by Yining Su
Image credit: @monsterboox.
The recent Hong Kong infant formula-restrictions has led to a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of formula versus breast milk. Often, the attitude towards mainland parents desperate for safe formula is to question why they are not breastfeeding their babies. This includes Shanghaiist’s own coverage.
I would like to push back on that.
Time is money
Breastfeeding is an incredibly time-consuming activity. Babies need to be fed seven to 10 times a day, for half an hour at a time. This is a considerable amount of time, and difficult for working women to achieve. Women who want to breastfeed their children while working full time have to pump their milk every few hours and store it, including during work hours.
This is an incredible hassle, as Hanna Rosin’s provocative Atlantic story points out.
Women who breastfeed while working are at risk of leaking breastmilk onto their clothes at work and very few workplaces provide places to pump breastmilk. Rosin also questions how a woman who work as “say, a waitress or a bus driver” is supposed to do this.
That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.
It may be that, as some “lactivists” have countered, time spent with one’s baby is its own reward. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t forget that for financial reasons, some women have to spend their time working. Their time has more value in the workplace than with their baby.
The workplace solution
Ideally, workplaces should give generous maternity leave, with full pay for at least 6 months, as well as provide places for women to breastfeed or pump milk. (Like Rosin, let’s also leave aside women who work in non-white collar jobs).
At the risk of sounding like a typical China-apologist, I have to ask: Given that this isn’t the norm in most of the developed world, can we really expect it of China? American companies are obliged to provide only 12 weeks of maternity leave, unpaid at that. These are problems that China has not solved.
And, as a funny bit in Ariel Levy’s New Yorker story about women’s issues in Italy reminds us:
“This problem, which is really the problem of modern times, is not solved anywhere.”
“Well, Scandinavia,” Cristina said. “But it’s cold.”
In the absence of Scandinavian-style policies, the current condition in China isn’t awful. The law mandates that companies must provide for four months of paid maternity leave. In China, 71.1 percent of women between the ages of 18-64 work. In America, only 58 percent of working age women are in the workforce.
The medical argument
Those of you who have spent considerable time in the West, have, I am sure, heard that breastmilk is better than formula.
There have been claims that breastfeeding increases babies’ IQ. That it lowers the risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, allergies, and a whole lot more.
But as Rosin points out in her piece, and as Texas A&M professor Joan Wolf has argued in the book Is Breast Best?, the studies that show a correlation between breastfeeding and higher IQ or better health do not necessarily show causation.
There are a whole other host of factors that can contribute to the correlation. Women who are wealthier and who have university degrees are more likely to breastfeed exclusively and for longer than women who have low incomes, and less education.
If you have more money and education, you might be buying your children educational toys, reading to them and helping them develop cognitive skills. You might have more time to notice your child is sick and take her to the doctor immediately. You might feed your child healthier food.
Breastmilk doesn’t necessarily factor into it at all.
Information is important. If it is true, as Theresa Thorniley in the Telegraph claims, based on her own experience, that hospitals in China do not provide adequate information for mothers who wish to breastfeed, then this is a problem that should be remedied. And if it is true that mothers in China are misled into believing that infant formula has great properties that it does not, that is a problem that should also be remedied.
Certainly, a greater number of women in China should perhaps be persuaded to breastfeed, if they cannot afford formula they think is safe. But if they cannot breastfeed for physical or economic reasons, then no one should make them feel guilty.
Either way, the decision on whether to breastfeed and for how long is for the mother, perhaps with the help of her partner, to decide.