The Great Debate: Is Breast Really Best?
For more than 200 million years, a mother’s milk was all that humans and more than 6,000 species of animals on our planet needed for an adequate start at life—at least until 1865 when a young german chemist named Justus von Liebig created the first powdered formula made from cow’s milk and began rewriting the script.
While formula did benefit many babies whose mothers were unable to breastfeed, Liebig unknowingly ignited an issue that would later catch fire and call into question the validity of nature’s timeless tonic for assuring survival of a great many species on Earth: breast milk.
These days it seems that there are as many experts touting the benefits of breast milk as there are champions of choice encouraging modern mothers to maximize their resources and embrace a “formula is best” mentality when needed.
To an extent, this makes sense. Breast milk is unequivocally nature’s perfect superfood, but breastfeeding itself comes with a sizeable learning curve, as well as cultural and societal barriers that prevent many women from reaching their goals of breastfeeding beyond six months.
And while breastfeeding isn’t possible for everyone, the research is clear that breast milk really is the best choice for every baby when looking through the microbial lens at the infant gut microbiome.
Why Empowering Breastfeeding Mothers Is Important
I’m the first to admit that my understanding of the microbiome and my body’s bacteria has radically shifted my perspective about breastfeeding over the years. Empowerment around nursing and natural feeding was simply not something that I personally tapped into until my third child was born last year.
I remember so vividly how difficult those first days, weeks, and months were with my eldest two. I’d read the research on the benefits of breastfeeding and I was determined to make it work; however, the same series of barriers that weigh heavily on all women took their toll on me as well.
Like most parents experience, from the moment I found out I was expecting, the unsolicited flooding of tips and advice about how and what we should feed our first daughter came rolling in with a vengeance.
Well-intentioned friends and family would say things to presumably let me off the hook in anticipation of the difficulties with breastfeeding like, “Don’t knock formula until you try it. Just don’t stress yourself out too much about breastfeeding,” or, “Breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone.”
Back then, this message kept replaying itself over and over in my mind that there was a question mark as to whether or not I would be able to successfully feed my child with my body; as if we weren’t perfectly made to fit together. At that time, I didn’t have any friends who were breastfeeding longer than a couple of months.
I’ve always had a gut feeling about trusting my natural instincts, but as many women can attest to, adhering to your instincts in our conventional world isn’t always easy. Deflated by the same series of issues experienced by many women who try to breastfeed—like going back to work, latch problems, postpartum mayhem, and little family support to cheer me on—I ended up supplementing with formula early on and then giving up on breastfeeding entirely, despite what I thought at the time were my best efforts.
How Understanding the Microbiome Changed the Way I Saw Breastfeeding
With my first child, I remember specifically telling myself, “Hey, I’ll try this out and if it doesn’t work, there’s always formula. I’ll just plan to go three months and see where we’re at.” Essentially, I was giving myself a guilt-free out, and since the road was challenging, I took it. By the four month mark, I had fully transitioned both of my girls over to formula.
In all that time that I was trying to nurse my daughters, I was also in hot pursuit of a career I could love. I bounced from company to company, all of whom offered the bare minimum of a few weeks of unpaid leave. Of course, I could write them a check for my health insurance because they decidedly weren’t going to pay for that either while I was away on FMLA leave. It can be unconscionable the way many employers treat expecting and nursing mothers.
Without encouragement at home or the example of friends, my drive to pump religiously withered and I loved on my babies with their bottles. I was and am still proud of these decisions, despite knowing what I know now.
After my second child, Goldie, arrived, I found my professional fit at Hyperbiotics and began building out a shared dream and vision of how we could redefine health based around the last 10 years of microbial research. I had taken probiotics for years for my skin, but I wasn’t necessarily intimately familiar with the biology behind what was really happening within the body and the crucial role of breast milk on the developing human immune system. When you first start learning about the microbiome, it all goes back to birth.
A learner by nature, I was fascinated by this new world beneath the microscope. New synapses were firing in my brain constantly as I transformed from employee to student and discovered that the core of the immune system is based on how our microbiome develops.
Mode of delivery, first baths, skin-to-skin contact, breast milk, formula—all of these play an enormous role in how your baby’s immune system, their foundation of health, develops. Breast milk also provides and promotes good bacteria, which is one reason why many nursing moms will notice that their baby’s bowel movements don’t smell until they start giving formula and/or solid foods. Because the microbes in your baby’s intestine are supported by the natural probiotics and prebiotics in breast milk, nursing your child essentially gives them the right mix of beneficial bacteria they need to kickstart their immunity the way nature intended.
When I stop to think about the rampant immune struggles in my family and even in my girls at the time, it just all began to click. A sick knot formed in my throat as I thought of all that I could have done better for my babies in learning about their precious microbes and the importance of seeding their microbiomes properly.
It’s a strange world we live in when breastfeeding is a divisive topic. I think it’s likely because none of us feel like we’re doing it right, and it’s a bit of a sucker punch to feel like we’re failing at something that we’re inherently “meant” to do.
It hit me hard. So hard that I even tried to reintroduce breastfeeding to my second child (who was having none of it). Luckily, a couple years later I would get another shot at breastfeeding and putting all that I’d learned into practice.
By the time my third child came into the picture, I knew that I had to be proactive about getting the support I needed and shouting the benefits of breastfeeding from the rooftops. I visualized myself feeding her until she was ready to stop, not vice versa. Rather than quiety suffer when a bad latch made its appearance, I quickly called a lactation consultant at the hospital. The bottom line: I had an inherent knowing that I was going to make this work.
How to Find Empowerment as a Breastfeeding Mom
Unfortunately, despite the ample scientific evidence on the importance of breastfeeding—and recommendations from the World Health Organization that moms breastfeed exclusively for six months, followed by two or more years of continued nursing—our society makes it very difficult for women to make the breastfeeding choices that are best for their babies.
One of the most prevalent problems is that many employers don’t offer new moms paid maternity leave; indeed, just 13% of workers in the United States have access to paid parental leave. And without compensated time off those first few weeks to navigate the bumps and intricacies of nursing, it can be hard for moms to establish a good breastfeeding routine.
But when you look at the statistics, the truth is that as a society, we just can’t afford not to breastfeed—the health and economic consequences are too dire:
• If every baby was breastfed within an hour of being born, exclusively for the first six months, and continued up to age two, it would save around 800,000 children’s lives every year
• Breastfeeding improves kids’ school attendance, IQ, and eventual income potential
• For kids, breastfeeding reduces the risk of chronic diseases and obesity later in life
• Low breastfeeding rates around the world are associated with global economic losses of $302 billion
• Not being breastfed as an infant is associated with an increased incidence and risk of infectious morbidity, ear infection, stomach flu, pneumonia, childhood obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, leukemia, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
• In premature infants, not consuming breast milk is associated with an increased risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
• For mothers, the inability to breastfeed can lead to increased incidence of ovarian cancer, premenopausal breast cancer, retained gestational weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome
• Worldwide, only 45% of babies are breastfed within an hour of birth Only 43% of babies globally breastfeed exclusively for six months
• From 12 to 23 months of age, breastfeeding rates around the world drop from 74% to 46%
My personal journey to breastfeed has been a bumpy one, but it’s brought to light just how paramount it is that we empower and encourage women to stay the course. With determination and fierce intention, we can bring the number of babies who breastfeed past the age of five months up from it’s current 43% marker.
As someone who has fallen short of my ideal attempts at breastfeeding, here are a few of the things I’ve learned that I believe can help redefine how we approach nursing and how we can empower others to stay the course.
1. Breast milk is really best for your baby. It’s not the only way of nourishing children and many babies make it on formula alone—I’m one of them! But it’s important to know that in a world where breast milk is often looked at as just another option for first foods for infants, it’s truly nature’s “miracle grow.” Here’s a look at some must-read information to help you really understand exactly why breast milk is so critical to the foundation of our health and lives.
2. Normalizing breastfeeding starts at home. Growing up, you could always find me with my baby in one hand and her little bottle clutched in the other. The first of three girls, I distinctly remember the sweet, plastic smell of my stuffed babies whom I loved, kissed, and cooed; always feeding them their little white and pink bottles that accompanied their packaging.
The concept of breastfeeding was one that simply did not exist in my home during my youth. I honestly have no memory of learning about it until I was in college. My mom was born with a hemangioma covering her left arm and breast and, due to radiation treatments popular back then for treating such skin conditions, she wasn’t able to breastfeed. We were all well-loved, formula fed babies who grew up to be healthy-ish adults. We struggled with seasonal sensitivities and the usual bugs, but for most of my life those were just some truths that I’d come to know: allergies just kind of happen. Babies drink their bottles. Life goes on.
The more we can reintroduce breast milk and breastfeeding into our homes and communities, the more normal it will be for small children, and the more likely they’ll be to follow the example set for them.
3. You have to keep your eye on the prize and find the support you need. One of the biggest reasons it was difficult for me was that I had mentally prepared to stop nursing before I’d even started.
If you think about it in terms of training for a run, if you prepare to run 5 miles but then the race ends up being 28 miles long, of course you’re going to say yes to the first motorbiker who offers you a lift to the finish line. You’re exhausted, unprepared, and desperately in search of someone to rescue you from what seems like a road that has no end in sight. However, if you mentally train and prepare for all 28 miles of that long slog (and ideally have some friends and family on the sidelines holding posters with your name on them), it’s easy to get to the finish line. You’re likely to wave on any assistance because you’ve trained for this; you trust yourself and you know you can make it through to the end for the benefit of your child. This simple but integral shift made all of the difference for me. With my first two, I thought I could breastfeed; with my third I had a knowing that nothing would stop me. And nothing did.
4. Your job matters. Indeed, it does. You spend the majority of your day, every day, working to support your family. Sadly, the U.S. is one of just three countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid time off for new moms. Again, only 43% of babies worldwide breastfeed exclusively for six months, a milestone that is incredibly difficult to reach without the support of your employer or a flexible work situation, and many women do not have that support.
When you consider that 40% of babies born in the U.S. don’t have a secure attachment with their parents (which leads to aggressiveness, hyperactivity, and poor language skills), and that securely attached kids have lower stress levels, better regulation of emotions, and constructive coping skills, it drives home the argument that society and our businesses can and should be doing a better job of making breastfeeding a viable option for expecting mothers.
5. A common community is so important. I live in a small town in Texas in which even medical professionals tend to give a little side-eye when they see a breastfeeding mother. I remember taking my youngest daughter to the doctor’s office and the pediatrician was visibly aghast to see that I was nursing my child without a cover in her office. “Sorry,” she said, “it still catches me off guard sometimes.” What kind of world are we living in where pediatricians are taken aback when faced with the sight of a mother nursing her newborn? Living without community and the consensus that breast milk is most ideal makes it incredibly difficult to find success.
Luckily, the one differentiating factor I had with my youngest—that I didn’t have with my first or second babies—was community. I had my Hyperbiotics team by my side and a newfound community of proud, breastfeeding mothers. Without ongoing support and encouragement, it’s easy to find ourselves weighed down by the heaviness of expectations and judgements of others, particularly when we’re postpartum and feeling more alone than we ever thought was possible. Community is truly key.
6. Trust your baby. Trust yourself. If you want to know the biggest secret to making breastfeeding work, it’s trust. All too often, women are hearing things like, “If it’s not working, maybe your baby has a problem with your milk,” or the classic, “your baby is probably allergic to dairy.” As woo woo as it may sound, I was determined not to fall victim to feeling like my baby wasn’t made to be nourished by my body. She wasn’t going to need more than I had, and I wasn’t going to have anything she didn’t need. I had faith that we are perfectly made for each other and that it would all work out. I completely put any fear that it wouldn’t work out of my head.
Cultural expectations are often deeply ingrained and can inhibit us from moving forward based on what our instincts are telling us. In some cases, we get nervous that our little baby isn’t getting enough from what our body has to give them. And this all goes back to trust in ourselves and in the intelligence of nature.
How Hyperbiotics Empowers Breastfeeding Moms
Our team (which includes several nursing moms) at Hyperbiotics is determined to empower women everywhere who would like the opportunity to breastfeed their children based on the incredible research surrounding microbial health and breast milk.
At Hyperbiotics, we support our own nursing mothers by offering paid maternity leave with access to a flexible work schedule, family-friendly meetings, and ongoing emotional and educational support for any who may be struggling. We’re proud to boast a 100% successful breastfeeding rate for all of the moms at Hyperbiotics who choose to breastfeed, and we look forward to making this empowering shift more of a trend in our industry and across the board for working mothers.
Impassioned by the importance of women being able to choose to breastfeed for as long as they’d like simply because it’s good for the health of all humans, supporting and advocating for breastfeeding has become fundamental to our mission.
This past March, we launched changeforwomen.org, a collective of brands devoted to supporting many causes for women, including empowerment to nurse.
What’s more, because of our work with Robin Lim at Bumi Sehat, a gentle birthing clinic in Indonesia, I began to understand the importance of breastfeeding as a key component to a safe, secure, connected, and loving entry into this world. Robin believes that we could revolutionize the planet through gentle births and gentle mothering. I now agree.
Rallying Support for Breastfeeding Women
It’s maddening that in our ultra-convenient and modern world, the way we nourish our babies is strangely joining the ranks of deeply polarizing topics like religion or politics; the kind of thing you generally avoid chatting about at dinner with brand new friends or posting about on social media.
How has the most natural and normal act in the world become so oddly unnatural?
The truth is that if we don’t come out of the closet and start talking about what it really takes to successfully breastfeed, if we don’t empower new moms to stay on the path to heightened health for their children, and if we don’t let others see (physically, with their eyes) the beauty of a nursing mother and her child, then we will likely see generation after generation of both cultural disapproval and mothers who aren’t equipped for the long-distance run required for happy and sustained breastfeeding.
If you have overcome the pitfalls of modern parenting and breastfeeding, want to feel more supported in your own journey, or simply want to empower future mothers, we want to hear your story. Join us on Instagram this month as we share our experiences and work to inspire real change with our #EmpoweredNursing campaign.
Julie Hays is the Communications Director here at Hyperbiotics. Health writer and mama of three little girls, Julie's on a mission to empower others to live lives free of the microbial depletion many of us face today. For more ideas on how you can maximize wellness and benefit from the power of probiotics, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.