Is Breast Best? Joan Wolf, cleanliness and cake.

Did you know that as a breastfeeding mother, you will eat more vegetables, have a cleaner house, talk more and read more?

Yes, apparently these are the benefits of being a breastfeeding mother. Not those other ones, you know, the health outcomes like lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes. And that’s just for the mother of course. 

So Joan Wolf says, anyway. The author of ‘Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood’  states that actually, the evidence that supports these health outcomes is weak – and the reason for that is that mothers who submit themselves to the LABOUR of breastfeeding are naturally cleaner, vegetablier, readier and talkier people. Thus making the scientific study of health outcomes fundementally flawed.

Oh, and notice the use of the word ‘labour’ there. Yes, it is true breastfeeding is something that takes a lot of time and (in the early days, perhaps) effort. But in fact, Joan Wolf argues that breastfeeding actually costs a lot if you take into account that a woman should be paid for her time – if she wasn’t breastfeeding she could be hard at work earning lots of money, paying someone else for the privilege of feeding her baby. So – that’s why breastfeeding isn’t actually free. Another common ‘benefit’ mothers are – apparently wrongly – made aware of.  

Except…someone else is feeding the baby, aren’t they? And that’s still costing time and money. Despite the invention of various baby feeding contraptions (, babies can’t actually successfully feed themselves for quite a while. Even when they can, they still need someone to actually prepare the bottle for them, be it filled with expressed milk or formula. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think most mothers spend quite a lot of time feeding their babies – whatever method they choose.

And what of the mothers who really, really want to breastfeed but can’t for whatever reason. Do they have messier houses, less vegetables and sit in silence staring at blank pieces of paper because, y’know, they’re formula feeders and they just don’t read as much?

What about the mothers who choose to formula feed from day one, and maintain immaculately clean houses, eat their five a day and talk and read non-stop from morning til night? 

I chose to breastfeed my children, and I invite Joan Wolf to come and view my house. ‘Clean’ is a word I think I can really only dream of. In the beginning, when I was unable to breastfeed the Wee Man and did give him formula for a few weeks, I think my house was in fact cleaner, far far cleaner, than it is now. And as I moved on to breastfeeding, well, it became less filled with vegetables and more filled with cake. (Because, well, you need 500 extra calories a day to breastfeed and so why not get them from cake?*)

Cleanliness and cake aside, Joan Wolf argues that aside from the apparent weak evidence of the health benefits (due to flawed methods of observational science) as discussed above, there are two other factors that are used to influence mothers towards breastfeeding – the modern obsession with removing risk, and the ‘ideology of total motherhood’ which dictates that a mother should eliminate all risks to her children where possible, regardless of any impact this has on her own wellbeing.

Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the terminology ‘breast is best’ rather than the phrase ‘not breastfeeding is risky’ kind of counteracts that argument. Modern mothers aren’t urged to breastfeed to minimise risks. They’re told to do it because it is ‘better than formula’. And they’re also told that formula is perfectly safe. So why would you believe you are removing a risk, if you don’t percieve there to be a risk in the first place?

Equally, I think most mothers – no matter which way they feed their baby – would tell you that they would happily protect their baby’s life without thought for their own. It’s not something specific to breastfeeding or not!

In regard to the science bit, it’s true that it’s impossible to account for all the individual factors of different mums and their babies, to completely rule out the role of environmental influences on how healthy they and their children are. But since it’s also true that the nutritional content of breastmilk is only 76% of it, with the remaining 24% being made up of protection and development factors (something that can’t be replicated by formula) then it seems very likely that breastmilk does have a part to play in the difference in health outcomes.**

And I say ‘difference’ there not ‘improvement’, because actually, breastfeeding is the natural, human way of feeding a baby and therefore I see the health outcomes of breastfeeding as being a baseline level, not an elevated beneficial one. Yes, Joan Wolf – breast is not ‘best’, it’s normal.

It’s also normal for a mother to spend time feeding her child. It’s normal for a new mother to let the housework slip, and not to really mind because her oxytocin levels are relaxing her and letting her enjoy just ‘being’ with her baby.

It’s impossible to generalise the cleanliness of mothers houses based on the feeding methods they employ. But it is possible to demonstrate that breastfed babies suffer less ear infections, incidents of gastroenteritis, urine infections and incidences of childhood leukaemia than their formula fed peers, for example. And that’s why I don’t agree with Joan Wolf. Well, one of the reasons, anyway.


If you’d like to hear more of Joan Wolf’s theories, she’s talking about them at the University of Kent at Canterbury this Wednesday at 6pm – free to attend and should be pretty interesting!



*Ok, I didn’t just eat cake. But I do think that the correlation between breastfeeding and cake consumption is probably a fairly positive one!

**I haven’t just make that up. You can read all about it in ‘The Immunobiology of Human Milk’ by Lars Hanson


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