It’s popular, in breastfeeding circles, to talk about how breast isn’t best – it’s normal.
In general, I find the arguments uncompelling (and whenever I do find one compelling, it is unable to withstand discussion with my husband, who is my resident sharpener-of-thought.)
The problem with the debate, I think, is that it adds nothing useful for the woman who is undecided or opposed to breastfeeding. It serves as a rallying cry for the lactivist, but does little for average-Jane-moms.
The other problem with the debate is that there are a couple of different definitions of normal that come into play. There are cultural norms and physiologic norms – two quite different things. Cultural norms refers to what is usual or expected in our cultural. Unfortunately, breastfeeding is not currently normal in our culture. Physiological norms refers to the expected standard for health. So a physiological norm might be a BMI between 18 and 25 (despite many in our culture falling above that range).
Proponents of the “breastfeeding is normal, not best” argument state that using the “best” terminology suggests that breastfeeding is something that women can do to go above and beyond – like telling them that a glass of wine daily can reduce their risk of heart disease. No one would fault a woman for choosing not to go the extra mile to drink a glass of wine daily. They could still be acting appropriately and normally without consuming wine. But breastfeeding is not like a glass of wine daily, adding some benefits but not really something women should be expected to do.
In my opinion, this only adds fuel to the mommy-war flame, without really helping women (who experience great pressure from cultural norms opposing breastfeeding.)
To tell a woman that something is normal and expected physiologically (as it certainly is – just as heterosexual sex is normal and expected versus homosexual sex**) before it is normal and expected culturally is more likely to cause her additional anguish rather than to assist her in making a decision and holding to it.
As an aside, I would love to live in a world where breastfeeding was the cultural norm – where women breastfeeding was common and accepted and where bottles were not the ubiquitous symbol of a baby. I would love to live in a world where all husbands made enough money that their wives could stay home for a minimum of six months after delivering so they could breastfeed their babies (without having to pump and provide expressed breastmilk) – and where there were no husbandless mothers. But that is not the world we live in, so calling breastfeeding “normal” when it is not culturally so confuses the issue.
So I’m not a fan of the “normal” argument. Or at least I wasn’t until I read the following in Jack Newman and Teresa Pitman’s The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers:
“There is no evidence that what is called ‘breastmilk’ jaundice is bad for the baby. None. On the contrary, bilirubin may be good for the baby, protecting him from potentially damaging chemicals in the body. What we have here is a lack of understanding; that is, too many people do not understand that breastfeeding is the normal physiological method of feeding infants and young children. If most exclusively breastfed, well-gaining babies are jaundiced, then this is normal and not a concern. On the contrary, we should be concerned about babies fed with formula (advertised as being ‘close to breastmilk’) who are not jaundiced. What’s wrong with them that they are not jaundiced? The breastfed baby should be the model of what to expect, not the artificially fed baby.”
This argument, I can agree with wholeheartedly. It would be incredibly useful if medical practitioners got used to the reality that breastfeeding is the physiological norm – and evaluated babies accordingly. If medical practitioners had growth charts that expressed biological norms for breastfed babies instead of formula fed babies, it is likely that fewer women would be encouraged to supplement with formula. If medical practitioners understood biologically normal levels of bilirubin and blood sugars in the breastfed neonate, many more women would be able to successfully establish breastfeeding.
This is a “normal” argument I can get behind.
As another aside (in other words, stop reading if you’ve got hurts related to breastfeeding that are exacerbated by women celebrating breastfeeding), I love Newman and Pitman’s follow-up paragraph:
“For these reasons, there is no call to take the baby off the breast for 24 or 48 hours ‘to be sure that it is breastmilk jaundice,’ and to bring the baby’s bilirubin down to those of the artificially fed baby. In fact, logically, we should not be worrying the breastfeeding mother at all about her jaundiced baby. We should be saying to the formula-feeding mother, ‘Your baby’s bilirubin is too low. This is probably not dangerous, but just to make sure that it is the formula that is keeping his bilirubin too low, I would like you to put the baby to the breast for a few days, so that his bilirubin moves up into the normal range.’ That’s logical.”
**Please don’t misunderstand me, I am in no way suggesting that formula feeding and homosexual sex are at all morally equivalent. That is absolutely untrue. What is true is that they are both different from the physiological or biological norms.