It's not exactly a secret that breastfeeding has some incredible benefits for mothers and babies alike. From its ability to fight off infections to its capability of slashing SIDS risk, breastfeeding has some straight-up super powers. And yet, moms across America frequently report being discouraged from nursing in public places even as public health organizations encourage us too.
With society being so judgmental of nursing mothers, some moms seek out private corners or end up in restrooms for nursing breaks, while others choose to pump and bring a bottle along when taking the baby out in public.
A new survey from Aeroflow published Tuesday found 28% of women do not believe new moms should be allowed to breastfeed (or pump) in public, and 22% of men agreed (although legally, moms can breastfeed in public in every state).
There is nothing wrong with pumping or formula-feeding (and we're very thankful to have both options) but there is something wrong when a society doesn't support nursing because research suggests that the bacterial benefits to a baby's immune system and metabolism are particular to breastfeeding, not just breast milk.
"We found that milk bacteria are different in mothers who pump their milk," says Meghan Azad, PhD, a University of Manitoba researcher behind this science. "We suspect that pumping may prevent the transfer of oral bacteria from the infant to the mother and might introduce other bacteria from the pump. Therefore, contrary or in addition to the hypothesis that milk bacteria come from the mother's gut, our results suggest that the infant's oral bacteria are important in shaping the milk microbiota."
This finding, which appears in Cell Host and Microbe, is based on the observation of 393 mother/child pairs. According to the research, mode of delivery can have a major effect on breast milk's makeup—which is to say, whether it comes from the breast or a bottle.
This news is definitely interesting and important, but it may be discouraging to so many moms out there. Nursing a baby directly just isn't always in the cards, after all. Moms who work outside the home, those whose babies have NICU time, those who deal with latch issues, or who don't have maternity leave or experience supply issues...so many of these women rely on pumping to maintain the breastfeeding relationship with their babies.
This science does not take away from that, but it does suggest that more public support for mothers is needed if public health experts want babies and moms to benefit from breastfeeding.
No matter what, whatever you do for your baby—whether that's nursing, offering bottled breast milk, using formula, or some combination (because breastfeeding doesn't have to be all or nothing)—is beneficial and amazing. Because ultimately, it's about doing what works best for you and your family.
The researchers believe these findings give us some context about the powers of breastfeeding and indicate the need for more research. And while this may help us learn more about why nursing from the breast may carry a health advantage that pumping can't quite replicate, there's still a lot of value in bottle-feeding breast milk. Pumping is so hard and time-consuming—but it also represents a game-changing opportunity for moms who want to give their babies breast milk but can't (or choose not to) feed straight from the breast.
Take comfort in this: Much of the magic of breast milk remains when a mom pumps and feeds it to her baby in a bottle. "The number one thing that influences [a baby's gut microbiome] is what they're being fed," Azad tells the New York Times. "In some ways that message isn't for individual moms, but for society overall."
Ultimately, these findings are worth thinking about, and if they're encouraging you to nurse through your maternity leave or when you're able to be with your baby, that's great. But at the end of the day, figuring out the ideal feeding solution for your baby is a choice that involves so many factors.
Nursing from the breast may carry awesome benefits, but so does pumping while at the office, offering bottles to a baby who won't latch, finding peace in formula feeding, and any other solution that happens to work for you and your child.
Moms are just trying to do their best for their babies. It's time for society to support moms in all kinds of infant feeding, including nursing from the breast (even if they're at the pool).