The Best Reason to Breastfeed, and Why No One’s Talking About It

Human milk is a presumptively safe food for human babies, but the infant formulas of today have enough evidence on their side to be considered acceptable substitutes. Formula feeding thus falls well within the scope of morally acceptable parenting practices, especially when it frees parents (read: mothers) to invest in other aspects of parenting instead and to enjoy their babies more. This is not to say that breastmilk doesn’t have some health advantages, just that they are, to our reasonably good knowledge, insufficiently great to make it morally obligatory for parents to provide in all cases.

I’m not a breastfeeding expert, but I’ve been doing it for almost 5 months now, 4 of those all but exclusively until we began dabbling in solids (Claudia received ~2 ounces of formula in a pinch in her 3rd week of life, mea culpa). My daughter and I encountered a number of problems: extensive nipple damage and pain, overactive letdown (i.e. spraying milk), chronically shallow latch, lip and tongue ties that had to be revised, etc.

Having troubleshot these issues with the help of the internet and far-flung friends, breastfeeding has come to feel like at least as much of a nerdy hobby as simply a routine aspect of baby care. Meanwhile, the “breast is best” lactivism vs. fearless formula feeding debate rages on, fueled by the complications of making an all-things-considered decision that involves several parties’ health and wellness (broadly construed).

But in all these breastfeeding travels, I have not often seen my own perspective on breastfeeding well-represented. I started out breastfeeding because I wanted the bonding boost it can provide. Juiced up on prolactin, with a tiny babe attached to you, feeding directly from your body… it’s easy to see how breastfeeding that’s going smoothly could make you feel sappy about the creature. I was therefore planning to breastfeed largely for me, not necessarily for her.

What I had not considered prior to the birth, but what any breastfeeding mother knows, is that babies usually really love breastfeeding. The milk drunk look of a baby who pulls off, full and happy, is sublime. Even if breastfeeding is not hugely better than formula in terms of nutrition, simply the fact that baby enjoys it provides some good reason to breastfeed.

Parents do many other things to make babies feel good (or at least better), like rock them for hours each night, dress them in all manner of sleep aid garments, play loud white noise, darken rooms, purchase dozens of toys, outfit expensive strollers with padding, and so on. There’s certainly nothing crazy about feeding a baby in such a way that makes it really happy, especially when that’s possibly at little cost to you. Offering the boob for a nursing session, or for comfort, or for sleep is a downright merciful thing to do for a frazzled creature who is temporarily but pathetically rather ill-adapted for life in this world.

Bottle-fed babies tend to drink and become sated quickly, while breastfeeding is a whole long production. But the lengthy nature of breastfeeding is actually kind of a godsend when you’re trying to entertain a tiny immobile creature with poor vision, no language, and the attention span of a goldfish. It’s a healthy, soothing activity that will take up lots of time during which the baby could otherwise be laying down developing a flat spot on its head, or screaming at you. Hallelujah!

There are plenty of exceptions here. Problems with the baby or with the mother could make breastfeeding generally quite unpleasant, tipping the hedonic scale back towards formula feeding. But if you’re on the fence about how to feed your baby or whether to continue, why not give it a try — baby likes it, and that’s important.

We’ll never depoliticize breastfeeding, though. Packages of beliefs make this so. Which manner of feeding is the healthy thing, convenient thing, the feminist thing … isn’t it suspicious that basically all the kinds of advantages end up allegedly accruing to one alternative (breastfeeding vs. formula) or the other, depending on who you ask?

If breastfeeding advocates admit that formula is pretty ok but that you should breastfeed if you can because babies enjoy it, then they cede their motivating (if less than factually accurate) nutritional, “natural,” and attachment parenting high grounds. And if formula feeders acknowledge that their babies would or did really enjoy breastfeeding, then they admit that they’re depriving them (however reasonably) of a pleasure. But sometimes the middle position really is right, if not extremely rhetorically compelling, and this is one of those times.

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