Breastfeeding Backlash

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and other breastfeeding advocates should be very nervous. In the last two months, the Atlantic and the New Yorker have each published articles that are very different from the usual media fare about the benefits of breastfeeding. (You can read CoOp posts about Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece here and here; Crooked Timber is the one of the sites with an excellent discussion thread about the Atlantic article.) In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore suggests that our zeal for breastfeeding has distracted us from the larger goal of ensuring that mothers are able to spend adequate time with their babies; instead we have become satisfied with policies that make it easier for women to pump milk. In the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin examines the medical literature that underlies the recommendation that women breastfeed. She concludes that while breastmilk is probably best, it is not the magical elixir that one might suspect based on popular accounts. Thus, Rosin argues, depending on a women’s individual circumstances and predilections, she can do a cost-benefit analysis and (more than) rationally conclude not to breastfeed.

“Breast is Best” campaigns have been most effective among educated white women with higher incomes; this is the demographic with the highest breastfeeding rates. It is also a demographic that reads both the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Among this group, a strong social norm affects the decision whether to breastfeed. Rosin aptly captures this dynamic:

One afternoon at the playground last summer, shortly after the birth of my third child, I made the mistake of idly musing about breast-feeding to a group of new mothers I’d just met. This time around, I said, I was considering cutting it off after a month or so. At this remark, the air of insta-friendship we had established cooled into an icy politeness, and the mothers shortly wandered away to chase little Emma or Liam onto the slide. Just to be perverse, over the next few weeks I tried this experiment again several more times. The reaction was always the same: circles were redrawn such that I ended up in the class of mom who, in a pinch, might feed her baby mashed-up Chicken McNuggets.

What remains to be seen is whether the New Yorker and Atlantic articles mark the beginning of a wider disenchantment with breastfeeding, one that will eventually erode the norm that Rosin so aptly documents. I also wonder whether the articles will influence what Rosin labels the “relentlessly cheerful tip culture” that dominates discussions of breastfeeding in popular media and in parenting books.

p.s. As an aside, I’ve always thought breastfeeding advocates should organize a public relations campaign around how breastfeeding, particularly long-term breastfeeding, can make easier for a woman to lose weight. Think of a big hot fudge sundae with the tag line “From you to your baby’s brain.” I guess there’s a reason I pursued law instead of marketing . . .

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6 Responses

  1. Rosin’s anecdote sounds like it’s been pulled straight out of Best Parent Ever.

  2. Ken says:

    Most people I’ve encountered who feel very strongly about breastfeeding are decent. But the issue as a whole is tainted by the minority of zealots who will accost a stranger in public for feeding from a bottle — like the one who berated by wife for bottle-feeding our son shortly after we adopted him.

  3. Dave says:

    I’m with Ken on this. The real problem this post identifies is that there are people in the world who will ostracize their friends or attack strangers merely because they make different parenting choices. That’s insane and ridiculous.

  4. bill says:

    regarding your ps:

    breastfeeding = 10 additional points per day on weightwatchers

    given the wide awareness of WW’s points system, “breastfeeding gives you 10 additional points daily” might be all one needs to say.

  5. Nice and detailed information here. I’ll definitly keep an eye on this site. 🙂 Best regards.

    Breast Feeding Newborn

  6. Rosalyn Sullivan RN says:

    Mothers should be allowed to choose their feeding method without guilt or judgement. They are entitled to all the knowlege they can receive concerning their choice. Postpartum depression is rampant among moms who for whatever reason cannot breastfeed.. They feel like they have failed and to top it off they are giving their child poison ie FORMULA…Its unfortunate that there is so much fanatical extremism from Baby Friendly.. A manifesto on how to breastfeed only and if you dont you are putting your baby at risk. Its not the truth. Joan B. Wolf in her book, “Is Breast Best” spells out evidence based studies, what is truth and what is lore and realistically.. We dont know the facts about the benefit from breastmilk vs the socioeconomic status of the mother.
    Bottom line: Leave biopolitics out of it and support a loving bond between all infants and moms and their choice of infant feeding. Family friendly sounds better to me..