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Kara Spak: N.Y. Mayor Bloomberg is wrong on breast-feeding

A mother breast-feeds her 3-week-old son.  | John H. White~Sun-Times file photo

A mother breast-feeds her 3-week-old son. | John H. White~Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: September 1, 2012 6:09AM

I was the world’s greatest breast-feeder before my baby was born. Breast was best, I firmly believed, and my baby would get nothing but that, for at least one year.

At baby showers, I received breast-feeding pillows and a stylish cloth for the discreet, public breast-feeder. My husband and I attended a breast-feeding class, thinking he could help troubleshoot any issues. I was sure there wouldn’t be any. After all, what is more natural?

In those first, magic moments after my daughter was born, a nurse helped her latch on. Zoe promptly fell asleep. She fell asleep several hours later while nursing in our hospital room, and again in the middle of the night. The next day brought more of the same.

“Use a washcloth, tickle her feet, anything to get her to wake up and eat,” the nurse told my husband and me.

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg is issuing his own wake-up call to the city’s new mothers, asking public hospitals to lock up baby formula, part of a program designed to improve the city’s breast-feeding rates. Nurses will need to sign formula out like medicine.

It’s a worthy goal, but the mayor might want to rethink how to get there.

My formula wasn’t locked up. I refused to give it to my baby. A first-time mom, I figured if she were hungry, she would eat.

By day four, we were rubbing ice cubes on the soles of her tiny feet to try to wake her up. Day five was a weigh-in with her pediatrician, who promptly scribbled down the number for a lactation consultant.

I was crying when I called her, and again when she arrived the next morning. My baby wasn’t crying — Zoe was sleeping, and her temperature was too low. We were sent to the emergency room.

Two days later, we went home knowing our baby was healthy, but we needed to use formula. My body just wasn’t giving her what she needed.

Feeling like a total failure, I turned to my friends, who overwhelmingly support breast-feeding. Their reaction stunned me. One after another, they told me about their problems with breast-feeding, too.

These days, many women no longer have family nearby who can guide them through this. The hospital staff where I gave birth, one of the best in the state, offered little more than hints. Back home, my lactation consultants were compassionate women determined to make this work. But learning the natural art of breast-feeding was not cheap.

The lactation consultant was $175; two breast-feeding clinics I attended were $45 each. I rented a hospital-grade breast pump for $85 a month. None of this was covered by insurance.

The secret no one tells you is that breast-feeding might be natural, but for countless women, it isn’t easy. In the zeal to promote breast milk’s benefits, the routine issues women encounter are glossed over in favor of images of a blissed-out infant suckling his mother.

Mayor Bloomberg, don’t worry about locking up formula. Instead, focus your efforts — and money — on compassionate ways to tell the whole truth about breast-feeding. Most problems, if caught early, can be solved, but many women need affordable guides to help them.

Making new moms feel guilty for feeding their baby a healthy breast-milk substitute won’t promote successful long-term breast-feeding.

Being a new mother is tough enough. And it’s more than being a breast.

A totally honest look at breast-feeding will help our babies — and their mamas — truly get the best start.

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