More on breast-feeding from the Times

Op-Ed contributor Judith Warner takes another look at the paper's breast vs. bottle reporting.

Published June 23, 2006 5:27PM (EDT)

The kerfuffle continues! Late last night, New York Times "Domestic Disturbances" blogger Judith Warner posted a critique (subscription required) of the government's new breast-feeding scare campaign and the subsequent Times story detailing the dangers of bottle feeding. Her piece makes many of the points that Broadsheet's Lori Leibovich made last week -- that the Times failed to emphasize that some of the studies on the benefits of breast-feeding have been more conclusive than others, and that the paper failed to ask these finger-shaking government experts how a working mother is supposed to breast-feed exclusively for six months -- but it's a relief to see those criticisms coming from within the Times.

Especially since Warner is pissed. "Last Tuesday's Science Times article on the U.S. government's public awareness campaign to promote breast-feeding left me feeling queasy," Warner begins. But, she clarifies, "not because I question the superior benefits for babies and mothers of breast- over bottle-feeding.

"Rather, I think -- and let me not mince words here -- that bullying women into breast-feeding and vilifying those who don't is disgusting."

Regarding the scaremongering public service ads that compare bottle feeding with riding a mechanical bull while pregnant, Warner notes that the Times article "neglected to say was that the American Academy of Pediatrics -- hardly an enemy of breast-feeding -- had found the ads so aggressively negative, and some of the science supporting them so questionable, it had decided not to support the campaign."

Warner notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics' breast-feeding division disagreed with the academy's decision not to support the ads. She went ahead and asked one of the members of the breast-feeding division, who also helped with the medical review for the mechanical-bull ad campaign, whether moms who don't breast-feed are really as criminally negligent as a pregnant woman who rides bulls or goes logrolling. And the expert, pediatrician and professor, Ruth Lawrence, said yes. "I suppose so," Lawrence answered, "because you could fall off a log and not get hurt at all."

Wait, bottle feeding is riskier than falling off a log? Warner calls on the scientific director of the Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Michael Kramer, for the answer. Which is no.

Bottle feeding "is not the same as dropping a baby out of a third-floor window," Kramer says. "It's not even as bad as driving without a car seat. It may be as bad, though, as smoking during pregnancy or at home. You're talking about an increase in risk. If a kid is dumb and the mother formula-fed, can you blame the formula? No. At the level of individual people, you can't make these one-to-one links."

The thrust of Warner's piece is that it's reprehensible for the government to attempt to scare mothers into breast-feeding without providing the social support that would make that decision feasible for moms who have to work. And that really is the central disconnect in this maddening mother blaming.

But she also wonders why it's acceptable for the government to beat up on mothers this way. "I can't imagine doctors and public health officials bullying and condescending in this way to any group in America other than mothers," she writes. "I can't imagine any other group taking it, or the public at large showing such tolerance for it. But mommy-bashing is nothing new. It just mutates to fit the changing times."

For our particular times, mommy-bashing has taken the form of a mechanical bull. How sad is that?

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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