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 . . .