"Scientific" Provocateur: Does Bottle-Feeding Simulate A Baby's Death?S

The latest criticism of bottle-feeding comes from evolutionary psychologists (and a writer who once had some choice words for this website): if you don't breastfeed, your body might think your baby died.

Scientific American's resident provocateur Jesse Bering, who once cited Jezebel as an example of "acts of social aggression" among women, tackles bottle-feeding in the somewhat creepily titled article "Breasts in Mourning." He cites a study by evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup and colleagues. The study says,

Opting not to breastfeed precludes and/or brings all of the processes involved in lactation to a halt. For most of human evolution the absence or early cessation of breastfeeding would have been occasioned by miscarriage, loss, or death of a child. We contend, therefore, that at the level of her basic biology a mother's decision to bottle feed unknowingly simulates child loss.

The evidence: mothers who bottle-feed score higher on one measure of depression than breast-feeding moms, even after controlling for age, education, and socioeconomic and relationship status. Also, bottle-feeding moms apparently want to hold their babies more than those who breast-feed do. Somewhat bizarrely, the study authors believe this desire "parallels findings among nonhuman primates where in response to the death of an infant, mothers of some species have been known to tenaciously hold, cling to, and carry their infants for prolonged periods after they die." To which this admittedly lay-reader responds — don't moms like to hold their living infants too?

Bering does admit that "these women may simply want to make up for lost bonding time that would otherwise occur during breastfeeding." He also cautions that "the reasons for bottle-feeding are complex and many, and not all women have the luxury of a choice in this regard." However, he winds up his article (which is illustrated, somewhat incongruously, with a picture of Bering himself in front of some water) with the statement, "the present logic may give new meaning to the expression 'breast is best'-if not for infants, then at least for their mothers."

There may be physiological and psychological advantages to breast-feeding, but we're not yet convinced that "not treating your baby like a corpse" is one of them. Might the elevated depression bottle-feeding moms experience be caused not by a subconscious belief that the baby is dead, but by wanting to breast-feed and not being able to? If so, couldn't more paid maternity leave and flexible work hours help alleviate the problem? Moms who don't breast-feed may also feel inadequate, perhaps as a result of pro-breast-feeding rhetoric. We should be making it possible for mothers to breast-feed if they want to and physically can, but for those who can't — for medical or other reasons — giving yet another "new meaning" to "breast is best" isn't all that helpful.

Breasts In Mourning: How Bottle-Feeding Mimics Child Loss In Mothers' Brains [Scientific American]