What do feminists, evangelical Christians, supporters of Obamacare, opponents of same-sex marriage, environmentalists, creationists, Pope Francis, and Gisele Bundchen have in common? They all strongly support breastfeeding for infants. Though their reasons for believing “breast is best” vary, the members of this unlikely coalition agree on certain truths: Breastfeeding promotes bonding between mothers and their babies, makes infants smarter, and prevents infections, diabetes, obesity, cancer, ADHD, and many other medical conditions in childhood and beyond.
Except, as Courtney Jung argues in her new book, “Lactivism,” these “truths” are actually based on slim scientific data. Jung, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, didn’t originally intend to include much about the health benefits of breastfeeding in “Lactivism,” because, as she said in a phone interview, “I was assuming that the medical information was correct.” But after extensively reviewing the research, she concluded that other than studies showing that breast milk reduces the risk of certain gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, firm evidence of the benefit of breast over bottle feeding is “just not there.” Even so, rates of breastfeeding in the United States have increased dramatically; currently 79 percent of new mothers breastfeed, and 49 percent are still breastfeeding 6 months later. Women who are unable or don’t wish to breastfeed may be shamed by their doctors and by public health campaigns, like New York’s LatchOnNYC. Women enrolled in WIC (the federal nutrition program for women, infants, and children) receive fewer benefits if they don’t breastfeed and, despite Bundchen’s encouragement of nursing in the workplace, many women find themselves feeling torn between being a bad mother or a bad employee.
Jung became interested in the history and social implications of breastfeeding after the birth of her first child 10 years ago. She breast-fed her own baby and says she would choose to do so again, but she was taken aback by what she terms the “moral fervor” surrounding the practice.
Jung highlights milestones including the formation of La Leche League by a group of Catholic mothers in the 1950s and the boycott of Nestle, beginning in the 1970s after the company promoted formula in countries where clean water was not available with which to prepare it. So influential are breastfeeding advocates that the World Health Organization still recommends it to some HIV-positive mothers at risk of passing the virus on to their infants through breast milk.
Jung believes that both racism and sexism drive lactivism. “Everybody always has an opinion about what women ought to be doing with their bodies,” she said. Plus, since poor and African-American women breastfeed at lower rates, the framing of breastfeeding as a public health issue “neatly shores up all of our existing biases and hierarchies around who’s not only a bad parent but also a bad citizen.”
Jung has been surprised by the response she’s gotten so far to her critique of lactivism. “I thought people would be upset about the book,” she said. But after her op-ed “Overselling Breastfeeding” appeared in The New York Times, she received about 200 e-mails, most from women who felt guilty for not breastfeeding or who had bad experiences attempting to breastfeed. A new conversation may now be opening up around a subject about which it seemed everyone agreed.