“The Case Against Breastfeeding”

That’s the title of an article causing a huge controversy online. Its main contention is simply that there IS a case against breastfeeding, and that this deserves to be weighed up against the case for breastfeeding in each individual case– and that a decision not to breastfeed can be a reasonable and even good one. This shouldn’t be a surprising thought, really, or even a controversial one. But it goes against the widespread orthodoxy that breastfeeding is not only best but the ONLY acceptable decision. The thing that seems to make the case against breastfeeding so hard to see is that it requires taking mothers’ own needs and desires seriously. It requires seeing the following as expressing legitimate desires that deserve respect rather than expressions of contemptible selfishness:

I want to get back to my job.
I’m losing my mind from sleep deprivation and I want to sleep.
I don’t want to be hooked up to a pump for hours every day.
I want to share baby care equally with my partner.
My nipples are bleeding and I want the pain to stop.
I don’t like breastfeeding and I don’t want to do it.
My partner wants to be an equal partner in baby care and I want him/her to do that.

If these were seen as legitimate, it would be obvious that there are disadvantages of breastfeeding to be weighed against the advantages. But, all too often, they are not. Mothers are still supposed to do whatever they’re told to do for their babies, and any expression of a desire to do otherwise is emphatically not OK.
(I should note that the article also contains critiques of some of the science supporting breastfeeding. I’m not in a position to evaluate that.)

47 thoughts on ““The Case Against Breastfeeding”

  1. I breastfed both my kids. With the first one I was working fulltime and writing my PhD thesis. Not a happy experience, but breastfeeding made it all easier, not harder.

    For one thing, if you truly want to share with your partner, then you breastfeed the baby (while reading, listening to music, daydreaming, or dozing off), then you hand over the baby to your partner so that s/he can change the baby’s diaper, bathe it, play with it, and/or put it back to sleep. A fair division, no? Also, in terms of sleep deprivation, it’s much easier to give a hungry baby your breast than get up and prepare a bottle in the middle of the night.

  2. Introvertica– it’s great that the equal parenting while breastfeeding worked for you. It clearly does for some people. But for some (like me) it didn’t, nor did I get more sleep than my bottle-feeding acquaintances. (Though I obediently kept it up for a year, and was “very good” at it by the accepted standards– tons of milk, supplied on demand every 2 hours night and day for 9 months.) I think there’s a lot of individual variation. I didn’t mean to suggest that everyone would be better off not breastfeeding– just that some people might be, and that it should be considered legit to weigh up pros and cons.

  3. thanks, jender, for posting this! (thanks and more thanks and more!)
    when i had my son, i went through months of hellish stress trying to get the breastfeeding going well when i could’ve been simply enjoying my new child. (and when, all the while, my partner was waiting in the wings, eager but unable to take up his half of the childcare.) it seemed wrong to me at the time–like lp-son would’ve benefited more from relaxed, happy, well-rested parents (who didn’t feel twinges of resentment towards him for the sucking drain he was made to be on their physical and emotional resources)–but i was sleep deprived and authoritative-sounding people in lab coats kept reassuring me that all the hellish stress was “worth it”. second time around i am _not_falling_for_it_. any parenting option, the outcome of which is that mother often feels the urge to abandon baby, is NOT good for baby! not to mention the fact that–much as no one likes to admit it–mum actually continues to be a person (with needs and rights just like every other person) even after conception!
    high time people started sticking their necks out and saying that ‘yes, it’s good, but it’s goodness is but one factor in the equation’.

  4. introvertica: that’s excellent that breast-feeding worked out so well for you. that’s exactly how it should be. i suppose the point is that, that’s not how it works out for everyone. and instead of saying ‘if breastfeeding is hellish, then it’s not worth it; bonding with your baby shouldn’t be hellish’ healthcare professionals insist that you ought to keep it up, keep trying and trying no matter how difficult or depressing or inconvenient or soul-destroying or life-destroying it is for you and your baby, because if you don’t, your baby will grow up fat and stupid and will die of cancer. they bang on about choice, but in fact they only approve if you make the “right” choice. and the right choice is to breastfeed even if it makes your whole family miserable. it’s just mad. as this article points out, an unhappy home with parents who aren’t coping is surely more damaging to IQ and general health than baby formula is.

  5. I was particularly struck by the fact that when I told my health visitor “I’m losing my mind from sleep deprivation” she said “You’re doing great! Keep it up!”.

  6. yes exactly, the more you harm yourself, the more *dedicated* you are to your baby’s health. as if it’s healthy for baby to have a crazy depressed mother!

  7. The Radcliffe Maternity hospital outside of Oxford had its own view, when I gave birth in the70’s. Babies had to be fed every four hours and if they didn’t feel like sucking, they got the much easier bottle. I remember one nurse coming in, waking up my peacefully sleeping baby, slapping his little face and sprinkling water on him, then handing the hysterical infant to me and saying “feed him.” Well, of course, I objected and that led to just awful scenes. I eventually gave up; I couldn’t compete with the bottle.

    The problem started in part because my son was tube fed for 24 hours as I came around after extremely heavy sedation, which was caused by the fact that no one believed me when I said I was giving birth and so I was alone in a hospital room with the baby crowning and my blood pressure went sky high – I was in there because of blood pressure problems. Mr jj, of course, wasn’t there because they over ruled my requests to phone him on the grounds he needed his sleep.

    It was a quite insane experience. It is completely awful that a mother is so totally disenfranchised. Talk about epistemic injustice! It is so sad that it continues today, though I dearly hope the medicine is a bit better.

  8. jj, i had a similar experience in 2006! baby and i were sleeping perfectly peacefully, both of us wiped out from a difficult birth. but 3 hours and 2 seconds had passed since his last feeding (these days they say every three hours), so the midwife woke me by barking at me that what did i think i was doing, if you’re going to be a mother you need to feed your baby! (my baby who was, again, sleeping peacefully.) lp-son and i actually ended up stuck in hospital for 12 days because he was severely jaundiced and i NEEDED to breastfeed. sufficient sustenance would’ve helped to clear up the jaundice much more quickly. but it was SO important to the midwives that i establish proper breastfeeding that they preferred to keep him for hours in light therapy, only to drag his weak sickly little body out once every three hours to be jostled until he got up enough energy to sort of almost suck. …but his IQ is going to be 5 points higher!

  9. Just asking how babies survived before the mothers had “choices” to not breastfeed or does this not even figure into the discussion? Does it matter that one option is corporate and the other is intimate bodily engagement with child. Does “natural” count?

  10. O no! I am so sorry to hear about that. I assumed that it had gotten a bit more sane with the more recent stress on “natural.”
    I notice that the nurse’s use of “if” suggests your being a parent is quite conditional. Her shockingly manipulative language is familiar, but still disgraceful.

    I’m quite ignorant about jaundice, but your story suggests that, as Wittgensteinians sometimes say, the nurses were in the grip of a theory. Never a good thing for Wittgensteinians and, in cases like yours, people of good sense.

  11. LR, I’m not sure about the import of your comment, but it might be good at this point to emphasize that this is NOT an anti-breastfeeding discussion – or so I’m understanding it. It’s really about an extreme view that nothing else matters.

  12. jj, ‘in the grip of a theory’ is perfect. wittgenstein on 21st century midwifery. nice.

    lr: infant mortality rates vastly higher than they currently are in the western world is *natural*. and i don’t need to shove my breast in his mouth to engage with my baby. (and this website where you’re posting is “corporate”. and your breastpump is “corporate”. and the baby books you read that told you all the benefits of breastfeeding are “corporate”.) breastfeeding is excellent for both baby and mother _when_it_works_. but when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. and there are SO many more things that go into effectively rearing a healthy happy child, it’s simply ridiculous to put so much (vicious) focus on this one aspect. breastfeeding is not the be-all, end-all of mothering.

  13. I’d also note that there’s something very strange about the thought that it’s more natural and better for bonding to keep lp jr in the hospital for 12 days under a funny lamp so he can breastfeed, rather than sending him home to a normal life with mum and dad courtesy of some formula. (from what elp says, it sounds like he would have been home much sooner with a bit of formula.) it’s certainly not obvious which of these options is better or even more natural, and it seems like lp should have been able to make that call herself.

  14. And since when is it that things being “natural” are “good”?
    This sort of rings a bell *whistles*

    A bit of fascinating trivia from the field of psychology regarding baby formula. In the sixties I think it was Nestle that got a good grip on marketing the stuff. When they developed it, they thought it was rather bland (uhuh!) so they added vanilla.
    Vanilla stayed in there for rather a long time, and this seems to have led to an entire generation strongly emotionally reacting to vanilla. Make your shop smell like vanilla and your sales in that particular cohort shoot up. Fascinating, really. But rather off topic, I admit.

  15. I’m starting to wonder about some of the background to this extreme insistence on breast feeding. Could it be in part that the purveyors of the medical care don’t really know how to think critically and flexibly?

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the dearth of critical reasoning. I can unfortunately attest that five groups of recommended vets in our area employ ‘doctors’ who cannot reason very well, at least when they get near my cats.

    In the last case, I started with a cat with bad sniffles and a mild rash. Not really able to consider he had two serious things wrong with him, two groups of vets treated his sniffles with something bound to make the rash go critical. He’s got multi-sores on his body and we’re chasing him every morning for 4 weeks to get the anti-rash stuff down him.

    Could it be that they start out with guidelines for care and then interpret them in ways that lead to promoting extreme behavior? E.g., they’re told that mothers moan a lot, so they just assume Jender’s complaint isn’t really serious? Or they’re told not to bring in the bottle at the first sign of jaundice, and then mess up in thinking about what to do when the first sign stays on and on.

    I really don’t mean to blanket all nurses or health care workers or all vets with some awful label, but I’m wondering about something like the tyranny of a little knowledge and training. Add sexism to the mix and there isn’t any purchase for common sense to get a grip.

    I don’t mean to suggest that what I guess is something like ill-educated stupidity is the only cause, but perhaps it is an important contributor? Or not.

  16. Hippocampa, I’m now wondering about feeding a baby. I adore vanilla, from ice cream to perfumes; it can be lovely added to a stew. Hmmmm.

  17. Just asking how babies survived before the mothers had “choices” to not breastfeed or does this not even figure into the discussion?

    Wet nurses, for the wealthy, or baby farms, or they died. Simple, really.

  18. It’s my understanding that in the early modern period most children were sent away to be fed by wet nurses since “upper class women are too delicate to nurse” and many of them died because of it. (Not entirely sure why, perhaps diseases.)

    Interestingly, Linneaus, of binomial nomenclature fame, decided to call the group of furry animals “mammals” (ie. breast havers) instead of “milk drinkers” or “fur havers” because he was a big partisan of breast milk. Never mind the fact that 50%+ of mammals (like me!) have nipples that aren’t hooked up to anything, we’re all mammals.

    I guess it just goes to show that both sides are sort of willing to go to war over the control of women’s bodies: either to keep them away from “dirty work” or to force them to slave away “for the next generation.”

  19. Hi Carl,

    it turns out that a number of people have looked into statements like “Mammals suckle their young,” which we count as true even though about 50% can’t.

    Now, for more than you probably wanted to know:

    Michael Thompson and Philippa Foot have called them Aristotelian categoricals. Some recent philosophers of language have treated them as ‘generics.’ E.g., “Ticks carry Lyme disease” counts as true even though most ticks don’t. Aristotelian categoricals may be a sub-class of generics.

    One thing that’s important is that in a lot of biology, neuroscience and so on, one find these puzzling statements that are treated as true, despite their having lots of exceptions.

  20. It’s my impression that doctors and nurses deal with so many people that it’s rare for them to be able to treat them as individuals; it’s more like they’re processing a lot of objects that just happen to be living people. Part of this processing overload mentality is their reliance on standard public health guidelines – it takes a lot of effort to individualize advice, so they rely on these simple rules.

    Back in the 1950s and 1960s, there was so much reliance on formula that people who wanted to breastfeed had to fight for its acceptance by the mainstream. Guidelines that are born in a situation of having to overcome mainstream prejudices are probably even simpler and stronger, less accommodating of exceptions.

    So if we take first-time mothers, probably in a state of physical exhaustion, possibly highly concerned about the potential for life-long effects in their children of any tiny mistake they might make, possibly more socially isolated than optimal… these are people who are often eager for simple answers from people in authority, and who are going to be eager to latch onto these answers as definitive. Until they don’t work. And then with this either/or mentality, and still sleep deprived, and still worried about long-term consequences in this huge project they’ve undertaken, now they’re likely to feel like failures.

    I think we could generalize about this mentality a lot more broadly. High stress + high importance + urgency => Desire for simple, definitive solution. The Bush administration was in this position after 9/11, and their simple solutions were disastrous. We all hope that the Obama administration’s simple solutions to the economy will, conversely, work — and since Obama doesn’t actually think in simple terms, maybe they will.

    (I haven’t read the article yet – apologies if my points have already been made.)

  21. we should keep in mind that the simple-mindedness of the breastfeeding advice is but one symptom of a larger disease. (sorry, btw, i’m pregnant with my second right now, so i’m comfortable enough with the whole process to call bullshit when i see it; and i SO see it everywhere. so i’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately!) if you have a cold, and you say “i’m so congested i can’t sleep. is there anything safe for me to take?” they invariably reply “you mustn’t take any medications in pregnancy. paracetamol (tylonol) is safe. you can take that”. “but paracetamol doesn’t treat congestion,” you protest, “isn’t there anything i can take for the congestion?” “you’re pregnant, you can’t take cold medicines” they repeat. “why?” you ask, suspiciously. “it goes right through to the baby,” they explain, with a patronizing look on their faces, “through the PLACENTA”. and you, the angry sleep-deprived pregnant philosopher reply “WATER goes right through to the baby. that’s not a reason.” and on and on, but the reply remains the same. (and in the end you take the baby cold medicine and think to yourself that if the baby is born with three arms it’s definitely the midwife’s fault for not giving you any information.) pregnant women don’t get to make reasoned decisions. they get barked at, because they are clearly half-wits who will damage the poor fetus otherwise. and anyway they’re not people with rights any more; they’re incubators.

  22. elp, you’re absolutely right. susan bordo’s “are mothers persons?” is excellent on this topic. but i think there’s also something to the thought that many people just aren’t all that good at critical thinking esp. when something seems vitally important, and this makes it worse. (jj– sorry to hear about the hell you and your cats are gong through!) add to that the way that institutions (like the nhs) want clear and exceptionless rules for employees to follow. every now and then you get someone who thinks critically anyway, and this makes it tough. my midwife was great, and she resorted to implicature: “i’m not allowed to tell you to try mixed feeding, but here’s an interesting fact– lots of people in the asian community do mixed feeding and their babies do just fine. isn’t that interesting?”

  23. Hi—I found your blog by googling the article name because I’m interested to read reactions to it, particularly feminist reactions. I guess I was a little surprised to read the posts here.

    I’m willing to grant every horrible anecdotal story of women struggling to breastfeed or being harangued about breastfeeding and I don’t excuse any attempts to undermine women’s choices, but I guess I’m curious about the numbers—if so many women are being forced to breastfeed, why aren’t more doing it (at least in the US, which is what I’m familiar with)? Rosin’s article and her appearance on the Today show in the US speaks a lot about the barriers to breastfeeding. For all the talk about the pressure to breastfeed, in most cases this pressure is not put on women by anyone with a legal right to force the woman to breastfeed. However, breastfeeding mothers who want to breastfeed are asked to leave public spaces, have problems with jury duty and problems with their employers. I was dismayed that in the podcast that went with the story Rosin basically says that society is not going to change to become more family friendly. Why should we accept that? In New Jersey, the US state where I live, we just got paid family leave—nothing like the European countries, but still. If the first wave feminists in the US had had this kind of attitude toward social change, we wouldn’t have the right to vote.

    To me, part of feminism is valuing women as women, including the things only women do like menstruate, get pregnant and lactate. While I support the rights of women who want to forgo these things, I also support the rights of those who choose to participate in them to be fully included in society. We’ve come a long way with respect to menstruation and pregnancy, with a lot less shame associated with them than we had in the past. But there’s still a lot of shame associated with breastfeeding, which Rosin brings up in the guise of “modesty.” She also mentions, in the podcast, the possibility of a woman’s husband finding her less attractive after seeing her hooked up to a breastpump—what does this say about what makes women attractive? Why is Rosin so annoyed with her breasts for leaking, but not annoyed with her employer for not making it easier to pump?

    There is a contradiction in the US with public health campaigns that focus on the choice to breastfeed without fully acknowledging the barriers to making that choice—a situation that leaves many women feeling set up to fail. Rosin is right to call this out, but I disagree with her that breastfeeding itself is what is keeping women down. I also disagree with her for belittling the profession of lactation consultants, which are (in theory, anyway) women supporting women. As most of us who have breastfed (myself included) know, it’s not always easy, and the most helpful person in my birth situation was a lactation consultant—luckily included in my hospital stay, since they are not covered by insurance otherwise. I disagree that breastfeeding inherently makes a partnership less equal. Finally, I disagree with her blanket statement that it is not possible to get meaningful work done while breastfeeding—this is a slap in the face to all the working women who breastfeed, including me.

    I have to say I smell internalized oppression here. It’s easier for everyone to criticize something about women (i.e., breastfeeding) than criticize powerful institutions that still aren’t valuing women properly. I found it fascinating that on the Today show (see link from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29718562/ to javascript:vPlayer(‘29718430′,’ee68ba54-7bd3-499f-9b30-f80df53fc7e1’) all the women seemed to agree that television news is a very unfriendly environment for women trying to breastfeed. Why don’t they, or we, see that environment as something that needs to change?

  24. Breast feeding is usually good, at least for the baby, because «natural selection develop breast milk by trial and error. The errors were the babies who died».
    But sometimes, for a lot of reasons, concerning the interest of mother or of child, it will be better to have recourse to the other preocesses of feeding without the sentiment of guilt or anything like that.

  25. Jennifer, I totally agree that the world needs to be far more accommodating of breastfeeding. This is particularly clear in the case of the US, where huge pressure is exerted on women to breastfeed but they receive almost none of the support that they need to do it. Agreed 100%. But (1) given that this support is not there, the choices of individual women not to breastfeed should be respected; and (2) even with excellent support– which I actually had– a choice not to breastfeed should be respected. (I didn’t make that choice, but I think it would have been a reasonable one.) And I suspect you agree– so I think our differences are more of emphasis than anything else. And at other moments I have emphasised the need to support breastfeeding.

  26. adilia, a small point: I don’t think we can say we know that breast milk was developed at the cost of some babies dying. We are mammals and there was an enormous amount of evolution between us and the earliest mammals. Also, in some cases, mammals of one kind nurse mammals of other kinds. Cats, apparently, are the favorite wet nurses for zoo keepers.

    So rather than humans appearing with milk needing to be still sorted out, it is very likely that the first human females were very capable of being adequate sources of milk for their young.

  27. I strongly agree with the sentiments expressed by jennifer. I feel that many women who feel devastated by not being able to successfully breastfeed are feeling this way because breastfeeding is not supported within society in any real way.

    Whiel I breastfed both of my children for extended periods, one for 1 3/4 years and the other for over 2 years, this was a difficult thing and I had to go “against the grain” of most every facet of life in order to do this successfully. (For example, practically every other mother I knew thought this was crazy, and this was only a few years ago.) I very much recognize that it is not an easy thing, and it certainly is not something people ought to feel ashamed or guilty for not being able to do, for whatever reason.

    I wanted to add something else to this discussion. It is not widely expressed that breastfeeding greatly reduces women’s chances of breast cancer. The statistic that I remember is that if you breastfeed for 2 years (in your lifetime) your breast cancer risk is reduced by 25%. This reduction can increase with longer term breastfeeding. This is actually a really big piece of news, as I see it. While we do hear that breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk, we rarely hear that it is as large a reduction as 25%, and that it can be more.

    In my view if breastfeeding were widely and seriously supported within our society, more women would be successful at it. But, we do need a radical restructuring of society in order for breastfeeding to be fully supported. I think that those on this board who may feel they received great breastfeeding support really have not received anywhere near the level of support that I envision in order for breastfeeding and motherhood to be fully endorsed in our society.

  28. Philosopher Queen: It seems very sadly true that society has great trouble dealing with reasonable maternal decisions, such as ones about breast feeding. I’m so sorry to see all the difficulties people have encountered, and it really is not something that makes me at least feel better about mine.

    Still, to pick up this post and what it says:Both the following can be true, and may well be true;

    1. Breasting feeding is not supported in the society in many different ways, thus causing stress and even misery.

    2. Nonetheless, women are told that breastfeeding is completely required in order that one be an acceptable mother, even if it is ruining their health, career, partnership, etc.

    Though I am hesitant to speak for her, I think it is very clear that Jender has previously addressed the problems under #1. You could do a search of this blog.

    The present post is really looking at 2. Given 1is true, putting women under pressure is tragic. “You must breast feed even though it may be pretty much impossible.” But even if 1 were not true, breast feeding might still be a great burden for some women. E.g., some women might end up with severe sleep deprivation. Why are such problems pretty totally ignored?

  29. Thanks, JJ. You have expressed my views better than I myself managed! As to the support I received for breastfeeding: Maternity leave at full pay for 6 months followed by research leave, breastfeeding course, breastfeeding consultants, midwives and health visitors coming to my home (for free), partner working flexibly from home. That’s pretty darned good support, and I still nearly lost my mind from feeding every 2 hrs night and day. Now there may be one support that would have made a difference: Better advice from all those consultants. They were so in thrall to the baby-centred ideology that they didn’t even seem to hear what I was saying. Perhaps if they had also cared about my well-being they might have suggested that a 6 month-old baby with breastfeeding well-established and one of the world’s largest milk supplies (I overproduced) does not need to be fed on demand all night. This actually reinforces the *real* point behind my posts on breastfeeding (both this critical one and that ones about the need to support breastfeeding): The mother’s needs and desires MATTER.

  30. I don’t know how to embed quotes in this software, so I’ll call it out with asterisks:

    *************
    The statistic that I remember is that if you breastfeed for 2 years (in your lifetime) your breast cancer risk is reduced by 25%. This reduction can increase with longer term breastfeeding. This is actually a really big piece of news, as I see it. While we do hear that breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk, we rarely hear that it is as large a reduction as 25%, and that it can be more.
    **************

    Apart from the question of whether this study is accurate or not, statistics like this lend themselves to misinterpretation. The reduction is 25% of the initial chance of getting breast cancer, not an absolute 25%.

    So if the chance of getting breast cancer across the female population is 4%, it would become 3% for women who have breast fed, giving a net reduction of an absolute 1%.

  31. I want to add that I’m pointing this out because I’ve noticed that “if you don’t live your life in the approved way, you’re going to get breast cancer and die” is one of the currently popular ways to pressure women into motherhood, and it largely relies on people misunderstanding the magnitude of statistical effects (and occasionally on inconclusive science). A quick Google search will also show you arguments that:

    * if you use the pill, you will die from breast cancer;

    * if you don’t bear children, you will die from breast cancer; and the ever-popular though discredited

    * if you have an abortion, you will die from breast cancer

    In all of these cases, the effects in practical terms are pretty small (the pill is the largest, and the abortion one is actually unsupported by good science). But the people who are floating them out there seem to be acting not from a concern about women’s health, but from a desire for women to conform to the “natural” model of repeated pregnancy and child-rearing. Thus, the effects are being presented as more definite and more dramatic than they actually are.

  32. Good points, J-Bro, and thanks for making them. It is definitely part of a larger picture in which women are pressured into motherhood.

  33. On the other hand, as we noted here, early spaying of female cats and dogs is a great protector against breast cancers and others. It might well produce the same results in human beings.

    Not that that method will catch on…

  34. for that matter, jj, i wonder would breast removal give a dramatic reduction in breast cancer risk?

    i’ve been away for a couple of days, and i’m very surprised to come back to find sentiments like “I have to say I smell internalized oppression here” posted. i suppose not everyone has time to thoroughly and carefully read the comments they’re responding to. hmm.

  35. elp, I think it is surprisingly difficult to read accurately. Seriously. Perhaps it’s especially hard if something sets off a chain of interpretation.

  36. Jender’s Brother, your statistical discussion makes the point that reducing one’s breast cancer risk by 25% is not very significant, at least in the example that you use.

    Think of it this way instead. If you’re a woman that waited until after 30 to have your first child, your breast cancer risk goes up a certain amount, let’s say 25% (I can’t remember the exact percentage but I believe it’s around there). So, you might be happy to discover the knowledge that you can breastfeed for 2 years or more and significantly help to bring that elevated risk down. I certainly was happy to hear this and was quite surprised that this info wasn’t more readily available. I didn’t find this out until I breastfeeding was well underway.

    Those that have a family history of the disease would also probably be quite heartened to know that there is something that they could possibly do to mitigate an elevated risk.

    Frankly, I’m surprised that when physicians talk with patients (who have a family history of breast cancer or an elevated risk of breast cancer) and instruct them about dietary choices, weight control, and exercise, that they don’t also routinely emphasize long term breastfeeding as a protective option.

    If women were supported to breastfeed, women would not have to endure impossible levels of sleep deprivation, etc. Yes, it is certainly difficult when women are pressured into situations which feel impossible and cause great distress. The solution lies not in pressuring women further, but instead supporting them so that they can enjoy and use their bodies in a comfortable, healthy way that they can feel good about. With this kind of approach, the number of women who successfully breastfeed would increase and women who cannot breastfeed will not feel like inferior outcasts because their actions will be supported as well.

  37. I find this discussion fascinating. I have at times been drawn to both of the kinds of views expressed here – that there’s not enough support for breast-feeding in a real material sense and in the sense of a genuine societal affirmation of female bodies with their/our distinctive capacities – and yet also that there is so much pressure to breast-feed and so little recognition of the mother’s needs where they conflict with or diverge from the child’s. Is it a difference of emphasis, or is this a substantial philosophical disagreement between more ‘difference’- and more ‘equality’-oriented forms of feminism?

    Part of the problem as others have noted is the inflexibility about all the breast-feeding advice – another aspect of this inflexibility is not recognising that babies vary, and if you have a baby who wants to feed every 2 nights at night, then feeding them on demand is a very different proposition to feeding a baby who only needs one of the middle-of-the-night feed. But surely these are totally different situations.
    But when I was having terrible problems breast-feeding, I searched around in vein for anything on the web or in journals that would recognise the reasonableness of ever not breast-feeding. I was quite disappointed that amongst feminists too, there seemed by and large to be a pretty exclusively pro-breast-feeding consensus. Indeed I remember reading one feminist article where the author was arguing that breast-feeding ought to recognised (and supported) as the norm. In one sense I agree; yet at the same time I found this kind of horrifying, thinking: But isn’t feminism meant to be about recognising the validity of many different ways of life and choices including about how to parent?
    I really think that this is quite a major issue, and it surprises me that it isn’t discussed more often in the way it has been on this blog.

  38. Yes, I do see it as a difference of emphasis, that the problem is pressuring to breast feed but not fully supporting it in society (even in the hospital, and in the home). The child’s need doesn’t really diverge with the need of the mother, rather these needs are mutual. However, the support for the mother to fulfill those needs is not provided. So, as a result of a lack of support, it can be seen as the mother’s needs diverge from the child’s.

    As for your mention of an article suggesting that breastfeeding ought to be the norm, it seems best to understand this in the context of breastfeeding having not been the norm for so long. I was breastfed as a baby for 6 months, and this was a rarity at the time. It was certainly not the norm. When I breastfed my first one, other mothers breastfed for only a few weeks; 4 months, for example, was considered quite long. I don’t see it as a problem or unfeminist to have breastfeeding considered the norm. When we’re talking about something that has physical benefits for humans, it seems reasonable. The difficulty arises when people who fall outside the norm are scorned. Feminism would not promote scorning women who are not able to breastfeed.

  39. PQ, I’m not sure just what you meant by “The child’s need doesn’t really diverge with the need of the mother, rather these needs are mutual. ” In this context, though, it might be as well to remind outselves that in general that’s not necessarily true. Pregnancies can have a pretty dire cummulative effect on women’s bodies; all sorts of factors can result in a child’s flouishing at great cost to the mother’s health and well-being. I remember reading about prolapsed uteruses/vaginas among pre-WWI working women in London. Not a good thing.

  40. *********
    Think of it this way instead. If you’re a woman that waited until after 30 to have your first child, your breast cancer risk goes up a certain amount, let’s say 25% (I can’t remember the exact percentage but I believe it’s around there). So, you might be happy to discover the knowledge that you can breastfeed for 2 years or more and significantly help to bring that elevated risk down.
    ***********

    I think it’s fully appropriate to communicate the benefits, provided the magnitude of the benefit is accurately explained (as well as the reliability, or lack thereof, of the science). The problem, from my point of view, is that explanations of the magnitude tend to exaggerate it.

  41. jj, I meant the physical benefits don’t diverge but are mutual (meaning breastfeeding is physically beneficial to both babies and mothers).

    Yes, it’s true that sometimes there’s a maternal fetal conflict, and that’s where all sorts of interesting bioethical cases come up. But most often, and generally, the health interest of the fetus dovetails with that of the mother.

    jender’s brother, statistics like these are usually derived from population studies. While such statistics are not foolproof, they aren’t meaningless either, so all we can do is bear in mind the latest info. Before, mothers were told breastfeeding is backward, not necessary, and should not be done. Nowadays this is not the experts’ story.

  42. To LR: some women have always had trouble with breastfeeding, that is why there were wet nurses in the past, or before that the baby probably just died, but alas we do not live in the past, we now have options and choices, and this is surely a good thing.

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