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Nothing's Better for Baby Than Breast-Feeding

Nutrition: Full of living cells, mother's milk is the ideal food for a newborn--and nursing is the perfect way for mom and child to bond.

November 16, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in the 1950s and '60s, pharmaceutical companies, with the help of thousands of well-meaning obstetricians, pulled the coup of the century. They convinced millions of American women that infant formula was better than breast milk. And they managed to do it without a killer ad campaign--the American Academy of Pediatrics, in an effort to prevent women from switching from breast-feeding to formula, had requested that there be no direct consumer marketing.

Didn't matter. Manufacturers struck deals with doctors and hospitals, and sales soared. It was the time of better living through chemicals, when prepackaged everything dropped from the sky like suburban manna. Infant formula, declared conventional wisdom, was more convenient, more decorous and just as nutritious.

Now, as the daughters of these women enter motherhood, everything's different. To tout bottle over breast is neonatal heresy. Pediatricians, obstetricians, nurses and nurse midwives all agree: Mother's milk is the perfect food for baby. It is more easily digested, prevents allergies, builds up the immune system and is less likely to lead to obesity. It is full of living cells and antibodies that are impossible to reproduce chemically.

Furthermore, breast-feeding is convenient, cheap and helps the mother recover from birth. The image of a woman suckling her child is an archetype of love and nurturance for good reason--there's no better way to bond with your child.

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To ensure that you, expectant or new mom, are aware of this, many obstetricians will hand you a stack of pamphlets and a videotape on breast-feeding the minute the stick turns blue. The pregnancy and newborn books and magazine articles that sway in an unsteady tower beside your bed all say the same thing: Breast is best.

Yet somehow Ross Laboratories (Similac), Mead Johnson (Infamil) and Nestle (Carnation's Good Start) manage to fill their coffers to the almost $2-billion mark year after year. Why? Well, there's all that free stuff: Manufacturers dole out countless gift packs and boxes at every natal turn. And formula does have advantages, mostly for parents. A formula-fed baby eats less frequently and sleeps more, not a small thing. It's easier physically on Mom. And after almost a year of sharing her body with an unseen tyrant, regaining control of it is mighty tempting.

But the main reason most women choose bottle over breast is that despite its Homeric list of benefits, breast-feeding, especially initially, can be difficult.

"Most women know that breast is best," says Kathleen Huggins, a registered nurse and author of "The Nursing Woman's Companion." "And more and more women are choosing to breast-feed. But because they don't have the support, either in the hospital or when they first get home, they stop."

"It's a myth that breast-feeding comes naturally," says Heidi Murkoff, co-author of the incredibly popular "What to Expect" series on pregnancy and child rearing. "Most women who quit, quit early. They get a cracked nipple or a clogged milk duct. Or they have a mother asking them 'how can you tell he's getting enough to eat?' as if there were an ounce calibration on your breast."

These are nice ways of saying that nursing is weird and painful, at least at first. Many women, about 60%, do stick with it for the first few months; but statistics show that the numbers drop to 23% by six months. The obvious reason is that many women have returned to work by this time, and most places of employment are not designed for the lactating woman.

"To keep your milk supply up, you have to empty both breasts seven times a day," Huggins says. "If you're a teacher, or working at Taco Bell, or in a retail store, this is going to be difficult."

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Even for those women with supportive employers, formula often becomes a necessity. Unless you keep the baby under your desk, or have a breast pump surgically attached, even the most devoted La Lecher will have a hard time satisfying the appetite of a growing baby while holding down a job.

"We all give it our best shot," says one mother who nurses and pumps. "But sooner or later, you have to supplement."

If she sounds as if she feels guilty, she probably does. As with almost everything involving motherhood, people voice very strong opinions about nursing.

"I just wasn't interested in nursing," one woman says. "When I tell people that, I feel like I just announced I was Satan."

Considering that this particular issue involves the two things many women obsess about most--their babies and their breasts--it's not surprising that the decision can be, well, fraught. And a recent recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that women nurse their babies for a full year may have scared a few women off--a year can seem like a really, really long time.

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