Why we should support (positive) lactivism

In the immortal words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, parents just don’t understand.
My folks were visiting this weekend, and we got into a rather frustrating conversation. This isn’t a rare event; we fall on different ends of the political spectrum, and we come from passionate, opinionated stock, so things tend to get heated at least once or twice per visit. But this time, I was especially annoyed – and hurt – because they seemed to be viewing my “cause” as something vastly different than what it actually is.
On the drive up to LA, they were listening to one of their favorite hosts discussing their local McDonald’s NIP controversy, replete with the resulting outrage from listeners. They began to tell me about this radio program by exclaiming that I should “go on this show”, suggesting that I’d be some sort of alternative voice in the debate. Strike one. I patiently explained that I was a big advocate for nursing in public, and that it really irked me when businesses and/or society made women feel like they couldn’t feed their babies how they see fit – in any way, ahem, ahem. “Sure,” they said, “But then all these women were calling in, badmouthing bottle feeders, talking about how formula kills…how it’s all the bottle feeding moms that are to blame…”
Well, I guess that would qualify as a first base hit. (Sorry, my baseball terminology sucks – you know what I’m saying, though. They hit the ball, but only a little bit. Clear?) I felt my temperature rise; I wanted to go off on the subject, but something struck me. A mini-revelation, so to speak.
I understood where these callers were coming from.
Don’t stress, FFFs, I’m not going all soft on you. I still think that turning the claws on formula feeders is misguided at best; cruel, ignorant and entirely counterproductive, at worst. But as I tried to help my parents understand why certain callers’ juvenile behavior couldn’t take away from the true topic at hand (i.e., the ridiculousness of not allowing a nursing mother in McDonalds – I mean come on, people, the only thing we could possibly fault this woman for is being in a McD’s in the first place), and why the callers had every right to stage a nurse-in, I realized:
  • In a society where nursing is still so taboo (despite the very real pressure from the media, Internet, and medical communities to breastfeed) that a woman showing her breast to feed her infant is considered “inappropriate”, we can, and should, feel angry.
  • Following this logic, the anger has to be directed somewhere, and if you feel alone and ostracized, the easiest construct to blame is the one that made breastfeeding something “odd” or “other” in the first place – and that construct is our (perceived) formula feeding society, spearheaded by the evil empire of the formula conglomerates.
  • One would logically assume that another breastfeeding mom, or spouse/family member of a breastfeeding mom, would support a woman’s efforts to nurse her child. Therefore, someone who is being unsupportive is most likely a formula feeder. (Please note, I don’t believe that this is actually true. I think, typically, the people who are unfriendly to breastfeeding moms are most often men, or childless folks, or people from a different generation – some of these may be part of the aforementioned bottle feeding culture, but I’d submit to the jury that most modern moms, living in a time where breastfeeding is advocated by celebs, commercials, and our physicians, are not the ones actively throwing suckling babes out of fast food establishments. But I can understand the thought process involved which would immediately peg a “threat” to breastfeeding as pro-formula, by default.)
  • There’s also an element of envy and resentment towards the majority when you see yourself as the minority, or “other”. Considering I was a formula feeder living in a breastfeeding society, I get it. For instance, it’s very hard for me not to feel judged and angry when my closest friends keep pestering me about whether or not I’m going to nurse my second child. It’s frankly none of their business, and I’m not sure why they care so much.  I find it way easier to talk to bottle-feeding moms about this, and see them as “my kind” versus the breastfeeding masses. I fight these feelings, because I don’t like giving in to the basest elements of my soul, but sometimes I do just want to punch certain friends in the arm a few times for making me feel so “different”. I also have to fight the urge to make a decision solely based on wanting to fit in – that’s how powerful the pull of the crowd can be. So, I can empathize with a mother who feels alienated, and then finds a group of women online, or via a mom’s group, or LLL, or whatever, and takes up the cause of lactivism, bolstered by a sense of belonging and the security of a group dynamic.
  • In addition, until society sees breastfeeding as “normal”, nursing in public is going to be controversial. In order for breastfeeding to be seen as normal, the majority of women need to be breastfeeding. Hence, we need lactivism to deliver these kinds of results, so that no woman will have to endure the injustice of being told to cover up, or told that feeding her child past the age of 6 months is “creepy”, or any number of other insane things that nursing moms have to endure.
What this all comes down to is that I now understand why certain lactivists end up vilifying formula, or formula company marketing tactics, or pro-formula-feeding blogs (even if they are not pro-formula feeding as much as pro-feeding choice, but hey, whatever). And while I don’t condone the tactics some may use to try and increase breastfeeding’s prevalence in our society, I think, for the sake of all of us, we should hope that they succeed, and soon.
Why? Because when breastfeeding advocates finally see themselves as the “norm”, they will no longer have to try so hard to convert everyone to their way of thinking. That means no scare tactics, no guilt, no overstating research results, no trying to compare formula companies to cigarette companies. I hope we can all agree that all things being equal, breastmilk IS the ideal food for (most) human babies (not that formula isn’t a perfectly good alternative, but you get my point). And I also hope we can agree that a woman should have the right to feed her baby in public, whether it be by bottle, covered breast, or exposed breast. By making this a widespread belief, perhaps we can move on. Maybe the time and money spent on research that seeks to prove – again, and again, and again – that breastfeeding is superior to formula feeding could be used, instead, to truly discover which medications pass through breastmilk or effect a nursling in a significant way (and I’m talking long-term, far-reaching studies, not the kind we have available now, with tiny samples and only considering an abysmally short time span for side effects), or what is causing a rise in lactation failure.
Does this mean I’m going to shut up when people rage unfairly against the bottle feeders? That would be a resounding no-freaking-way. But I want to make it clear that I do support lactivism – the positive kind, at least – because I believe a pro-breastfeeding society is better for all of us. Not for the usual reasons; I don’t think it will significantly improve the health of our nation, or save us millions, or cure cancer and make our kids super-smart women/men of steel. I just think that if we can find a way to make breastfeeding more prevalent without alienating those who make an informed decision to formula feed, or who simply cannot nurse for whatever reason, we can move on to fighting for more important things. Like better schools, better health care, better access to chemical-free foods, etc, etc.

If we can support positive lactivism, even if we can’t agree with every single thing these groups/individuals say or represent, we can use our power – the power of a supposed majority – to improve things for both nursing and non-nursing mothers. I can’t see the negative in that. I’m willing to take on the hate mail and negative comments this post is sure to receive to say it aloud: even if it’s for entirely selfish reasons, we can all stand to benefit from better breastfeeding rates.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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18 thoughts on “Why we should support (positive) lactivism

  1. Makes perfect sense.

    You know me. You know how NOT anti-formula/formula feeders I am. But, I have felt resentful being a breastfeeder in a bottlefeeding town for being made to feel different. No one ever approached me, thank God, but I've gotten stares and the “you're STILL nursing?!” comments. So, I have found myself wishing that more people in my area breastfed, not because I think we will suddenly have the highest IQs and greatest health in all the land, but because I would like to be normal.

    I can say with some assurance, I'd feel exactly the same way in the opposite position.

    Sorry you're experiencing pressure from your friends. I'm sure they mean well, but really, it isn't anyone's business but yours!

  2. Great post!

    I agree with Brooke. I'd like to see this controversial issue vanish. I don't know if supporting lactivism is really the answer since, like you said, supporting BFing usually involves bashing formula/formula feeders in some way. Old habits die hard, unfortunetly.

  3. @Brooke and Meghan,

    I agree with you guys, as you know. I wish this would become a non-issue. But so far, it just seems to be getting worse. My hope is that if we can work on some of the elements of lactivism which we can all agree on – better support for those who want to nurse; more public acceptance of NIP, etc, then the temperature might get turned down a bit. Sadly though, I don't think this will stop the irrelevant studies from being overstated, or women from lashing out against other women for whatever reason. But it's a start, maybe?

    That said, I hope I'm clear that by positive lactivism, I mean those who still support a woman's right to make an informed choice. These people tend to disagree with me about the true risks involved with formula feeding; however they at least take a kinder, gentler approach to the issue and don't go around telling us that we are killing our babies.

    There ARE some truly great breastfeeding advocates out there. I like AccustomedChaos and HoboMama… they've both written some incredible blog posts on these issues.

  4. First of all, let me say that I do support positive efforts to provide support to breastfeeding women. In particular, lactation consultants should be a required insurance benefit, maternity leaves should be longer and paid like every other modern country, NIP should be accepted everywhere, pediatricians and hospital staff should be better educated on how to support breastfeeding, etc. But a lot of lactivists seem much more interested in punitive measures for formula feeders, whether they be general shaming, eliminating free samples and coupons to help formula feeding moms, or making formula prescription-only, which is a disgusting idea I've heard bandied about a lot.

    But I disagree completely with your logic that if breastfeeders are in the majority, they will stop attacking formula feeders and stop the exaggerated scare tactics and guilt. In the communities where they are in the majority already, if anything they seem even more hostile to formula feeding and the mothers who do it. Their attitude isn't just about being in the minority and feeling attacked. It's about feeling SUPERIOR. In a society where people are likely to have both breastfeeders and formula feeders in their group of friends, it's less likely to make a big deal out of feeding choices. But from what I've seen in communities where breastfeeding is the norm, it's the only acceptable way to feed your child and essentially you aren't allowed in the group if you don't do it regardless of how much else you have in common. Essentially instead of NIP being taboo, it will be bottles. I don't think that's a positive outcome either.

  5. @antigone,

    I'm so glad you posted that comment. Unfortunately, you are probably right. I live in a pro-breastfeeding area where it is definitely the norm; there are plenty of negative lactivists out here. The hotbed of lactivism seems to be the pacific northwest (San Fran, specifically), which is a predominately breastfeeding culture. Bottles might indeed become taboo – I feel that they are, where I live; I used to feed my son in the bathroom at Mommy & Me b/c I was the only one using bottles and people would stare and ask questions. Seeing breasts is normal where I live; bottles are the anomaly. So I see your point.

    I guess my theory is that if we could support POSITIVE lactivism – the kind which I outlined in my prior response to Meghan & Brooke – it could potentially create a culture where both bottle and breastfeeders would feel comfortable feeding their kids. I think things like this tend to work as a pendulum; the advent of breastfeeding advocacy/formula hatred was a direct result of women being made to feel that they were “policed” by their doctors, and told that their bodies weren't reliable. It came out of anger, and rightly so.

    Now, I don't think that the end result is right, in any respect. I see smart women all the time on Twitter and other blogs getting into this mob mentality where its ok to bash formula feeding moms…in fact I just saw a tweet where a woman was musing about telling a bottle feeding mom to “go do it in the bathroom, no one wants to see that”. I get that she was being ironic, but how pointless/mean/ridiculous is it to take her anger out on that other mother? Unless that mom specifically said a rude comment about her breastfeeding, I don't think there is any excuse for that behavior. And of course it was applauded by lots of lactivist bloggers.

    I realize this post is idealistic, and it probably won't happen, just as we can't seem to find a happy medium for anything in our society. I just really hate that people (even my own parents) assume that just b/c I support formula feeders and hate those who vilify formula, that means I don't get mad about a lack of support/rights for breastfeeding moms. I don't like that it has to be black and white. So I am imagining (probably fruitlessly) a place where we can support both, by helping breastfeeding moms let go of the hate/resentment/justification they feel for “hard line tactics”.

  6. “In the communities where they are in the majority already, if anything they seem even more hostile to formula feeding and the mothers who do it. Their attitude isn't just about being in the minority and feeling attacked. It's about feeling SUPERIOR. In a society where people are likely to have both breastfeeders and formula feeders in their group of friends, it's less likely to make a big deal out of feeding choices.”

    omg I love this! I have a “friend” who just become a mom I KNOW has this attitude to a T (she BF without any issues at all). She wont admit it but she shows it passive aggressively. (FFF, I SO wish she was there on Sunday for you to meet. She's unreal.).

    I live 20 minutes from FFF and can attest that this area is prodominately BFing. And quite frankly, a majority are pretty snobbish about it. In fact, I used to get stares all the time in the Pedi wating office when I fed my daughter. Also, since she was on an apnea monitor the first 7 months of her little life, I also got stares but thats a whole other subject.

  7. Yes, here in the SF bay Area well I am actually right in SF and I am sure part of it is the surrounding neighborhoods I live in, but seriously many people can't even be friends if you formula feed. Back in early motherhood, and yes I was constantly asked The Question? I would tell people I could no longer breastfeed the reaction was about 90% the same “OMG, you can't breastfeed, why?” Not so bad in itself, but just imagine the facial expression of someone who just saw an extraterrestrial get out of spaceship for the first time. It is very alienating here (no pun intended :), but in the end I wasn't looking for Miss Popularity in the moms groups I knew what I did was right for me and my family and so sometimes I wonder this which leads me to a new question. Do these lactivist who attack formula feeding moms really FEEL that comfortable with their own choices? I mean really. If you did some kind of parenting choice that you felt was without any doubt was absolutely correct for you and your baby than you shouldn't feel a need for a whole entire society to agree with you just because you need confirm it is the norm and you're right, KWIM?

    Honestly, there must be some kind insecurity these people have if they have the gall to go up to someone who is feeding their baby differently than you do and to go as far as to say “Can you go do that in bathroom, blah blah?

  8. Very true, Michelle K! It is often when one is insecure with themselves that they will project that onto others. I get that reaction when I have to tell people we can't/aren't having a second child. “What?!? That's terrible!” My mom is the worst offender because she seems to want me to do everything the way she did it, I guess to offer some affirmation that what she did was right. I think that's a big part of this, though. “Well, if the majority do xyz, then I'll know it's right.”

  9. Anecdotally, coming from an area where breastfeeding past a few weeks is not the norm, the very few women I know who have breastfed are a 50/50 split between obnoxious and nonchalant. It would be interesting to see how greater rates of breastfeeding would effect that ratio, but I'm starting to think it's mostly personality. Those more inclined to pass judgment, will.

  10. It's a bit like religious fanatics and militant atheists: they're both equally obnoxious (and hopefully will end up in hell together where they'll spend eternity preaching at one another). I personally was bullied into bottle-feeding my daughter in my first few days in hospital. Luckily as soon as I left I ditched the bottle and breastfed my daughter exclusively for six months and until she was two with other foods. On the other hand, I once remember hearing a pediatrian being interviewed on Canadian TV and saying, “Breastfeeding is the only way to feed a baby.” I thought, “What about adoptive mothers?” (Note: adoptive mothers can usually stimulate their breasts to produce milk, but they usually have to use some supplement.) Or women who've had mastectomies. Or women who for one reason or another don't want to breastfeed. So intolerance and close-mindedness can go both ways.


  11. I completely agree with this! While I nurse my child, I've been frustrated on my nursing communities where they vilify people for not doing it. There's also this pressure to not give your child one drop of formula, and, if you're a mom who pumps breastmilk, this can't always happen if you can't keep up with how much your baby drinks from the bottle (when babies nurse, they actually get more from the tap than a pump can).

    I like the way you think.

  12. Dear FFF,

    Reading this reminded me of why I enjoy your blog so much – your posts are always well written, thought provoking, and fun to read! Ironically, I read them while nursing my toddler.

    I agree with you that “increased bf'ing is better for everyone” but only in a sense that it's a better choice for the environment. That said, I'm sure there are plenty of SUV driving, pre-packaged food eating, non-recycling breast feeders. So, increased bf'ing isn't exactly a top environmental issue and I think a woman's right to choose trumps that one.

    I'm sorry that some lactivists are giving Pacific North Westerners a bad rap?!? I'm from the PacNW (Portland,OR) and am surprised by this. Although, I have older kiddos and have phased out of the “new mommy” circles. I guess, in my personal experience, living in the PacNW, has given me a sense of confidence about nursing. I feel that I could nurse anywhere/everywhere/as long as I'd like without ever feeling embarrassed or covering up. In fact, someone gave me a nursing cover and I laughed. I think I would also laugh if anyone ever asked me to leave a restaurant – how odd?!?! I like to think that Portland is a unique place though and, as a whole, people are pretty non-judgmental about anything (including NIP or bottle-feeding) but that's my glossed-over experience.

    I love your sentence about “moving on to fighting for more important issues.” Here's where I think the fanatical lactivist crowd misses the boat….they fail to explain how the mommy (6 weeks post partum) who had to return to her minimum wage job (maybe because it subsidizes a health insurance plan or maybe because her partner was just laid off) is EVER going to be successful at breast feeding?!?! and pumping? seriously? who can pump in between flipping burgers? and now this mom reads that she is feeding her baby “poison” or she is somehow a “bad” mom for using formula? WTF is wrong with you people? How about a law for 6 months mandatory/paid maternity leave (hello Giselle?) or better yet, universal health care? Lactivists – pick a cause that will contribute to increased bf'ing rather than belittling FF moms.

    and FFF – thanks for blogging with intelligence and compassion!

  13. @ Samantha and Emily

    Yes, it might be the kind of personality that cares what all the others think and are not thinking it through for themselves. Funny you mention fanatics as I have worked with both and it can be a real drag *LOL*. I agree and acknowledge that there are places in this country that favor bottlefeeding and have very little support for breastfeeding. But why the extremes? It is unfair and that is why I wish we could find a middle ground and recognize that both methods are acceptable ways of feeding a baby. Emily I am sorry that you were not given support by the hospital staff and I have heard this before from other women. I think it's awesome you decided to go against the grain and do it anyways. I once knew a nice elderly woman who told me a story how she was about to attempt bf'ing in the 1940's and a doctor walked in a told her to cover up and pout it away. She never argued with him and it's sad that she couldn't do something that was right to her and so natural so I hope we don't ever have to see that again whether it is with breast or the bottle.

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