Cynthia Colen, “certain groups” of moms (aka low-income/single/teen moms) probably can’t handle the the federal government’s pro-breastfeeding message without feeling guilty, so let’s don’t tell them quite so much. Or better yet, nothing at all about breastfeeding.

Conclusions Colen draws from her recently published study seem to imply that low-income women crowding prenatal clinics should be directed to a window that says, “apply for subsidized daycare and get a job here” – anything that will “benefit”their  kids more in the
long-term than staying home and breastfeeding.

Colen was quoted in a Feb. 26, 2014, article in “We need to take a much more careful look at what happens past the first year of life and understand that breast-feeding might be very difficult, even untenable for certain groups of women. Rather than placing blame at their feet, let’s be more realistic about what breast-feeding does and doesn’t do.”

If society is no longer going to stigmatize young women for having premarital sex, but instead flaunt it in their faces, we all need to shut up about it. Either that or go into the chastity belt business.

The hot-and-bothered role models  in the entertainment media are usually glamorous and well-educated, as well as gainfully employed.

Not high school sophomores.

I’m certain those who provide prenatal healthcare services for low-income mothers are reeling at the current burden. It is enormous, according to reports from maternal/infant educators at one city hospital.

Only let’s not bundle “certain groups” of moms together like so many bad mortgages.

Published in the January issue of Social Science and Medicine, Colen’s breastfeeding study has gotten a lot of ink over the past few weeks, but I find her subjective conclusions sorely lacking in mother-wisdom.

She seems to think that if fewer low-income moms breastfeed, it’s probably because they face tough challenges and have other needs. So why bother encouraging them to do so? “Breastfeeding is a great idea, but what else needs to happen for low-income women?” Colen told the Columbus Dispatch recently.

Colen should have been around when I had my first baby in the 1970s. I had an ancient Majestic wood stove – the house’s only heat. I paid what was an enormous amount back then – $50 – for a corduroy Snugli baby carrier and wore it everywhere. We were low-income, to be sure: my husband finishing his college degree, working nights and weekends; me shopping at garage sales for tiny blankets and learning to cook in a new way from a Birkinstock-clad hippie mom who owned a health food store.

Devin's first food

I was all eyes and ears, delighting in the grainy taste of brown rice for the first time, and honey drizzled over hot whole-wheat bread.

Among our friends with babies – other young (aka low-income) moms living in the wilds of New Mexico – none would have considered bottle feeding unless it were a last resort. It was a matter of conviction that we were doing the right thing for our babies; a time in our lives when we dedicated ourselves to being mothers, learning and doing for our families in a creative way.

The conversation now as then should not revolve around what moms need, but what babies need. And babies needs have not changed in millennia.
Colen’s study analyzes data from a broad survey of young people ages 4-14 from as far back as 1979 and as recently as 2010. Her team found plenty of evidence for the immediate benefits of breastfeeding, but then found a lack of significant long-term differences among sibling groups who were fed differently, meaning at least one child in the family was breast fed for at least six months.

Will someone tell me why this is news?

To me, the finding is an absolute no-brainer. Gather together any group of La Leche League moms and ask them whether environment has a strong influence on how kids turn out.

You’ll get a resounding “yes!”

And they will know plenty of families in which Colen’s little scenario has played out: Take a handful of families from different socio-economic groups and varying levels of parental education. Give at least one child the breast for at least six months. The others get the bottle.

breastfeeding mom

What’s going to happen?

The breast/bottle-fed kids of parents who can afford to give them advantages like music lessons, athletic activities, great nutrition, and lavish verbal interaction are going to do better in school, and possibly throughout life, than breast/bottle-fed kids of parents who let them watch a lot of meaningless TV programs such as Honey Boo Boo, feed them Pop-Tarts for breakfast, and can barely pay the gas bill.

While the disparity is no laughing matter, I find academics like Colen ridiculous in their pursuit of societal manipulation, even if it means digging up 35 year-old data from a time when the America was a different place than it is today.

But ironically, I think mother-wisdom still has a way of winning, even in a disparate economy. It’s the ineffable stuff that can’t be measured by surveys and analyses that allows mothers whose first priority is their children to overcome what many see as insurmountable challenges, including women who are poor, young and single.

Because we still live in a free society, mothers are permitted to make illogical decisions for themselves and their families based on faith. Or trust – you decide. And that sends Colen’s logic tumbling, as though to the side of a fun-house room with a slanted floor.

But that is something no grant-funded research can prove. In concluding that America needs to stop stigmatizing low-income moms with the current national breastfeeding priority and provide more subsidized day care, better schools, and higher-paying jobs, I think Colen demonstrates tremendous bias.

Uncle Sam I Want You to BreastfeedAll mothers need good information on which to base decisions. And who’s to say that breastfeeding isn’t an equalizer? It gives babies an equal start in life, helping to fulfill one of the most important tasks of early childhood: establishing a bond of trust that promotes healthy emotional, cognitive and physical growth.

Breastfeeding presupposes that one is caring for one’s own children in most cases. So I see this as more a question of “who’s minding the children,” than what kind of containers their milk comes in. In addition to personal sacrifice,  the decision to care for one’s own children when a family operates on a financial shoestring requires a certain amount of resourcefulness, chutzpah –  not one of Colen’s publicized conclusions.

The researcher needs to give low-income mothers more credit.

Instead of pushing for more daycare, let’s advocate for those mothers who would give their children the nurturing foundation that is every child’s birthright. Can the amount of stress a family feels when the bills are overdue be tantamount to what an infant must feel when an ersatz mommy takes over, even with a state license tacked to the wall?

Why not push for home-based opportunities for new mothers? Perhaps free or low-cost college courses, for example, or legitimate work that could help them earn money. And how about asking Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child to come up with basic study materials for new mothers? Not only should low-income moms know the benefits of breastfeeding, but of nurturing their babies’ brains. Other countries are so much further ahead than we are on that count. Just look at New Zealand’s Brainwave Trust.(

Regardless of a mother’s income, age, marital status, or method of infant feeding, caring for one’s own child requires mindful attention to another human being whose survival we have placed in our own hands. It’s not a profession for the faint of heart. And mothers who have done it know their efforts on behalf of their children cannot be quantified, put into a statistical model to yield hard and fast data.

To me, it’s obvious: young women are going to make foolish choices. They’re going to party instead of study.  Pick the wrong men. Have unprotected sex. Keep babies they can’t afford. They’ve been doing it since time immemorial. But so many have they succeeded at something Colen may not believe is in the best interest of “certain groups of women.” And that is being nurturers.


They are the moms who trust that somehow everything will work out, and move forward in life regardless of what the statistics say they should or should not be doing.

The time during which we nurse and care for our babies is very short indeed. It disappears like fairy dust, thinning and then vanishing forever.

Once it’s, it’s gone.

There’s time after that for going back to school and getting a job. Life goes on. It’s not necessary to direct and control the path, but to stay on it and see where it leads. Because in the end, mothering is about following one’s heart. FFG

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