Home » Breastfeeding, Culture, Politics & Society

“The Case Against Breastfeeding”

19 March 2009 4 Comments

This month in the Atlantic Monthly, there was an article arguing against breastfeeding.  To somewhat oversimplify, the author, a mother of three who breastfed all her children, argues that

a.  There is little clinical data to support the belief that breastfeeding results in better health outcomes
b.  Despite this fact women are made to feel guilty if they chose not to breastfeed by a ideologues who descend from the feminist movement
c.  Ironically, breastfeeding is not liberating, but a form of subjugation, interfering with women from  being able to compete in the workforce.

Not surprisingly, the author has drawn a lot of controversy.  Her review of the clinical data seems disingenuously selective in ignoring the vast body of very recent literature, including the meta-studies, that demonstrate a preponderance of evidence that breastfeeding has a number of health benefits.  She also makes an error in assuming that many small, but statistically significant, improvements in health metrics do not add up to an overall significant improvement in health outcomes.   So on this point, it is easy to dismiss her.

Her other points are more polemic in that they have more of a grain of truth to them, in my eyes.  Breastfeeding, like many elements of parenthood, is a very judgmental experience.  Every act is a manifestation and a clear signal, of a set of beliefs about parenting, and of the world at large.  Breastfeeding is a declaration of a belief that evolution is difficult to trump through technology.  It is a belief in the need to have a less technology mediated life in some places.  It is a declaration of the non-sexualization of breasts and an asserting of power over the display of the woman’s body….

But I also know that women who choose not to or cannot breastfeed, there are looks of disdain that they have to ignore.  I have friends who avoid the PumpStation in LA specifically because they are not breastfeeding.  This is a shame because we all should be focused primarily on the right to raise our own children the way we each feel is best, and not be judgmental of others until we have walked in their shoes.  I know as an anthropologist that it is sometimes impossible to understand how people make the choices they do until you literally live their lives.  What seem like stupid, irrational behaviors suddenly make sense once you have a more complete understanding of the context of choice.

The reasons not to breastfeed are many, and I have seen first-hand with Tara, a doula who has assisted many mothers with breastfeeding, how difficult it can be with an entire platoon of support.  Latching issues, thrush, nerve damage all enter into the picture.  While Tara has been able to successfully navigate these obstacles,  and continues to breastfeed, it is in no small part because she has both the support of many wonderful and informed professionals, and because she has chosen to take time off from working.  So I think we can all hold (moral) judgment (at least) over other folks’ choices on how they nourish their children.

I feel the article’s third point, perhaps the generative point for the angst and stress that drove the author to write the article in the first place, is the most concerning and most valid.  And it extends far beyond breastfeeding.  We live in a country with a deeply inhumane relationship to work.  Work is all encompassing, all demanding, and totally inflexible.  It eats at our lives in very nasty ways, making us all feel vulnerable, powerless, and torn.  The social contract is completely one-sided, totally serving the needs of capital.  The same Atlantic Monthly issue also had an article on the resurgence of Marxism and it is not coincidental.  Economic pressures are felt intensely by working moms.    If we lived in a society that valued family, we would have much more expansive maternity leave policies and other forms of social support that would enable women to truly compete in the marketplace AND have children.  At a minimum, it would facilitate the ability for a single-parent income for a period during the first months of a child’s life.

But no, we do not live in Europe.


  • Bettina@bestforbabes.org said:

    Great post! Thanks for dissecting it so neatly and for reiterating the need for the end to judgement. Best, Bettina

  • Juliet Grossman said:

    I just wrote a blog post about breastfeeding noting differences between east and west coasts. It is here: Juliet’s blog entry about breastfeeding.

    This is a debate that will rage on forever, I think. I think it’s great how supportive you are of your wife. It helps so much. For me, the biggest things that helped were actual physical support like waking and bringing the baby to me, bringing me things while I was occupied nursing, etc.

    I enjoy your blog and am going to link it.

  • Jeff Shattuck said:

    Ari, great post. Loved it right until the end, where the idea that a Marxist society creates a better balance between work and family. I would argue it does not, because you have no means to improve your life and work is done with no focus on creativity, but simply to fulfill some plan. Many companies today remain lousy at making workers feel valued for the minds as well as their hands, but this is changing, I really believe that. Moreover, having lived in Europe, it’s no heaven. I mean, I loved it, but the red tape is everywhere and people there, at least when I lived there, all marveled at America’s free-wheeling ways and wanted more of it in their lives. Further, as you know, culture plays a huge role in government. Europe’s culture, especially in Germany, where I lived, was forged out of kings that took care of their realms(to a point!) so, Germans at least, are very comfortable being led. They also get the deal: they will accept less opportunity in exchange for greater economic security. Personally, that’s not a deal I want to make.

    But, not to end on a downer, your blog is killer!


  • Rick Moody said:

    Ari, I like your even-handed take on the piece a lot. And the site in general. We have been lucky here in that we have had no problems with breast-feeding. As a result, it has been easy to be very positive on breast-feeding (Hazel went from being 10th percentile in weight to being in the 60th percentile in two months, and the pediatrician ascribed it to breastfeeding). Don’t forget that THE ATLANTIC has been drifting rightward for a while now, and it specializes, in many areas, in pieces that are meant to stir up column inches on the other side. I think there was a little of this about that piece: less a fine piece of rhetoric than a fine piece of polemic.

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