A recent New York Times story (Feb. 10, 2011) reported that the IRS has granted new tax breaks to working mothers for "pumps and other breastfeeding supplies" so that they may provide breast milk for their babies. First Lady Michelle Obama has also begun promoting breastfeeding because of its apparent link to lower obesity rates in children.
This high-level interest in, of all things, breastfeeding, is a good example of a reversal of a fashionable orthodoxy. It marks a departure from maternity practices of the 1950s, when breastfeeding was widely discouraged by medical professionals in favor of "formula."
According to a 2006 online article in the International Breastfeeding Journal,
Advertising also has tended to promote the idea of "scientific motherhood," particularly since the 1950s. . . . [B]rochures and advertisements in the 1950s commonly promoted the modernity of infant formula and associated the use of scientific developments with quality parenting.
The word formula itself suggests a scientific basis for its creation and an implied superiority. The majority of (even stay-at-home) mothers were persuaded to give their babies infant formula—despite the extra work and expense of bottles, sterilization, and preparation time—because medical science assured them it was for the best. Breastfeeding rates declined precipitously, reaching their lowest point in the early 1970s.
However, a few researchers studied the properties of breast milk, which is now believed to have health benefits that formula can't deliver, including "protections against asthma and other respiratory illnesses, bacterial and viral infections, and obesity, among other ailments," according to Dr. O. Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Times article noted:
A study by Harvard Medical School last year showed that if 90 percent of mothers followed the standard medical advice of feeding infants only breast milk for their first six months, the United States could save $13 billion a year in health care costs and prevent the premature deaths of 900 infants each year from respiratory illness and other infections. (emphasis added)
So what was standard medical advice in 1950—formula for newborns—has now been reversed. The change is due, at least in part, to a better scientific grasp of nature: most people now acknowledge that nature has enabled a mother's body to produce the optimal food for her baby. Thus, as the Times story also noted, 75 percent of the 4.3 million mothers who gave birth in 2007 started breastfeeding.
But producing breast milk is not an isolated function of motherhood; it is one part of an intricately coordinated whole that includes sexual desire, ovulation, sexual intercourse, conception, childbearing, childbirth, lactation, breastfeeding, nurturing, bonding, weaning, and imparting the tools of self-awareness to infants through language and touch. All these things are parts of a whole cloth of motherhood—whose threads are not just biological but also emotional and psychological. And they extend beyond the woman herself to encompass her whole family.
Thus, if what is natural is to be preferred in the case of breastfeeding, we might also expect it to be preferable with regard to other aspects of motherhood and family life—love, marriage, sex, conception, childbearing, childrearing, and so forth. But since none of these things is isolated from the others, we should also seek the most natural and optimal way to approach them as a whole. Would we not then conclude that the traditional two-parent family, in which traditional morals are upheld, is the most natural? Research indeed shows that both children and parents do best in such families.
Given the stakes—human life, love, marriage, and our children—it is worth the attempt to uphold the natural family. Otherwise, another generation will be given the wrong formula for love and marriage, and miss out on the whole and natural truth about themselves.
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