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There's way more to parenthood than breastfeeding

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  March 3, 2014 08:25 AM

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Thumbnail image for kissing a child.jpgThe other day I met a beautiful newborn and her mother. The mother was bottle-feeding the baby, who was her fourth child. I asked if she was interested in breastfeeding.

"No," she said firmly.

We talked about bottle-feeding, and then moved on to the next topic of the visit. I didn't push breastfeeding; the mother had made it clear to me where she stood. And if there's anything I've learned from 23 years of doctoring and parenting, it's that there's way more to parenthood than breastfeeding.

That seems to be the bottom line of a study published in Social Science and Medicine. Researches looked at families in which some children were breastfed and some weren't (within the same family). When they compared outcomes (like weight, behavior and academic success) between those who were breastfed and those who weren't, they found...no difference.

Now, this doesn't mean that breastfeeding isn't a good idea. There are definitely health benefits to it (fewer infections and less risk of obesity in childhood, for example). And in the study, the average length of breastfeeding was less than 6 months, which is the minimum the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends; it's possible that if the mothers had breastfed longer, the results would have been different. 

But breastfeeding isn't the only thing that matters when it comes to the health and well-being of children. Lots of things matter. Like the rest of the diet. Or talking to children and playing with them. Or quality childcare--and quality education. Or exercise. Or avoiding tobacco smoke and other toxins. Or healthy media use. Or loving and consistent discipline and support. Or having enough money, or a safe place to live. The list goes on and on. 

There was a comment on a recent blog of mine that caught me off guard. The blog wasn't about breastfeeding, but in it I mentioned that breastfeeding was a good idea. The commenter said that all I did was push breastfeeding and try to make mothers feel bad. Now, the majority of my blogs have nothing to do with breastfeeding and as a pediatrician I firmly support families in whatever choice they make--but the comment was a really good illustration of how judgmental things can feel, and how sensitive we've all become on this issue. I am grateful to the commenter; it's important for me to remember this.

Yes, I do encourage breastfeeding. But...it's like the recommendation that we all should eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The majority of kids (and parents) I meet do not eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But that doesn't stop me from recommending it, as it's good for you. I don't judge anyone who eats 2 servings (tops). It's my job to be sure that people have the information they need to make healthy choices--but those choices are theirs to make.

That's just it: there are lots of things we can do to help our children be healthy, happy and successful. Breastfeeding is just one of them. All of us parents need to choose the ones we believe in most, and the ones that are most possible for us. What we choose is ultimately our business, not something we should have to defend.

It's also really important for us as a society to do everything we can to ensure that every child has access to safe housing, healthy food, health care, good childcare, quality education, and exercise--and that every family gets the support it needs.  

Like I said: there's way more to parenthood than breastfeeding.



Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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