First, it was that business outlawing supersize sodas. Now, the New York Times’ KJ Dell’Antonia reports that a backlash is brewing against NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s choice-restricting new breastfeeding initiative. Dell’Antonia writes that the policy, dubbed “Latch On NYC,” is designed “to promote breastfeeding, rather than formula, to the city’s new mothers.”

But it’s unclear exactly what the policy actually entails. Dell’Antonia links to reports that claim that mothers receiving formula from a hospital will be required to sign it out, like prescription medication. There are also reports that mothers requesting formula will be treated to a city-mandated lecture on the benefits of breastfeeding (a city spokesperson denies this is the case). What does appear to be true is that the details of implementation of the program are ambiguous and very much open to the interpretation of the particular hospital.

There are two aspects of this initiative that are a cause of concern to me. One is that it very likely dramatically exaggerates the benefits of breastfeeding. As this excellent 2009 Atlantic piece by Hana Rosin pointed out,

the medical literature [about breastfeeding] looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that [Christian parenting guru Dr. William] Sears describes.

At best, according to Rosin, extended breastfeeding does seem to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal infection. And it also may be associated with very small cognitive gains, but the cognitive findings are ambiguous, because they’re hard to measure and there are so many confounding factors involved.

But the most rigorous medical studies show that those are the only benefits that breastfeeding produces, as compared to formula. Moreover, those two small and not entirely unambiguous benefits of breastfeeding have to be measured against the potential costs. Some mothers cannot produce enough milk, and if they attempt to breastfeed, it can be harmful, rather than beneficial, to their babies’ health. Sometimes, this has even resulted in the tragic deaths of the infants involved.

The other thing to keep in mind is that breastfeeding consumes a great deal of time and energy on the part of the mother. It’s very difficult for women who work full-time to continue to breastfeed, particularly if those women work low-wage jobs and don’t have paid maternity leave or frequent breaks and private areas where they are able to pump their breast milk.

Certainly, every woman who wants to breastfeed should have the choice to do so, and we need workplace policies that will affirm and enable that choice. But women who make another choice should not be guilt-tripped into believing they’re bad moms. Mayor Bloomberg’s coercive breastfeeding initiative is just one more example of our society trying to force a perfectionist, intensive, extremely time-consuming norm of mothering on women, a norm that, if obeyed, tends to push them back into the home.

If we really want to do something to help kids, how about some more programs to help lower the truly shocking level of child poverty we have in this country? Sadly, the child poverty problem is only getting worse, not better. Dollars targeted toward at-risk kids in early childhood education programs would be a far wiser investment than Mayor Bloomberg’s nanny state breast police.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee