I am so appalled by this New York Times article. There is an absolute public health consensus that exclusive breastfeeding through six months is best and highly beneficial (see WHO guidelines, AAP guidelines) and breastfeeding (with introduction of some solid foods) through one year (AAP guidelines) or two years (WHO guidelines) is ideal. The Times article raises questions about vitamin D deficiency in exclusively breastfed babies. The author writes:
Physicians have known for more than a century that exclusive breast-feeding may be associated with vitamin D deficiency and rickets, and that the condition is easily prevented and treated with inexpensive vitamin drops or cod liver oil. But doctors are reluctant to say anything that might discourage breast-feeding.
Now some researchers are also linking vitamin D deficiency with other chronic diseases like diabetes, autoimmune disorders and even cancer, and there have been calls to include blood tests of vitamin D levels in routine checkups.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with pointing out that there are low levels of vitamin D in some mothers and breastfed babies and that this should be attended to. But I just kept waiting for the punch line when the author of the article points out that, “Although there is a risk of vitamin D deficiency, it is always far better to exclusively breastfeed babies through six months, and partial breastfeed through at least a year, and deal potential vitamin D deficiency through regular exposure to the sun, a balanced diet on the part of the mother, and supplementation (either of mother or infant, depending on situation), than to not breastfeed due to potential vitamin D deficiency.”
But the author never says anything like this.
She does quote a mom who says, “I thought I was doing the best thing for her,” after blood tests showed her daughter had no detectable vitamin D. Implying, of course, that she was not doing the best thing for her by breastfeeding.
And the author quotes a doctor who says, “I completely support breast-feeding, and I think breast milk is the perfect food, and the healthiest way to nourish an infant. However, we’re finding so many mothers are vitamin D deficient themselves that the milk is therefore deficient, so many babies can’t keep their levels up. They may start their lives vitamin D deficient, and then all they’re getting is vitamin D deficient breast milk,” which, if you read the first part, is sort of an endorsement of breastfeeding although it is quickly followed up by its “dangers.”
It isn’t as if anything said in the article is wrong. And if you already know how important it is to breastfeed (when possible, of course – some moms do not have the ability or luxury of breastfeeding, and this is in no way a critique of them) then this article isn’t going to discourage you. However, if you aren’t sure this article could be read as, “Better be safe than sorry and just do formula.” Which is not good for so many reasons (Mothering Magazine covers this well – see, for instance here, here or here.)
It reminds me of this new style (or maybe it is old, but I notice it more these days) of writers trying to be somehow “neutral” by saying, “Well, so and so says this,” and “another so and so says this” and leaving it at that like, “Well, we’ll just let the reader decide,” even when it comes to things where there is a clear consensus.
I just feel like the slight gains in making mamas and families feel like breastfeeding is a good, viable option for feeding their babies are fragile and I wish the Times would be a little bit more careful in their approach to such important topics. And, although I don’t like the Times article, it is mostly upsetting in the wider context that there is a lack of awareness of the importance of breastfeeding and climate of non-support of breastfeeding mothers. And this just doesn’t help things much.