Campaigns that encourage women to breastfeed may be doing more harm than good by stigmatizing moms who choose not to breastfeed, two researchers from the U.K. claim.

In an interview with WebMD, one of the researchers charged that the “breast is best” campaigns have turned a debate about nutrition into a “politicized moral crusade.” He says women often feel pressured to breastfeed and are made to feel inadequate if they can’t or won’t.

He further criticized those he calls “breastfeeding zealots” for refusing to present both sides of the issue.

“We need a more grown-up debate about breastfeeding,” says sociologist and author Frank Furedi of the University of Kent. “What is needed is a proper discussion that isn’t centered on whether breast versus bottle-feeding is morally good or bad.”

Read Web MD's "Making the Breastfeeding Decision."

Educating Moms

Breastfeeding proponent Ruth Lawrence, MD, couldn’t disagree more strongly with Furedi’s claim that women who don’t breastfeed are made to feel like second-class mothers. She says her own research on the subject shows just the opposite.

Lawrence tells WebMD that the breastfeeding campaigns she helped write simply highlight the many benefits of breastfeeding.

Lawrence is director of the Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Study Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and she is on the breastfeeding committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The AAP recommends that women breastfeed exclusively for six months, and continue breastfeeding for at least a year.

“What we are doing is giving mothers the facts so that they can make their own informed decisions,” she says. “For years the formula companies put out the message that bottle-feeding was just as good as breast. Now their goal is to discredit the campaigns that aim to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding.”

Read Web MD's "Common Breastfeeding Problems."

Attitudes Toward Breastfeeding

She says Furedi’s research, which was funded by a group of formula manufacturers in the U.K., is just the latest effort in the pursuit of this goal.

Furedi is a sociologist who is known for tackling a wide range of provocative societal issues. His 2002 book Paranoid Parenting urges parents to trust their own instincts rather than defer to the “experts.” Furedi’s 2003 book Therapy Culture challenges the value of psychotherapy as it is practiced in today’s society.

Along with University of Kent colleague Ellie Lee, PhD, Furedi surveyed roughly 500 new moms about their attitudes toward breastfeeding. A total of 63 percent responded that a woman should breastfeed if possible, but roughly the same number stated that supplementing breastfeedings with formula feedings was necessary on occasion.

Less than a third (29 percent) of the women who intended to breastfeed exclusively were doing so by the time their baby was 6 months old.

Of the women who fed their babies formula during this time, 32 percent expressed a sense of failure about not breastfeeding, 48 percent said they were not certain they were doing the right thing, and 23 percent were worried about what their health care provider would say.

And one in five surveyed moms worried that feeding their baby formula during their first six months of life would have a negative impact on their future health.

Lee tells WebMD that many of the moms in the survey worried that feeding their babies formula would increase their risk for developing conditions such as asthma and eczema. Multiple studies have shown the benefits that breastfeeding has to infants, especially in developing countries. But Lee says that doesn’t necessarily mean that formula-fed babies are at high risk.

What has happened, she says, is that a perfectly reasonable and evidence-based argument regarding the health advantages of breast milk has gotten turned into an argument that formula milk is intrinsically bad.

Furedi agrees that, all things being equal, breastfeeding is better for babies than bottle-feeding. But he says moms who chose bottle-feeding for whatever reason should not be intimidated by what others think.

“This is a choice that a woman should make based on her own circumstances. It is not one that society should make for her,” he says.

Read Web MD's "Myths About Breastfeeding."

Read Web MD's "Your Nutritional Needs While Breastfeeding."

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Lee, E.J. “Mother’s Experience of, and Attitudes to, Using Infant Formula in the Early Months,” University of Kent press, June 2005. Frank Furedi, professor of sociology and Ellie Lee, PhD, University of Kent, Kent, UK. Ruth Lawrence, MD, neonatologist, director, Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Study Center, University of Rochester Medical Center.