You’ve (Not) Come a Long Way, Baby: Why feminism and lactivism make such a dysfunctional couple

You know those couples who seem completely wrong for each other? Like, so wrong that you find yourself sitting in a hotel bar the night before their wedding with the rest of the bridal party wondering if you should speak now or forever hold your peace, or just put on the green poufy dress and hold your tongue with a strategically-placed cocktail weenie?

Lactivism and feminism are kind of like that. Seductively intertwined, but fundamentally discordant.

Last year, when I was in the writing process for my forthcoming book, I struggled to find any feminist discourse about breastfeeding. Don’t get me wrong – there was plenty of cherry chapsticked lip-service out there; there’s a Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium held at the University of North Carolina every year, and plenty of outspoken third-wave, young feminists for whom lactivism is a frequent blog topic. But the conversation was ridiculously one-sided, focusing on the male-dominated medical community which had provoked our bottle-feeding culture in the first place.

(Speaking of that assertion…Knocking women out for childbirth and convincing them that they were too “nervous” for breastfeeding was pretty shitty. But I also think there were plenty of women who were hankering for a safe alternative to breastfeeding, considering the historical prevalence of wet nursing. Even in the 70’s and 80’s, right before breastfeeding’s resurgence, I don’t think we can blame poor breastfeeding rates on a misogynist medical field. In a time when we had to fight tooth and nail for respect and opportunity in the workplace, formula allowed women to get back to work faster. I doubt that many of our moms/older sisters had the luxury to fight for pumping rights, when issues of equal pay and sexual harassment still hadn’t been resolved in any legal way, let alone in the real-world way…)

I have always felt that there were uncomfortable parallels to the abortion debate here, but I hesitate to bring it up for fear of things devolving into a pro-life/pro-choice free-for-all. But if we can put the politics of that debate aside for a moment, I do think it’s important to consider how the concept of choice has been co-opted by certain facets of the lactivist movement. If you try and argue that a woman should have a choice about whether or not she feeds her baby from her breasts, you will likely find yourself shot down quicker than you can say Betty Friedan. The typical lactivist argument is something to the effect that we cannot choose freely, because we are brainwashed by the bottle-loving society we live in, as well as the Big Bad Formula Companies; therefore, “choice” is an irrelevant concept in this context. (For a more nuanced and articulate discussion on this topic, check out this essay by breastfeeding advocate, scholar and author, Bernice Hausman.)

But really, I think there’s something else at the heart of this argument. Like this:

Are there women who should feel guilty for not breastfeeding? In my opinion, yes. If there is no medical barrier (disease, medication, or other conditions) barring her from breastfeeding; if she is otherwise capable of breastfeeding; and she knows that breastfeeding is what she ought to do… yet she still, knowingly, chooses to feed artificial milk… yes, she should feel guilty. Because in that case, there was a choice, a knowledgable choice not to do what she knows is best for her child. I think guilt is entirely appropriate in that case, especially (but not only) if harm results. I am also of the opinion that a woman who does not educate herself should feel guilty later on; if you’re bringing a baby into the world, you owe it to that child to make choices for it that will lead to a healthy life. A choice to formula-feed, all other things being equal, is not entirely the woman’s choice to make: she has, presumably, chosen to have that baby, and in doing so, she makes the choice to give the baby its birthright, the best she can provide.

Jan Andrea,

I actually applaud this article (although much of it seems like a regurgitated version of Jack Newman’s infamous guilt argument) because, while inexplicably offensive, at least it is honest. The writer does not mince words, nor couch her true feelings in pseudo-feminist diatribes about how poor, uninformed formula feeders have no choice. This, I can respond to; this, I can counter. It’s a lot harder to argue with a feminist throwing haphazard verbal darts about classism, racism or sexism. That kind of rhetoric scares other feminists out of intelligent discourse. And we need feminists to be addressing this issue, because it is getting entirely too Handmaid’s Tale-ish up in here.

In the past week, the conversation I’ve been waiting for finally began, thanks to the brilliant Jessica Valenti , (and a bunch of other semi-anonymous folks who’ve joined the threads of subsequent posts inspired by Valenti’s Tumblr piece). Women who have no stake in the breast/bottle argument are taking notice; young women who have yet to enter the Dark Wood of Modern Motherhood (where at every wrong turn you’re met by an angry gnome who hits you in the kneecaps with Dr. Sears’s Baby Book) may now be able to navigate that forest with some perspective and foresight.

Breastfeeding needs feminism, to ensure that women can combine motherhood with paid employment, and to protect us from the idiots who think nursing a baby in public is obscene, and yes, to shield women from misleading ads or societal pressures which might discourage them from attempting to nurse.

But formula feeding also needs feminism, to ensure that child-rearing and child-bearing are not synonymous; that women are not reduced to biological functions, and can maintain bodily autonomy; and to act as a watchdog group that protects against those who blame all of society’s ills on a mother’s non-compliance with breastfeeding recommendations.

I don’t disagree that women are often sabotaged in maternity wards, or that the current medical system works in ways that are detrimental to breastfeeding success. We need strong and vocal women to put a stop to this. But I also know that vast numbers of women (as evidenced by this blog and the numerous “bottle feeding support” pages cropping up on Facebook) are being coerced, scared, and guilted into breastfeeding, by medical and governmental authorities. Women are being given so many “reasons” to breastfeed – most of them ominous warnings about what could happen if they don’t – as if no one could possibly want to breastfeed, which is demoralizing and insulting, as well as kind of ironic in the colloquial, Alannis Morrisette-sense. Women are being told that they have been brainwashed and taken advantage of, insinuating that the only way to gain back their self-respect is to breastfeed. By presenting it this way, we can avoid the very real (and for some, very uncomfortable) truth that some women really don’t want to breastfeed (hey, y’all, I said SOME. I’m not contradicting what I said a sentence or two ago… some of us really want to nurse, others would rather not. Simple as that.) It’s been that way throughout history. And it’s okay. Just as it’s okay not to want kids, or to want to combine work and motherhood, or to not want to combine work and motherhood, or to home school your kids or co-sleep with them or feed them a vegan diet.

Feminism, to me, is about respecting every woman’s right to define what being a woman means to her. To HER. Not to you. You don’t have to agree with her, or like what she’s about, or want to have a slumber party and talk about how cute Ricky Schroeder is with her. Just don’t tell her what she should think, feel or do with her body, and you’re cool by me.

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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65 thoughts on “You’ve (Not) Come a Long Way, Baby: Why feminism and lactivism make such a dysfunctional couple

  1. I do agree that the breastfeeding argument does and should closely parallel that of the abortion argument. And at the end of the day, after making an educated decision and calculating benefits/risks, it is and should be the woman's right to choose what is right for her body. Whether we're talking about breastfeeding or abortion (or any number of other things). I have always found it funny that the most militant (and vocal) of my breastfeeding friends, who are the very first to tell you to suck it up/no excuses/best for baby…are also those who are extremely pro-choice. I don't know how someone can be pro-choice in regards to the southern half of a woman's body, but not feel exactly the same (no excuses, no hemming and hawing about how it isn't the same…because IT IS exactly the same) as the northern half. My body, my choice…in every possible way. 🙂

  2. One thing that I constantly go back to when I read articles about how formula advertising leads to women being coerced into formula feeding is that the modern “lactavist” movement does the same thing.
    Just as some women feel victimized by formula companies I felt the same way about breastfeeding promotion. It was NEVER presented to me as FACTS. I wanted to believe what they told me so badly that I never questioned what they were saying. They preyed on my emotions and vulnerabilities and over-inflated information, presented percentages out of context to scare me, brushed off possible challenges in breastfeeding as a rare occurrence because they didn't want to “scare me” and thought I wouldn't BF because of it, etc. I could go on. Please feel free to add to my list!
    Now, if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black. I guess many women feel that this is OK because they are fighting the “good fight” so they are allowed to use whatever tactics it takes to get women to BF. This, however, is not an informed choice. I have yet to hear a “Feminist Lactivist” admit this.

  3. When I look at the realistic aspects of BF, Ive said it before and Ill say it again. BF and the pressure to do it is a step back for women. The only way at least IMHO that EBF can work in our society is for a woman to give up her job, social life and identity and just stay home. This isnt feminism. I personally detest the term feminism, as I think it about female supremacy not equality. One thing lactavism has in common with modern feminism is that it has nothing or little to say about men. Fathers are relegated to earning the money and maybe helping out with chores. But God forbid he be a human male and want sex, God forbid he find his wife breasts attractive and want to enjoy them! What a selfish brute of a man! He just has to wait until Ive weaned at 2,3,4, 5 …sigh. Lactavism has duped women that their core identity and self worth are dependent on their breasts alone. It ignores the whole person and her surroundings. Sadly this is something that us women have brought on themselves. I rarely hear a mans output on this, Sad

  4. I didn't want to “like” but rather, agree. 🙂 Not only lactivism, but the whole “crunchy earth mothery natural-is-best” movement—the women who head this movement only care about getting more women on their side, either by convincing them their side is best so they swallow it all and then shill for the movement, or by shaming them. The shaming may make some women do [whatever], and other women simply feel bad for no good reason. Regardless, men are completely sidelined. I do believe a woman has the ultimate say on issues regarding her body, like breastfeeding or abortion, but certainly Dad's opinion should count for something. It's his child too. And the other issues are that are not biologically determined (meaning anyone can be crunchy)….how does Dad feel about any of it? Does Mom even care about Dad's feelings or thoughts?

    The one that always gets me is the argument that breastfeeding/natural birth/bedsharing/whatever is best for baby because it allows for bonding. Most children I know have loving bonds with lots of people who never nursed/gave birth to/slept with them….it should be obvious that that argument is a load of crap, but it's still bandied about all over the place. (not that those activities don't allow for bonding, of course they do, but not exclusively)

  5. I think the reason it's not brought up in the terms you speak of is exactly because of the fear you mention: the potential parallels dangerously muddy the argument, on both sides. As someone who agrees with you wholeheartedly about the inherent anti-feminism that is implied by the lactivist movement (and I exclusively breastfed – believe me, it's definitely an antediluvian existence. I've never felt so pushed into an uncomfortable archetypal role of domesticity, and that was just because of my kid needing to eat. I never attended a LLL meeting or any of that) – as someone who is also pro-life, I find my first response to be immediately on the defensive, ready to passionately argue the differences between abortion and lactivism. This isn't the place for that, so I won't, but the point is – you lose defenders on either side when you draw parallels between TWO controversial issues. If breastfeeding becomes about “it's my body” pro-choice arguments, and that's the justification for the more balanced approach to feeding that you suggest (and that I agree with), you'll lose me and others like me, that not only see them as two entirely different things, but see one as logical decency and the other as a crime. Lactivists are probably wise to compartmentalize the two as it helps them retain followers. I will agree that I don't quite understand how someone could be a militant lactivist and also pro-choice, but I don't quite understand how someone becomes a militant lactivist anyway…

  6. yeah i think what a lot of “lactivist feminists” fail to realize is that by being tit nazis they are being just as oppressive as the big bad “men” who held/hold them back… but they are being oppressive to other women.

  7. Which is exactly why I don't “go there”. I really was more interested in the concept of “choice” as being something that lactivists have taken away from us – not that they have taken away the choice itself, but the idea that choice is even something to discuss. The rhetoric of choice is used in many aspects of feminism, not just abortion, which is why I believe it's important to address.

    I personally think these are 2 completely separate issues – one is about reproductive rights, the other is about child-rearing. Therefore, the parallels can and should end there. But as background, some lactivists I've spoken with argue that the distinction is WHEN you believe life begins, and with life, individual rights – so if you are pro-choice and believe life begins at birth, say, then you might believe that the child's right to “proper” nutrition trumps a mother's bodily autonomy, whereas prior to birth, the mother's rights trump the fetus/baby's (depending on your beliefs). I think the more important issue here is that, as you say, one is quite literally a life and death argument, whereas the other is a question of nutrition. Although if you believe that formula is so bad that feeding one's baby the stuff is child abuse, then I guess it makes sense that you'd feel like the child's right to breastmilk is of highest importance. SO maybe we're back at the breastfeeding-science-is-misrepresented argument? I'm confused. 😉

    Maybe a better comparison would be to co-sleeping, not vaccinating, home birthing, or home schooling? Issues that are muddled by societal ideas about how child-rearing “should be”, or have science backing them up in prescriptive ways?

    In any case, I hope that we can all respect that this community represents a wide variety of people on different political and social spectrums, and we are all here to support a kinder, gentler, and more nuanced discussion of INFANT FEEDING. So let's leave the other hot topics to other more qualified blogs. 😉

  8. I agree completely with all of this. I was just commenting on WHY I think the lactivists don't go there. But I don't fault you for bringing up the comparison, because it's one I've heard before.

  9. Thank you. You articulated something that I haven't quite been able to when you wrote “…articles about how formula advertising leads women to being coerced into formula feeding is that he modern 'lactivist' movement does the same thing… brushed off possible in breastfeeding as a rare occurrence because they didn't want to 'scare me' and thought I wouldn't BF because of it…”

    To me, feminism is about choice. I think being a liberated woman in term of infant feeding means having options. Yes, I realize they are some mothers who would have liked to nurse but didn't have the support from their health care providers, families and society in general– not an empowering way to treat women. But neither is giving women who want or need to formula feed a hard time.

    I would be very angry if people argued that patients should not be told about possible side effects of a medication or risks of a surgery their doctor recommended, because doing so might scare them out of that treatment. In many cases, people do decide to try a medication or have a procedure, even if it might not be all roses. Some patients decide that the risks aren't worth it to them. It's their body. If there are possible side effects or risks, the patient has a right to know– ESPECIALLY if (not 'unless') they might lead a patient to not undergo a particular treatment. We consider warning them about potential ill effects part of informed consent.

    I am equally offended that extreme lactivists suggest not talking about possible issues about breastfeeding. They like to talk about an informed infant feeding decision. I agree. But I define an informed decision as one where people are given the pros and cons of each option and allowed to decide for themselves. Not picking and choosing what they should and shouldn't know so they'll do what you prefer. Yet breastfeeding advocates sometimes do the latter. It's not liberating. It's not a vote of confidence for women/ mothers. And it's very paternalistic.

  10. While I don't have any problem with the term “feminism,” (I've never associated it with supremacy, merely equality), I see your point. I think it's a pity modern feminism has taken on some elements of biological essentialism. You are absolutely right about EBF pretty much meaning mom has to give up any other activity (work, etc). There are exceptions, I'm sure, but on the whole that seems to be the case. And I hate the way lactivism and extreme attachment parenting can delegate fathers to the background.

  11. I don't think this is the only arena where feminism has been used to support a “one-size-fits-all” attitude (to borrow a phrase from Teri) to what it takes to be a “good” woman. I remember growing up hearing how important it is for more girls to go into math&science. I felt like it was my duty to do so because I was good at both. When I changed my major from genetics to political science to pursue a law career (which I enjoy very much and which makes use of my science background on an almost daily basis) I actually had friends tell me that I was letting down our gender.

    Looking back, I realize that attitude was precisely anti-feminist. Tearing down barriers that have historically kept women from doing things they want to do is a wonderful feminist goal. Encouraging and supporting girls and women who have an interest and an aptitude for certain things is great. In fact, we should do a LOT more of that in general. But to tell a woman that she should do something because she is a woman is exactly what feminists have fought against. And I think it's a little more insidious when it comes from other women because it's like saying “here are the rules for being in our club.”

    I don't owe anything to anybody just because I am a woman. Just because other women couldn't be scientists doesn't mean I had to become one. Just because other women were told not to breastfeed doesn't mean I have to. Just because there has never been a woman elected governor or to Congress in my state doesn't mean I have to run for office or vote for any female candidate. Just because I *can* do something doesn't mean I *should* do it.

    Really, the only thing that we, as women, owe to anyone is that we have the opportunity to make our own choices and manage our own lives in ways that generations before us never had. And we should do that. We should make choices. We should take ownership of our lives. We should prioritize our own values and desires. And in doing so, we may inadvertently be modeling feminism for other women. But that doesn't need to be the goal.

  12. I have to quibble that home birthing has “science backing [it] up in prescriptive ways.” As you know from my story which I shared as a FFF Friday, I had a home birth. I tried breastfeeding, it did not work out for a variety of reasons, so now I formula feed and use donor milk when it's available. Even back when I was pregnant I was uncomfortable with home birth being lumped in with lots of other things. It seems like people assume that if you make one choice, you will naturally make several other choices, too. I guess this is just human nature, it's our way of categorizing and making sense of the world. But it came as a surprise to me among the home birth crowd. When I started researching birth options, I guess I just assumed most women who choose home birth would be feminists like me… talk about a shock when I went to a local home birth meetup and there were a lot of conservative Christians! (Nothing against conservative Christians – just not what I expected.) ANd a lot of people were talking about not vaccinating in a way that they clearly assumed everyone at the meetup was on the same page about it. Again, I have nothing against people who choose not to vaccinate. That is their choice. It's not the choice I make. And it's odd to me that people assume that because I had a home birth, I also do X, Y and Z… just like they assume because I formula feed, I also do X, Y, and Z (different X, Y, and Z in this case, of course!). I chose home birth because it was the best choice for me given my situation… same reason I choice formula feeding.

  13. Amber, that's not how I meant it! I was trying to come up with other “debates” where people debate with both scientific and emotional arguments. What you said – “I chose home birth b/c it was the best choice for me given my situation” – is exactly how I feel about formula feeding, or co-sleeping. There is “prescriptive advice” given from the AAP and other medical orgs about these decisions, but in the end, it can – and should- be left to the parents. I felt that there were less controversial (and perhaps more appropriate) comparisons than abortion. I seriously wasn't trying to imply that these things should be lumped together or making a moral judgment on any of them. I'm personally very pro-home birth after seeing one of my best friends have such a great experience with it.

  14. Thanks for the clarification, and to be fair, I am pretty sensitive about this! But I think the reasons are clear… just like why I am also sensitive about formula feeding. Prescriptive advice certainly is given on all sides of the home birth debate, just as it is given on all sides of the infant feeding debate. This is what bugs me the most about militant lactivists, it is such an infantilizing attitude toward women.

  15. One-size-fits-all medicine can never be feminist medicine. Period. Forget equal footing with men, the second we treat women as mere cookie-cutter carbon copies of each other is the second we diminsh women to ***sub-human*** status.

    I do not want people to tell me what I must do with my baby girl as if she is molecule-by-molecule the same as other children. I do not want my daughter to grow up in a world that tells her her body must be the same as everyone else's just because she is female. I am tired of the rest of the world assuming that my body is the same as everyone else's, and that if I claim otherwise, I am ignorant, foolish, stupid, easily misled, or a troublemaker.

    I can't describe the trouble that can happen if I do not listen to my body–unfortunately, the people who will denigrate me are never the ones to experience the trouble, they escape the aftermath of the devastation they leave in their wake. Which is why their opinions should mean jack to me, and to all women, regardless of how you feed your baby. Militant lactivists do not proclaim feminism. They are oddly passionate about stripping the individual dignity from every woman they reach. That they call themselves feminists is a bastardization of the term.

    Far from being ignorant, foolish, stupid, easily misled, or a troublemaker, I am the expert in my own body. I have gone through blood, sweat, and tears to be so. Allowing the “breast is best” crowd to dictate my choices for myself and a child that shares half my genetic material invalidates my own suffering (not to mention the suffering of my parents as they worried constantly that otherwise innocent foods would send me into anaphylaxis), which made me so knowledgeable about my own body. A lactivist can be knowledgeable about hundreds, thousands of studies, but until one of those studies studies *me,* *my child,* or *our family* specifically, they are not an expert on any of us.

    We can make all the comparisons we want between this issue and that, but as far as I'm concerned, breastfeeding should be treated as a medical issue, with proper pro/con analysis that includes factors analyzed in other medical situations–everything from mom and baby's medical histories to a person's ability/willingness to pursue one choice over another. Until the militant feminist lactivists can guarantee me that all women and children are afforded such analyses with proper impartial guidance–the way we tend to treat conditions that afflict mostly men–I maintain they are deliberately focusing on the issue of infant feeding out of a desire to be queen bees, and not out of any geunine concern for anyone's health.

  16. Uh, yes, they do actually. And they liken it to poisoning your baby and child abuse.

    Do you just troll the internet looking for controversial/political posts to comment on? Do you know anything about the BF vs FF argument?

  17. EBF means giving up any other activity? What crap! I was back in the office 7 days after giving birth, while breastfeeding exclusively until introducing solids, and continuing to breastfeed until almost 3. It was easier to transport & feed the baby without having to haul extra equipment around & quicker to feed with milk constantly on tap.

    Didn't take away from my or my husband's sexual pleasure in my breasts (which, of course, were bigger during breastfeeding & changed very little after). Nor did it relegate him to the background – he has always been and continues to be an extremely involved parent.

    It's just feeding – there's much more to parenting than just getting food into the child.

  18. galianoandometepe – I think for most who BF the 7-8 hour days of nursing (if not more – for me it was 10-11 hours at first) and being up at all hours make any other activity pretty difficult, especially when still healing from giving birth physically (it took me 5-6 weeks and I think that's standard). Nor do most jobs permit the kind of regular pumping that is needed at the beginning (for 7-8 feeds a day of EBF I assume you need to pump every hour or two?) And it's not like most parents get to pass the baby back and forth for feeds and other things in the first several weeks as generally one person has leave (usually the mother) and the other does not (usually the father). It was different in my case because I was the one going back to work but I think your situation sounds rather unusual.

    • I had a wonderful two-week babymoon (in bed with baby resting all day). Not sure how much of that was nursing, didn’t really care either because the whole thing was lovely except for soothing the baby at night. 5 mo later I’m still EBF and back at work months ago no problems. And I have the kind of job where you wear a pager. I only need to pump twice a day. If I wasn’t able to go to my baby at lunch it’s be three. It’s just not necessarily that hard to EBF and work full-time I find it interesting that you are focusing on what’s wrong with breastfeeding, not what’s wrong with the lack of maternity and paternity leave in the US. Wouldn’t formula feeders want more maternity and paternity leave, too? Wouldn’t that be good for all kids?

      • I think you’re, quite embarrassingly, missing the whole point of this website. And good job sneaking in some self-praise while you’re at it.

  19. It's funny, the exact opposite was drilled into my head during one of our childbirth classes at the hospital. This by a nurse-LC who said the single most important thing you can ever do for your child was breastfeeding. Forget diaper changes, getting a safe car seat, running to the corner store at 11 pm for posterboard because your middle schooler forgot her presentation on mitosis tomorrow, or little things like sending her to college.

    Her take was that you chose to have this baby, so therefore you were signing up for being up every two hours to breastfeed. Period. That's two hours from the start of the feed. If you wanted more sleep, you should not have become a parent. She maintained that only by feeding every two hours could you avoid the dreaded formula and maintain your supply. Period. There was simply no other way. And if you didn't feed the baby every two hours, the baby would develop dehydration and you would be smacked with child services at your doorstep. If your baby was jaundiced (as mine was), you ran much greater risks with dehydration, and it was absolutely essential to feed at every possible opportunity. When people asked if you could introduce a bottle at night so mom could get some sleep, she threw up her hands and asked what kind of mother you were if you were putting sleep before your child. Someone asked about pumping because of work, and the nurse-LC told her she had better pump every two hours (from the start of the pumping session) because your supply dips once you're away from your baby for lenghts of time and no pump is as efficient as a baby as getting milk out.

    I could just see myself, exhausted, lugging my pump to clients' offices, demanding a private place that isn't a bathroom, breaking up my time into 1.5 hours chunks (at max), draping myself in unwashed baby clothes and staring at photos of my child to keep my supply up. And then I could just see my clients telling me y'know what, they won't be needing my services anymore.

    Your work may have been very accommodating for breastfeeding, but I assure you, if you are an independent contractor who is paid hourly and has to go to client sites, it is significantly harder. And there are a lot more in the workforce who are hourly contractors, even if that's the only place they work, because of many crappy things about the American workforce that I won't derail the conversation getting into. I won't say it's imposible because I think one of the greater lessons of breast vs. bottle is that the second we assume everyone is the same…well you know what they say in the military about assuming. I'm sure there are some women who can do it and have made it happen. But please don't think that your experience is the same as everyone else's. For better or for worse, I'd say yours was fairly rare.

  20. Her class is the reason I broke down in the hospital once we were told our baby had such jaundice. The second the nurses said she might be dehydrated, and we might have to supplement her to avoid a longer hospital and bili lights, my world pretty much shattered. The hospital pediatrician agreed that a little supplementing would help solve the jaundice. Didn't help that our militant lactivist pediatrician (who didn't practice at that hospital) told me at her first visit I'd ruined my child's health for life for the tiny amount of formula she'd drank.

    Which is all, again, why I feel that pushing breastfeeding is, in many cases, not about actually promoting health. It's about grinding every woman who gives birth into the ground.

  21. I realize that making assumptions like “all lactivists are pro-choice” and “pro-life women cannot be feminists” is incorrect. They are two completely separate issues. However, for me one very basic argument is the same regarding the right to abortion or to formula feed, or home birth, or anything else for that matter is: “MY body, MY choice”.

  22. Indeed – and yet if you are absolutely committed to EBF that is the path you may very well have to go down, especially if you believe that Just One Bottle is a slippery slope to failure (though some who claim to EBF like writer above seem to have pumped and bottle-fed mostly). That's why I'm a big advocate of being flexible and doing what works while recognizing what path you are committing yourself to (e.g. if supply dips you may find yourself supplementing more and so on).

  23. Roxane – I agree strongly with one exception – we expect the state (in welfare states at least) to intervene to support the survival of children and while I'm ambivalent about this (esp given the history of young children being removed from their homes because some bureaucrat decided they were at risk) it does bear considering that if someone is at risk of *dying* as is sometimes the case with home birth, there should be regulations (as opposed to intervention to ensure “optimal” feeding as in the arguments for making formula prescription-only). Could be as simple as requiring the midwife to agree to transfer mother to hospital in case of x y or z. Much as I'm strongly pro-choice with a libertarian streak it makes me uneasy to think that someone might put their life or child's life at risk because of a commitment to home birth. Then again, it's for the parents and medical professionals to make the final decision.

  24. Wow Teri. Sleep isn't even an option for me anymore. I have to have solid sleep to have any hope of staying relatively healthy. We are already worried about how we are going to handle a newborn if it's like my son and doesn't sttn until after 15 months (even on formula). I just don't understand how everyone can fit into a one-size-fits-all box and be scolded if their situation falls outside the bounds of that approach.

  25. Again, I don't want to totally derail FFF's greater point which has to do with feminism and BFing, not abortion and BFing, but Roxanne and Perfesser's brief argument above illustrates the trouble with this analogy: You both agree My body, My choice, but Perfesser wants to intervene when there's another body at risk as well – hence the pro-life argument against abortion. Unfortunately for FFF, she's brought to light a massive can of worms in linking any of these debates, because when it comes to kids, it's never just your body – it's your uterus, your breasts, your sleep, your psychology, but it's all intricately linked with this other person that can't fend for himself. I think it's a great illustration of why this debate gets so much more complicated and emotional than simply “Child Hungry. Feed it.”

  26. I didn't come out and say I wanted to intervene, Megs, I just mentioned that I see the argument for regulating certain practices that are literally about life and death rather than imposing by law one set of practices over another set of perhaps less ideal but still ultimately safe practices. And even then my inner libertarian squirms at the thought of telling someone how to give birth (on the point of abortion and what constitutes life, I think it's so much a matter of ontology that it may be difficult to agree on when there is a “life” at stake).

  27. My medical history isn't perfect and the issue of not sleeping was a serious concern after the classes I took. I remember going to a restaurant with my husband and burst out crying, I was so scared about what breastfeeding meant and what would happen if it didn't work out. I'm asthmatic. If I catch a respiratory infection, I *must* get rest. If I do, no problem, the bug goes away in a few days. If I don't, it's bronchitis and then pneumonia. At that point, I'm no good for ANYTHING for weeks. How is that best for my baby?

    To say I felt caught between a rock (no sleep) and a hard place (having it beaten into me that there was no other way than breastfeeding) is an understatement. Looking back, I can still feel the long shadow of the panic when breastfeeding didn't go swimmingly upon me. It's why I still care about this subject, even when my daughter is a toddler, speaks and understands more words than I can count (she's obviously not missing out on any IQ points!), is skinny as a rail (not obese, as pediatrician #1 warned me she would inevitably become), and is far healthier than I was at her age.

  28. You touched on something that bothers me about breastfeeding advocacy. Not only is there this blanket assumption that all womens' bodies are the same and everyone can breastfeed (and if you can't, it's either an excuse or so rare as to be not worth discussing), but there's this assumption that everyone's breastfeeding experience is the same.

    Plenty of women breastfeed but hate it. Plenty of women go through hell to breastfeed. Plenty of women latch on and never have so much as a cracked nipple. Plenty of women love it so much they breastfeed well into the toddler years. 20 seconds on LLLI's forums will tell you that breastfeeding does NOT go easily for a LOT of women. A quick gander at kellymom tells you there is a lot of troubleshooting that can be done when things don't go well.

    So why pretend otherwise? Unless the goal is to deliberately withhold information in an attempt to strongarm women into the choice that activists want them to make, not for their health, but because for some, breastfeeding isn't about health, it's a moral cause and an opportunity to show their “superiority.”

  29. It's scary when the people with letters after their name abdicate their ethical responsibility to practice good, individualized medicine in favor of what they perceive to be a moral cause.

    In retrospect, the only good thing I got out of her class was that I donated the cord blood. That, I agree with her, is liquid gold, and well worth the 2 hours it took to fill out the questionnaire that asked me in 27 different ways if I'd ever injected myself with a shared needle.

  30. I have to totally agree. I've gotten so much crap for writing about breastfeeding issues. Told I'm scaring women when I feel that everyone should be informed.

  31. As a feminist and lactivist, I'm very confused by the perception of many of you that lactivists want to “force women to breastfeed”. If a mom opts not to breastfeed (for any reason), I really don't care.

    My concern is this: over 90% of moms in California go into the hospital with the intention of breastfeeding. Only half of those moms are exclusively breastfeeding when they leave the hospital. There's clearly a disconnect. As a feminist, I see that the system is failing moms who WANT to breastfeed.

    Again, breastfeed or don't, but when we frame breastfeeding as simply a matter of “choice” and don't provide any tools for a mom to actually be successful (trained lactation support, the right to nurse in public, workplace accommodations, etc.), we're failing all women.

  32. I'm certainly not arguing against providing those tools – in fact, I'm quite in favor of them. I'm just as concerned with the number of moms who frequent this blog who the system failed as the ones who didn't want to breastfeed in the first place (although it seems to me that in many cases, the “trained lactation support” failed these women just as much as any other societal barriers). Like I said, breastfeeding needs feminism to ensure that the women who want to nurse, CAN nurse.

    However, I have a different take on the statistics. To my mind, the fact that 90% of women are breastfeeding when they leave the hospital and then cease to do could be explained away just as easily by an alternative explanation: women are feeling pressured into breastfeeding by the baby-friendly (and “soft” baby friendly) initiatives, when maybe they really didn't want to in the first place. Not saying this is true, but I think it's plausible, and something no one seems to want to admit.

  33. California has one of the highest breastfeeding rates in the US. I think exclusive breastfeeding statistics could be argued. There are plenty of women who had to use baby formula in the first 3 months and then return to EBF. Sometimes it is just a matter of a few days until their baby gains weight then they EBF just weeks later. Then these women are automatically listed as no longer EBF when really they are. Then there are women like myself who made the choice to combo feed from the beginning and no longer are listed as EBFing when indeed we are still breastfeeding after 1,2,3, 4 months and so on, but it is just with the help of formula. There are also many women who try breastfeeding and realize it is just not right for them and decide to stop. It may not be the hospitals use of formula that is changing those rates entirely. Just some scenarios here to consider before assuming the 90% who exclusively breastfeeding were sabatoged by formula offerings in the hospital.

  34. Wow, I certainly didn't intend to start a discussion on home birthing! I have my own views on the subject and I don't feel that sharing them is relevent to this blog. But ultimately, regardless of my personal views, I think that welfare state or no, we have to stop treating women like they are incapable of making informed decisions for their own bodies and their own families.

  35. I think that something a lot of women who frequent this blog have in common, is that they were bullied by lactivists when they chose to bottlefeed, whether they *really* chose to do so, or had to in order to keep their children healthy. For the second group, I definitely agree the system is failing them. But it's not all the system's fault either. Of the 90% of mothers who have the intention to breastfeed, some won't have any milk come in at all, or not in adequate quantities. And what these women really need is proper education of bottle feeding, not guilt trips.

  36. There is use of lactivist as a derogatory term here, but that stems from those who have encountered many self described lactivists who would better be described as uncompromising bullies. I'd agree that lactivism should be defined as examining and breaking down barriers for women that want to breastfeed, but more often those who self define as lactivists are about jingoism, burdening women with the sole responsibility for whether breastfeeding succeeds or fails (when as you can see from your info snippet it's clearly not wholly on mothers shoulders), and promoting 'facts' (which may not be actually factual and can promote feelings of guilt) instead of support.

    I rather wish there were something better to call them, but when it's a horse that walks like a duck and calls itself a duck what can you do? You start calling it a duck. Then duck is just a dirty word for horse.

  37. Absolutely agree with you. I just wanted to note that there is a general exception for medical procedures and others that put people's lives at risk, e.g. we generally expect doctors to be regulated in how they deliver our babies and so on. But that's a side point and a different animal altogether from BFing! And FWIW reading about paternalistic hospital initiatives to stop formula samples and so on makes me agree all the more strongly with you about women making informed decisions themselves.

  38. ITA. That's why I said that if you're extremely committed to EBF at all costs and all sacrifices you may well have to be prepared to do the martyr-mother thing that your LC recommended. I was not! And my baby was way happier and better fed when every feeding was not a struggle (and his mother not a nutjob)

  39. I wonder if anyone has ever surveyed pediatricians who surely keep records of who BFs and FFs to really see what percentage of women manage to BF, what percentage don't, and what the reasons are. I wonder too if LCs keep such records – it might be useful to have that information instead of making assumptions about why women want to BF and why they don't manage to (and that infamous 5% stat which sounds so ludicrous…just like the stat that says only 20% of babies are colicky…right). Just as a bit of anecdotal evidence i remember nursing my baby in the ped's office for his 3 week appointment and the ped saying I was lucky he had a good latch because so many of his other patients really struggled to get the baby to latch well. How many mothers have the resources or help to overcome those problems I wonder, especially as LCs are not a free public service.

    I think Teri is right that BFing is such a strong social norm that intentions to do so, like church attendance, are likely overreported and optimistic, with people saying they wish to live up to an ideal. I think studies have shown that in addition to latch problems, there are plenty of people with supply problems and most importantly I think FFF cited a study here that showed the biggest drop-off point in BFing was when women go back to work. If there is no paid maternity leave and over 60% of mothers of young children (under 3) work outside the home, then that's a pretty big barrier for BFing rates. And of course BFing simply isn't for everyone, a lot of women don't like it, and even those for whom it works may not have the support and resources to get through nursing strikes and deal with being the only person who can feed the child day and night if they have a spouse who works outside the home.

    I do agree that hospitals need to help women who want to BF and I was very glad I could call on the hospital LC as I needed to for 1-2 weeks after birth (and every friend who BFed successfully has said “I couldn't have done it without the LC's help”). But let's not assume that it's a matter of sabotage when women don't manage to BF when there are so many other factors at play. And it simply doesn't make sense to me that framing BFing as a matter of choice is “failing women” – it is respecting their decisions as adults. By all means get more LCs in hospitals (and make their services affordable, please) but at some point you have to respect that not every woman is going to be able to or want to put herself through a ringer for something that she may have initially agreed was the ideal choice.

  40. So true. Another big one is the maternity leave. If you only get 6 weeks of leave for a normal vaginal delivery and 3 months for a C-section delivery well you can only imagine how many women are going to no longer exclusively breastfeed before 3 months is over! I know many EBFing advocates point to statistics of other first world countries, but give us a break. Many of them have a t least 1 year of maternity leave.

  41. Yeah – and while Lactivista is talking mainly about intended BFing rates vs actual once mothers leave the hospital I would wager that the difficulties women face + knowledge that it may be extremely difficult to continue once they are back at work combine to lower the actual rates of BFing pretty quickly. (Does anyone know where the hospital entry vs initiating rate stat comes from BTW? I've only seen stats for those who initiate vs those still BFing at three and six months)

  42. I assume you're looking for links to bf'ers advocating to make formula illegal and not instances of your trolling, so here you go: (chock full of inaccuracies, correlations vs causations, and blame placed on mom for not being successful)

    And that was just a quick Google search. Anytime an article is posted about formula or breastfeeding, you'll see someone comment that formula should only be available via prescription.

    As seen here:


    And here:

    If you were referring to instances where formula is referred to as poison or child abuse, you can ask any number of us here and we will be happy to share or stories. Several of them note that verbiage in the Friday posts on this very website.

  43. Absolutely. Someone tried to assert , to me only 2 days ago, that you NEED a scrip in England. I believe this is false, but can not confirm HIS assertion. There are so many reasons why comparing England to the U.S is just downright Silly.

  44. I'm glad it worked out for you. It doesn't for others. So saying it is crap, is making the assumption that for those whom it doesn't work out for makes them bad moms. You were back in the office 7 days after giving birth? What about the Mom who goes back to being a firefighter or police officer? Or, who goes back to Taco Bell or Walmart or any other place where it may be difficult to do what you were able to do.

    That is neither here, nor there. The point is that circumstances and situations are different for every biological mother (and even non-bio moms). As long as complete neglect isn't happening, it shouldn't be anyone's right (male/female or otherwise) to shame someone for her choice to BF or FF.

  45. Do you assume that “co-sleeping, not vaccinating, home birthing, or home schooling” only occurs in families where the mom breastfeeds?

  46. Not at all! As I said above, I was trying to give examples of “issues that are muddled by societal ideas about how child-rearing 'should be', or have science backing them up in prescriptive ways.” I was not placing any kind of judgment or category on top of these parenting choices. I would have home birthed if I a) had the guts and b) didn't have high-risk pregnancies. We did – and still do, at times – co-sleep. And I obviously do not breastfeed. 🙂

  47. I didn't mean to “go there”, either. Sorry if it was taken that way. I meant “choice” in the broader sense of the word, not as it relates to the abortion debate. Maybe I should have used the word “options” instead.

  48. Just wanted to add my 2 cents-

    I think that there is a lot of crap that keeps parents divided (boob vs bottle, crib vs co sleep etc)and sometimes after we have adopted our stance, we forget that we can think independently and see the other points of view. I see it on both sides. I supplemented with formula when my baby was a newborn because of incorrect and outdated information that my first pediatrician gave me. While I am pissed about that, being able to formula feed was a Godsend. I was worried about not making enough milk and it was only when I opened the can of free formula from the hospital and made some that I was able to exhale and BREATHE.

    The first time I gave my daughter a bottle, I was able to feel confident that she was fed, and then I went to run her bath and pick out a cute night time outfit. It was the first time as a mom that I felt 'Whew, I can do this mom thing. I'm going to be okay.'

    After that, my milk came in fully(they say that it takes 3-5 days, well my mammary glands didn't get the memo!) and that coupled with us bring the baby to bed with us (don't judge me! she's alive still!) my nursing relationship with her and my whole take on motherhood increased like 10,000%.

    When I went back to work after a scant 7 weeks with her, I gave the sitter my 2nd extra can of formula and told her she can use it if ever I wasn't able to pump enough at work for the next day. I work a 12 hr shift at a hospital and I pump before my shift starts, and during my 3 breaks.

    Now the sitter did use formula, when she threw out my breast milk cause she thought it was bad (you know how it separates? She thought it was curdled). So it was a learning experience for both of us.

    Anyways my baby girl is 4 months old and only gets breast milk. I love nursing her and I love being a mother, but the pivotal moment for that was when I gave her that bottle of formula.

    So the moral of my story is: crazy lactavists please put your energy where it belongs- maternity leave in the US, better employer accommodations for BFeeding women(I pump in the bathroom in my dept, I work in a hospital, that has a lactation room , I'm not 'allowed' to use it. Yes I can raise a stink, but retaliation is a reality and I need this job.

    So where's the feminism in bottlefeeding if I'm coerced into it by a society that thinks breastfeeding is a hindrance? Where's the feminism is breastfeeding if you're coerced into it by a society that thinks bottlefeeding is inferior? (Those are rhetorical questions)

    Sorry for the mini thesis, apparently I had a lot on my mind haha!

  49. Agreed wholeheartedly. Bad advice is just plain unfair. I know life isn't fair, but it's really stinkin' unfair. Infant feeding choice means fully supporting breastfeeding (meaning health care professionals have a responsibility to give proper advice, just as they have in all other aspects of their practice) if that's what works for a family, just as much as it means fully supporting bottle-feeding if that's what works instead/also.

    It seems that one of the major booby traps to breastfeeding comes not from some formula company, but a rigid adherence to dogma when parents are faced with the rock-and-a-hard-place reality of “I need to feed this screaming baby.” A little more flexibility means parents can forge ahead with breastfeeding while feeling like they have a safety net in case it's just not working out. Some of FFF's readers have described it being easier to BF child #2 because of using formula with child #1–they know that child #2 will be fine either way and are more relaxed about feeding. That lesser pressure seems to make a difference for some people.

    Can't agree more on your points on where the energy needs to be and the feminism.

    As an aside, no judgment here for co-sleeping–I have no hard data on how many around here have done it but probably a fair number. When you've had to learn that (sometimes the hard way) when it comes to feeding, why not take that same practicality and apply it elsewhere? A lot of FFF's readers have lamented that they use certain practices that tend to be lumped in with breastfeeding, and yet feel unwelcome at, say, attachment parenting support sites because we're not breastfeeding/exclusively BFing.

    For our daughter, we weighed the pros/cons and practicality of co-sleeping throughout her life, and have done it when it works and stopped when it hasn't. Frankly, co-sleeping probably lives, if you figure that it was the only way we could get sleep at one point, and driving while tired isn't much different from driving intoxicated. 😛

  50. In Canada the pressure to breastfeed is not just social (although there is a hell of a lot of that), it is also from health and state institutions. I used to work at a pre- and post-natal program funded by one of the health authorities in BC, and funding was dependent on meeting certain requirements, including promotion of exclusive breastfeeding, and having 90% of the mothers breastfeed exclusively to at least 6 months (although longer was preferred). If we didn't hit that mark, we lost funding. As you might imagine, I saw staff bully mothers into breastfeeding, exaggerate the supposed health benefits of breastfeeding, and make up (and trust me, I know all the peer reviewed lit) all sorts of lies about the problems with formula feeding. Particularly targeted by the breast-is-best bullshit were immigrants, women whose first language was not English, women or lower socio-economic status, and women with no or little post-secondary education.

    I'm not a mother. I've never had to face this myself. But after dealing with a sobbing teenage mother who had social services called on her only because she chose to formula feed, the feminist in me is extremely opposed to lactivism. That's not to say that I'm necessarily pro-formula, but I'm definitely pro-choice.

  51. I'm Canadian. I don't know any Canadian population for which 90% exclusively breastfeed at 6 months. Can you please post where this is because that's quite unbelievably high numbers.

  52. You don't need a scrip in England for standard formulas. The specialty hypoallergenic formulas require a scrip but are free on the NHS, fair trade there. Manufacturers cannot advertise formulas designed for babies under 6 months, but it is definitely available over the counter.

  53. Pingback: Of nanny states and nonsense - Fearless Formula Feeder

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