Lactivism and Feminism
October 10, 2011 1:05 PM   Subscribe

You've (Not) Come a Long Way, Baby: Why feminism and lactivism make such a dysfunctional couple
posted by the young rope-rider (73 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I've been trying to convince lactivists of this for a while now. They seem to be confused to find out I was a dedicated extended breastfeeder. Some people can't be helped, when it comes to having an open mind. You either have it, or you don't.
posted by sunshinesky at 1:10 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Awesome. I feel the same way about the natural childbirth activists. It's great for some people, not for others. It's appalling how women (and is does seem to be mostly women) are tearing each other down for wanting pain meds during childbirth or bottle-feeding.
posted by Mavri at 1:17 PM on October 10, 2011 [14 favorites]

This is one of those discussions where a not-US / not middle-class perspective makes a huge difference.
posted by mumimor at 1:19 PM on October 10, 2011 [9 favorites]

Bottle-feeding: safe, legal and rare.
posted by GuyZero at 1:49 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

I keep hearing about the breastfeeding Nazis, but never, ever, actually met one. And I hang out with midwives, doulas, and various birthy types on a regular basis.

Not saying they don't exist, just saying it's weird how often I hear this story but never see it. Perhaps you have to have a really large population of "breastfeeders" before you get "breastfeeders who are also assholes."
posted by emjaybee at 1:51 PM on October 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

People here in Berkeley can be assholes about it, but they're that way about a ton of things.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:54 PM on October 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Perhaps you have to have a really large population of "breastfeeders" before you get "breastfeeders who are also assholes."

If that's true then breastfeeders must be really awesome people on average. With the rest of humanity, you generally only need a population of two or maybe three people before you get an asshole.
posted by The Tensor at 1:55 PM on October 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

If your baby's sucking on an asshole, you're doing it wrong.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:58 PM on October 10, 2011 [13 favorites]

And what happens to those who can't but feel awful about it? I've watched a number of women for whom breastfeeding didn't work out and who agonized about it. While I absolutely agree that breast milk is almost always the best option there are times when someone can't physically make it work, or they've adopted, or the baby can't. It's simplistic to say you should unless you medically can't because "medically can't" isn't always simple, obvious or fixible but not medical. I've watched women I know go through enormous and exhausting efforts to find places and time to pump in workplaces that were utterly hostile to them. It's another one of those issues that seems like a simple binary but in reality can be a bit more messy than that.

I nursed all three of my kids and did things like run public meetings while doing so without anyone ever giving me any grief. I had the immense luxury of being self-employed and able to set my schedule though and that made a huge difference. I also have never run into any lactivists who were jerks about those who couldn't and am in the midst of a midwife/doula/home birth community as well.
posted by leslies at 2:10 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

With the rest of humanity, you generally only need a population of two or maybe three people before you get an asshole.

In my experience, barring medical complications, there is general one per person.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:21 PM on October 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Even if we accept that you "should" unless you "can't," and if you "can" and you don't, you "should" feel guilty, how do we define "can't"?

I've known women who have suffered through weeks of misery and pain and agony despite making absolutely heroic efforts to breastfeed. In some cases, it contributed to such deep pain on their part (both emotional and physical) that it inhibited their going outside, returning to work, or seeing friends. It wasn't necessarily that they "couldn't" do it, but in one case, the mother was utterly, totally miserable and the baby was constantly sick because her milk didn't seem to agree with him for whatever reason. She had lactation consultants, she read books, she talked to everyone, she followed recommendations, and finally she was told that her best bet was to switch to a diet in which (this is not a joke) for the remainder of the time she was breastfeeding, she could only consume six foods, two of which were salt and pepper. (I believe it was chicken, green beans, quinoa, and ... something else as the other four.) This was meant to be permanent while her child was breastfeeding.

Define "can't." What about psychologically can't? What about emotionally can't? What about economically can't, because you can't manage it once you go back to work?

This is the problem with getting into other people's personal situations when it comes to something as intimate as this. Is formula feeding, in a complete and utter vacuum, suboptimal in some respects? I guess. But babies aren't born in a vacuum. The quality of the baby's nutrition is not the ONLY thing that goes into that decision. And the idea that women have to sacrifice all their bodily autonomy if they choose to have children freaks me right out for reasons having nothing to do with abortion.

To put it bluntly, I remain unconvinced that this is any of my damn business.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 2:23 PM on October 10, 2011 [56 favorites]

To put it bluntly, I remain unconvinced that this is any of my damn business.

Amen, as they say. I am a man, and I am extremely unlikely to have children, so this is really none of my business at all. In light of that, I say that it's really up to the individual mother (in consultation with medical professionals, family, other mothers, etc who she chooses to ask) to decide what is best for her and the child. Will some women chose wrongly? Yes, probably. But, honestly, if we are going to set the bar at always being perfect, who is not going to fail their child horribly on a daily basis? That way lies madness.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:34 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Raising a child does mean doing those things best for it, not most convenient for you. Your "bodily autonomy" in that case ended when you chose to carry another totally non-autonomous human being to term.

This is just ... so once a woman gives birth she ceases to have bodily autonomy? The mind boggles. Having children is a sacrifice, but I refuse to believe that parents, especially women, are obligated to become mere appendages of their children. I think this is the attitude that leads to helicopter parenting and the kind of neurotic obsession with parenting minutiae that you see among a certain group these days. The best isn't always necessary, and sometimes "good enough" is good enough. Kids are resilient and will be fine if they're raised by loving, attentive parents who are human, autonomous individuals themselves, who make mistakes and don't always do their best.
posted by Mavri at 2:34 PM on October 10, 2011 [37 favorites]

Thank you Linda!

So, stay the hell out of my uterus, and leave my tits (and kids) and decisions about such alone.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:39 PM on October 10, 2011

I'm seconding what Linda_Holmes said.

One of the most significant factors for long term mental and emotional health comes from bonding during the first year of life. It seems to me that if breast feeding on principle means creating emotional and/or psychological issues with Mom that disrupts or otherwise distorts a potentially healthy connection with baby, who the hell cares about principle?

That said, I am convinced that either way, this is not any of my damn business.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 2:40 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Raising a child does mean doing those things best for it, not most convenient for you.

But this is entirely untrue. Parents make lots of complex decisions and balance many factors all the time, and always have. For example: moving your wife and family across the country to get a better job and breaking family and school ties, going bowling instead of staying home to read aloud to the kids, getting a nicer car instead of spending the money on home tuition. Everyday compromises, imperfections, the great pattern of life. I can't see anyone pointing a finger at things like that, but then, these are male decisions.

Or to put it another way: would you take huge doses of oestrogen to make you, a man, lactate, to feed your infant? Or just use the formula, which is just fine if you have clean water? I can't see me shrivelling my genitals for the babe. It wouldn't be any particular inconvenience for me - I have quite a liberal office. But I'd rather not, thanks.

Really, pla, I thought you were a good right-winger like me - personal freedom and responsibility, right? Is a mother better breast-feeding, or going back to her job as an investment banker? Those extra thousands in school fees will make up for a few per cent IQ from breast milk. Her choice, I think?
posted by alasdair at 2:46 PM on October 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

who the hell cares about principle?

Well, I'm not into making people feel bad, but the baby formula industry has a multi-million dollar marketing budget. My concern is people not making a conscious decision to breastfeed or not because they're just to lazy or apathetic to inform themselves. IMO it's less about not giving people a choice than it is about making sure everyone is making a fully informed choice. Which doesn't always happen.
posted by GuyZero at 2:50 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

OMG, that stuff by Jan Andrea is still floating around the internet? It's quoted in the article.

Man, I remember being at Salon's Table Talk with her; her first kid is about the same age as my first, maybe a little younger. She was so freaking over the top with the attachment parenting thing, to the extent that her son, her first baby, would *always* sleep on her body. I mean, every time, and this woman would prioritize her child's sleeping on her body over everything else. The "" site was what she'd do on her laptop when her baby was, um, sleeping. She would eloquently defend the baby's right to sleep on her person as prioritized over just about everything, including her own need to use the bathroom, which she said was very uncomfortable sometimes but just the kind of sacrifice that a mother should make to do the absolute, absolute best for her kid. Just like in that you-should-be-guilty-if-you-don't-breastfeed excerpt.

Then she got pregnant with a second.

It's been a long time since I've thought about this stuff--I'm guessing her elder kid is in middle school now, or near to it. But oh, my goodness, am I terribly, *terribly* curious about how that turned out.

posted by Sublimity at 2:51 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I third Linda Holmes.

I would also like to point out that I never had breast milk and am apparently still healthier than people I know who got the breast. So breast is not a 100% guarantee that your child will be better off there, as far as I can tell from straw polling. Especially if it's making the mother really badly off.

None of y'all's business, really.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:52 PM on October 10, 2011

Pump it out at night, and dad or daycare can give it to the kid the next day. Not even rocket science, just the magic of Tupperware.

Pumping isn't a once a day activity.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:10 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Pump it out at night, and dad or daycare can give it to the kid the next day. Not even rocket science, just the magic of Tupperware.

You obviously know nothing at all about pumping and how it's done.
posted by miss tea at 3:10 PM on October 10, 2011 [15 favorites]

Mod note: dialing it back at this point. If you are not trolling you neeed to act like you are not trolling, starting now, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:11 PM on October 10, 2011

The degree to which people are willing to blithely sacrifice womens lives and bodies for their own agenda never fails to dishearten me.
posted by Space Kitty at 3:13 PM on October 10, 2011 [14 favorites]

Mod note: Seriously: go to metatalk, it's mathowie's birthday
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:14 PM on October 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Seems like the wee derail here proves the author's point about lactivism needing feminism quite nicely. Control of own body = basic feminism.
posted by feckless at 3:15 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Well, I'm not into making people feel bad, but the baby formula industry has a multi-million dollar marketing budget. My concern is people not making a conscious decision to breastfeed or not because they're just to lazy or apathetic to inform themselves. IMO it's less about not giving people a choice than it is about making sure everyone is making a fully informed choice. Which doesn't always happen.

Not sure about the US, but here in Canada, formula companies have the responsibility to point out the "breast is best". I haven't met a medical professional who won't say the same. I'd say it's pretty well impossible for a woman to get away without knowing that breast milk is the ideal food in comparison to formula... however, breastfeeding is not always better that formula feeding.
posted by sunshinesky at 3:24 PM on October 10, 2011

This part of the article:

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.

Sounds exactly like the discussion here about the French head-covering law. Another one that split feminists based on how much they agree with this premise, I guess.
posted by wildcrdj at 3:30 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unless the breasts in question are attached to you, I don't think it's any of your business whether or not they're used for feeding. There are other options that seem to work quite well, as well as breastfeeding.
posted by Solomon at 3:37 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

here in Canada, formula companies have the responsibility to point out the "breast is best".

This is a recent phenomenon and not one that should be taken for granted.

Women of my parent's generation were given drugs to "dry up their milk" and told by their doctors to go out and buy formula, which is hardly an informed, individual choice.
posted by GuyZero at 3:38 PM on October 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

The subject of this post is a on a difficult subject, one that frequently elicits tons of opinions and responses but is one where I have to file it under "difficult decisions everyone has to approach themselves and do what works best and it's best to withhold scorn without knowing everything involved".
posted by mathowie at 3:52 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes, and there's also other countries and socioeconomic strata to think of-- I've heard plenty of "breast is best" myself, but what about women who only hear from formula companies?

I think the messaging is important, because I think informed choice is the right way to go. The you-should-feel-guilty-if-you-don't isn't a great way to *do* that messaging, because we want choice, not browbeating.
posted by nat at 3:52 PM on October 10, 2011

Yeah, and this blog comes from a polarizing position of "dammit I use formula and I'm proud of it" which seems as problematic as the "breast is the only way and you should feel bad if you can't/don't". Do what you can and what works best both for baby and your life/location/resources.

Proclaiming absolutes in either direction is fraught with peril.
posted by mathowie at 4:02 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Women of my parent's generation were given drugs to 'dry up their milk' and told by their doctors to go out and buy formula, which is hardly an informed, individual choice."

Sure. Agreed. But I think there's very, very little risk that a significant number of the formula-feeding mothers being sent the "guilt" message are formula feeding because their doctors aren't telling them breast milk is medically ideal. But either way, I think what you're talking about is health policy, and if you want to talk about health policy that opens up options and gives full and accurate information in a way that still respects the parents' individual decision-making, I don't think that's a problem. It's the societal micromanaging taking place at the individual level that concerns me in cases like these.

Like, "Should there be sex education?" is a policy question and a matter of public concern. "What particular kind of sex should my neighbors try next Friday, considering that he is about six-four and works at a car dealership and sometimes listens to Andrew WK and she is five-five with a bad hip and enjoys watching 'Supernatural'?" is the kind of thing I feel okay leaving up to them rather than trying to figure out an answer from what I know of them and giving them notes.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 4:05 PM on October 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

Yeah, and this blog comes from a polarizing position of "dammit I use formula and I'm proud of it" which seems as problematic as the "breast is the only way and you should feel bad if you can't/don't".

I haven't read any of this blog but the post linked here, but I am not sure that it is fair to say "I use formula and I'm proud of it" is anywhere near as problematic as "breast is the only way and you should feel bad if you can't/don't". The first is making a statement only about the writer herself, the second is making a judgement of others. In my book, that is far far more problematic.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:07 PM on October 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Last year, when I was in the writing process for my forthcoming book, I struggled to find any feminist discourse about breastfeeding... the conversation was ridiculously one-sided, focusing on the male-dominated medical community which had provoked our bottle-feeding culture in the first place.

I don't have a particular dog in the fight of breast vs. bottle (other than it's nearly always a bad idea to judge someone for choosing one or the other when you have almost no chance of knowing the full circumstances of that choice), but this assertion seemed weird to me. Really, the entire feminist conversation she saw around breastfeeding activism revolved around patriarchy/paternalism in the medical community? That's consistent with what I've seen and read around natural childbirth but not so much with breastfeeding. In my reading of it, (American) feminists are galvanized around the issue of public breastfeeding as an issue of women having access to the public sphere, even after bearing children.

I guess it probably hinges on how you're defining "lactivism." Is it about protesting companies whose employees ask nursing women to cover up or leave, and pushing to pass laws that explicitly give women the right to nurse in public spaces? Or is it about supporting the La Leche League, ending formula give-aways in hospitals, and trying to pursuade every new mother that breast is best? I think the first project is eminently feminist and the second is neither particularly pro- or anti-feminist, more of a public health push that could probably be rightfully criticized.
posted by iminurmefi at 4:09 PM on October 10, 2011

feckless: Control of own body = basic feminism.

Agreed - this is probably the best definition there is. But like most non-monolithic movements, feminism has various factions who insist that their way is correct and everyone else is doing it wrong.

Talk to any group of self-proclaimed feminists about stripping, porn, or even the role of women in the home (like whether it's okay to be a stay-at-home mom), and you're going to get a fair amount of disagreement and a handful of nutty extreme views.
posted by coolguymichael at 4:11 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

What particular kind of sex should my neighbors try next Friday

So, again, I'm not into giving anybody a guilt trip, but your analogy doesn't hold as unlike sex, the decision to breast feed isn't made equally by the mother and the child. But like others have said, fixating on breast feeding as the one and only factor in healthy child-rearing is wrong on a couple of levels.
posted by GuyZero at 4:12 PM on October 10, 2011

The first is making a statement only about the writer herself, the second is making a judgement of others.

Yeah, I was kind of projecting from seeing that "I'm a fearless formula feeder" button that the author is encouraging everyone to use (on their sidebar of the blog). It comes off as slightly antagonistic, like you want to start arguments with random internet people over your position.
posted by mathowie at 4:12 PM on October 10, 2011

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.

...what about women (like my mother) who didn't choose to have kids, worked until the day they went into labour, and then went back to work two weeks after giving birth?
posted by anaximander at 4:14 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I keep hearing about the breastfeeding Nazis, but never, ever, actually met one. And I hang out with midwives, doulas, and various birthy types on a regular basis.
I have a friend who had a very difficult pregnancy and super-difficult birth, all of which had to do with a disability that also made the physical logistics of breastfeeding difficult. And while she didn't exactly encounter "Nazis," there were a lot of other mothers and new-mother-support types who just would not let it go. They continued to offer "helpful suggestions" and "supportive advice" long after she'd concluded that breastfeeding wasn't going to happen and she needed to move on and stop feeling guilty about it. I think those people were genuinely trying to be helpful, and I don't think they thought they were being "Nazis." But they made my friend feel like shit and like a bad mother, even if that wasn't their intent.

I think maybe part of it is that mothers who have had difficult pregnancies or deliveries often already feel guilty and like failures, and other people aren't always sensitive to that. So what feels to lactivists like honest sharing of information can feel to some new mothers like saying "yeah, your body really is deficient and makes you incapable of being a good mother."
posted by craichead at 4:14 PM on October 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

I distinctly recall being a terrified young mother in a military hospital. I had this baby, and no matter what I did, he wouldn't eat. I had nurses come in and yell at me about how my baby wasn't eating enough, and we were going to have to get some food in him, but no one who actually tried to help me figure out why he wasn't latching. After 3 days of failure, I gave up completely. I can not tell you how awful this felt, and how horrible it feels every time time I was made to feel guilty about not breastfeeding. I can not tell you how many times I inwardly cringed when a well meaning friend would make a comment about some terrible mother who wasn't breastfeeding.

I wish that at that time I'd had a real support system, and that I'd been confident enough to ask for the help I needed. I also wish that I hadn't spent years feeling like I wasn't a good mother because I didn't provide my baby with the best start.

Using guilt to push an agenda only causes pain and anger, when education and support could help everyone.
posted by Zophi at 4:16 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

In case anyone is interested in the data, here's a WHO paper that does a meta-analysis on the breast vs bottle.

Without having the chops to pick it apart, the result seems to be 'definitely good in the short term, some statistically significant but modest advantages in the long term'.

But children are raised by parents. And it seems axiomatic that parents will do a better job if they're calm and happy rather than stressed and freaking out because they can't breast feed but feel they must.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:23 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

"The decision to breast feed isn't made equally by the mother and the child."

Well, no. But I don't understand why that means it should be made by me. Other than, as I said, making sure people have access to information, who am I to substitute my judgment for the judgment of the parents? Why am I better qualified to read up on breastfeeding and decide whether a particular woman should breastfeed than she is? In a great number of these situations, there are already two parents anyway, so I would actually be substituting my judgment for what they can think of together. That just seems so weird. I think the analogy does hold, not because of who makes the decision but because the decision is properly made by the people involved in it and not by me.

Frankly, I also have my own knitting to tend to and my own choices to optimize before I work on anyone else's. As I said, I just don't think it's any of my business. Supporting parents I'm close to is my business, and loving the stuffing out of their kids is my business. I think it's the best role I can play. What to feed the baby I will leave to the parents and anyone they choose to consult.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 4:33 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd encourage anyone who has/had trouble breastfeeding to read the Formula Feeder Stories. My baby kinda hates breastfeeding and although we're making a decent go of it, they were very helpful for me when things started to get frustrating.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:51 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't read the "fearless formula feeder" button as encouraging formula. To me, it's someone who has been told they're doing something bad and wrong standing up and saying, "I do this thing, and I am not ashamed." As for being antagonistic, it's pretty natural to be defensive when you it seems like everyone is criticizing your choices. It may not be the best way to engage people who disagree with you, but it's a pretty understandable reaction.
posted by Mavri at 4:57 PM on October 10, 2011

I was unfortunate in that I had to use formula to feed my son - I have bipolar II. My mother had a history of post-partum psychosis with both of her pregnancies (voices telling her to put the babies in the oven & turn on the gas, throw herself out of window, etc.,), so no one wanted to take the chance that I might become delusional and hurt myself and my son - I went back on my meds 24 hours after giving birth. It was really sad because I lactated like a CHAMP and could have easily wet-nursed several children. It took 6 months for my milk to dry up.

The thing that made me furious was the "it's okay dear, you're 'one of the good ones', not like those other lazy bitches" attitude that I got from the lactofascists I came across on line. One actually compared feeding a baby with a bottle to sticking a dildo in it's mouth, I kid you not.
posted by echolalia67 at 5:02 PM on October 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

Your "bodily autonomy" in that case ended when you chose to carry another totally non-autonomous human being to term.

Even if you think everything parents do should be done for the good of their child, this doesn't work. If you have daughters, this attitude teaches them that their job in life is to be the selfless giver to all others; if you have sons, that their wives should be. It's not modeling the kind of behaviour I would wish my (theoretical) children to have. Mothers need to be able to do what's best for themselves, as well as for their children, or in the longterm they're causing a different kind of harm.
posted by joannemerriam at 5:02 PM on October 10, 2011 [11 favorites]

"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."

Do your homework. Doctors would routinely ask the father if he wanted mother to breast-feed, as it might affect how she looked to him.

This is such a fucking non-issue. Pretending that, somehow, if you dare breast-feed you can't be a feminist is such a pile of shit. This is bullshit Future Females! misogyny apologist tripe wrapped up in a "I am a woman, so you can't disagree" bow.

Listen: feminism means that a women won't be punished for making the best choice for her, her life and her family, regardless of how that works out. Maybe if we stopped paying so much damned attention to what those feminists are up to, and whether what they are up to makes them the right sort of feminist, we might actually get past this stunted era of third-wavers and get something done.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:06 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've known a few women who were totally put off by the idea of breastfeeding, and the bossiness of some people who proselytize it. I loved nursing my son; it was cozy and wonderful, and I lost all the weight I'd gained. My Mom and Mother-in-law weren't supportive, and it was a bit more daring 25 years ago to nurse in public, though I'm a wicked prude, and was very discreet. It's terrific that there's a lot of support, and for many, breastfeeding is a given.

Nursing your baby isn't the same kind of choice as cloth vs. disposable diapers. It's a genuine health benefit for your baby, and for you. Barring complications, not nursing your child is kind of an odd choice to make. But, since I can't tell if you were unable to breastfeed, or unwilling, I can't see why I'd make it any of my business. Your choice affects your family, not me.

Now, when it comes to vaccinations, it's no longer about you; it's about maintaining herd immunity, and sharing the small, but real, risk of harm. We all share that risk to keep all kids safe, and so that someday, polio, whooping cough, diptheria, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox(and shingles) will no longer exist.
posted by theora55 at 6:55 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

and did we need a word for 'lactivist' ?
posted by theora55 at 6:57 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the discussion is assinine, frankly - the argument is essentially about what people who are actually making a somewhat informed decision about caring for their child actually decide.

At the end of the day, it's an unwinnable argument, and an insolvable problem, and that's ok. Breastfeeding or formula, your child is getting the nutrition it needs to grow into an adult and be healthy (assuming a basically healthy lifestyle - kids who's parents obsess until they give in to a hotdog and chicken fingers only diet might as well have not bothered, probably).

The reason it's insolvable is that neither side is "right" - they just both have really good arguments for whatever they believe.

The reason it's asinine is that there are too many parents who for whatever reason are not able or willing to decide on or provide either of the options being argued about. (I believe it's able much more often - I hope it is, anyway)

I don't like to tell people what to be passionate about but how about we worry about the kids that aren't being given enough nutrition to grow well first, and the decide if its the boob suckers or formula feeders that must be purged from society?
posted by illovich at 7:11 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hunh. Does anyone know if that UN study posted upthread is the last word on this, scientifically speaking?

I can see where there'd be ways to check up on the short term, immune-system booting benefits of breastfeeding in a good double-blind way. But as for the long term health benefits, the higher IQ, all that stuff --- it really seems impossible to suss out the causation from the correlation there.

It's like that stat you hear mentioned all the time about homeownership conferring all these ancillary societal benefits. Yes, there are piles and piles of studies which suggests homeowners have more stable family lives and more prosperous kids than renters --- but in reality there's no way to suss out whether such benefits are the effect of ownership itself or of the cluster of related traits that also tend to accompany ownership, for example, being forward thinking and conscientious enough to be able to come up with a down payment.

The UN study says that from what they looked at, you can't rule out the same thing being true of breastfeeding. Have any scientists tried? Has there ever been a natural experiment where some large group of women weren't breastfeeding and they all has to do so and then they tracked the kids?
posted by Diablevert at 9:25 PM on October 10, 2011

I can see where there'd be ways to check up on the short term, immune-system booting benefits of breastfeeding in a good double-blind way.

I don't think it would be possible to do a double-blind trial of breastfeeding versus feeding out of a bottle. The mother would certainly know whether breastfeeding occurred or not.

I suppose you could compare feeding formula or breast milk via bottle, but that would be impractical over the long term.
posted by grouse at 9:49 PM on October 10, 2011

Even by bottle it would be easy to tell the difference. The smell and appearance are very different. I guess a first-time parent who never lactated could be blinded?
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:07 PM on October 10, 2011

Ugh, I get so tired of reading, sadly often from other women, just how wrong "feminists" are. As though there is one monolithic group and you only get to call yourself a feminist if you've signed the manifesto with specific talking points.

I've been hanging around mothers and babies for fifteen years (and publicly nursing my own babies for over eleven years now ~sob) and even as a self-identified radical feminist who specifically listens for overt and subtle oppression I have rarely heard disapproval of mother's choices on how to feed their children. And I am not in a crunchy community, I am talking about a pretty broad sociology-economic spectrum. My issue with formula has always been the promotion of it in developing countries where facts have been misrepresented in advertisements.
posted by saucysault at 10:21 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thank you so much for posting this, young rope rider. I'm currently preggers, and was absolutely shocked when I realized how pervasive the "natural" childbirth/ breast-until-age-2/attachment parenting mentality had become in both the US and the UK and how hard it was to find any sort of resources that were OK with formula, even when necessary ( or with lifesaving Cesarian sections, painkiller in childbirth, etc. )

Blogs like the Fearless Formula Feeder and the Skeptical Ob are an absolute lifeline. (I'm planning on breastfeeding, but it's absolutely wonderful to hear from sane people who are willing to admit that this doesn't work out for everyone, or acknowledge that for many women, it's just not possible for whatever reason.) What's even scarier is that this mentality is so tied to really harmful ideologies like the anti-vaccination movement and advocacy of 'alternative medicine' (such as chiropractic and homeopathy) over conventional medical care for infants.

I think that for a lot of the hard-core 'lactivists', there's a ratcheting-up effect, from saying "you should try to breastfeed because of the small, but probably real advantages" to saying "anyone who doesn't do it for any reason is just lazy and putting their own interests over the baby's" to saying "anyone who doesn't breastfeed for a year or more isn't really breastfeeding and is therefore one of the lazy, selfish ones" to saying "Anyone who doesn't ween naturally, continuing to breastfeed well into toddlerhood is one of the lazy, selfish ones," to "anyone who doesn't adopt all of the lifestyle choices I advocate along with breastfeeding is lazy, uninformed, and selfish, too. What's the point of breastfeeding if you vaccinate?"

The same ratcheting-up happens around childbirth advocacy (from advocating for lowered CS rates to advocating for homebirths with less-qualified midwives to advocating for unsafe exotic childbirth methodologies), medical care (from 'many problems don't require a doctor's visit' to 'avoid evil western medicine at all costs') and even in the homeschooling community (where advocacy for child-led education can ratchet up into an all-structure-is-evil mentality at times).

In all of these cases, what started out as woman-and-family empowerment rapidly turns into a rigid ideology demanding total sacrifice from mothers (and essentially cutting fathers out of any involvement and responsibility for children, to boot.)

Some interesting commentary on this phenomenon, some of it linked indirectly from links above:

Breastfeeding and the cult of total motherhood

Your homebirth is not a feminist statement

Is Breast Really Best? Risk and Total Motherhood in the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign
posted by Wylla at 11:32 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Just out of curiousity Wylla, are you hearing this extremist orthodoxy from real life people and professionals or just from blogs? I find so many blogs find their niche by being far more extreme on the anonymous Internet than they would in person. Your second link was fascinating, if the results are accurate (and of course there are studies that find opposite results!) I wonder why home births would contribute to neonatal deaths 7-28 days after birth? Your third link was way too long 42 pages!) for me to read, sorry.
posted by saucysault at 12:16 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually, I read very few 'lactivist'-type blogs, though I do sometimes run into those types of extreme views in homeschooling and general baby forums. (The infamous forums - the most wretched hive of scum and quackery this side of Mos Eisley - actually have a fairly reasonable homschooling forum attached to them, so that stuff sometimes creeps in. I am not linking - I don't want to be responsible for sending them traffic!)

Most of where I've run into this type of advocacy is IRL, from both unsolicited advice from friends and strangers, and (frighteningly enough) from medical support professionals and people who run pregnant lady/ new mother / mother-and-baby activities. So that, for example, it's been very hard to find a mothers' group that isn't NCB oriented or pushing extended breastfeeding for all, a mother and baby group which isn't tied to alternative-health causes, or a childbirth class that doesn't push very strongly against pain relief or condemn all C-sections. I think I've done it now, but it was a slog! Of course, this is in part a function of the communities I am familiar with in the US and the UK (urban and highly educated, so prone to health fads), but only in part, as far as I can tell.

(Apologies for the long last link - that's the original article that lots of others refer to, so I wanted to make it available.)
posted by Wylla at 1:32 AM on October 11, 2011

It's hard for me not to see this as a simple extension of the general parenting dynamic where people's anxiety to have their own choices affirmed quickly carries over into self-righteous and judgmental attitudes towards other parents who make different choices. Women probably come in for a slightly more intense version, but over on AskMe and in the culture at large it seems as though people are happy to criticise and shame moms and dads alike for their unpopular choices in sleep training, discipline, feeding strategies, household boundaries, education, etc.

There's probably something to be said on both sides-- it's clearly not true that there's no such thing as a bad parenting choice, so I don't get the general contention that moms/parents somehow have a fundamental right to be shielded from others' disapproval of those choices. On the other hand, society in general could certainly stand to dial down the hate and hysteria over relatively minor parenting issues.

I guess I just don't see what there is to be gained by making this a specifically feminist issue, vs. one of the general, gender-neutral dividing-line between societal accountability and individual liberty in parenting. Breastfeeding is something you do with your body, sure, but there are already uses of the motherly body-- taking vs. not taking drugs during pregnancy, for example-- that seem very clearly worth judging. And fatherhood also entails a certain amount of obligation to use one's body in particular ways, although certainly not to the same extent. I feel as though all this aggressive gendering of the issue (from both sides) just ends up hurting women, by making breastfeeding somehow about identity and True Womanhood, instead of putting it in its proper place as one among the zillion tiny parenting choices one makes, and probably gets wrong, that first year.
posted by Bardolph at 3:20 AM on October 11, 2011

I think a lot of it all boils down to you, your child, and your body. I had the easiest time ever. Breastfed at night and formula fed during the day. Didn't pump, which was a pain in the, well, boob. My body just adjusted. Did it for eight months until my daughter wanted to start creeping and playing instead of nursing after I got home from work. Helped me lose weight, I felt my daughter got her antibodies and bonding time, plus I had the freedom to go to work or have a family member look after her if I needed to get out and about. The trouble with activists is that they make you feel bad about everything. Listen to your body and child.
posted by PJMoore at 4:17 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bardolph, while I agree that there is more writing-off-of-fathers in 'feminist lactivism' than is generally acknowledged, surely you can see that the irrational judgements based on "the zillion tiny parenting choices one makes, and probably gets wrong, that first year" mostly falls on women. When have you ever heard someone who was doing anything short of actually abusing or walking out on his child called a 'bad father' in public? (Off-topic, but this article in today's WSJ is a SMASHING example of how little fathers are expected to do in some quarters to count as 'fathers'. This is so unspeakably insulting to actual fathers, especially adoptive fathers.)

Also, lots of breastfeeding madness impacts very directly on womens' place in society - by saying that everyone should carry and breastfeed during the entire first year of life (or longer), one is implicitly severely limiting mothers' activities outside the home. This doesn't just relate to accomodation in the workplace (although that's a big part of it), it also relates to the types of jobs taken and whether mothers of toddlers should work or even socialise outside the home at all. Lactivist types seem to assume that women should remain physically in the home for a good part of the baby's first year, and that anyone who uses any sort of support (such as a babysitter or leaving the baby with the father or another relative) to get some alone-time is failing (training the baby to take a bottle of pumped milk, and therefore selfishly 'getting ready to wean too early')

In general, I think the idea behind a lot of these movements is that there are many paths that a man's life can take, and that only the most extreme and damaging behaviors of men or fathers should be condemned. Women, meanwhile, are pushed to find a sort of 'one true path' to womanhood, expecially when they are mothers. That narrows women's choices and encourages women to pit ourselves against one another: after all, if you do anything differently than me, you are implicitly suggesting that you believe I have strayed from the acceptable path. A lot of the judgement, shaming, and 'ratcheting up' seems to come from that sort of instinct - If I go for the more extreme choice, I can't be attacked or judged by anyone doing 'more'.

Of course, the real losers here are women in disadvantaged circumstances that don't allow for all of these parenting 'experiences' or who lack the education to even participate in a debate about various choices. They are locked into the 'selfish mother' role in wealthier/more-educated women's eyes early on, with women who have way more resources encouraged to judge and compare. This sort of judgement has real policy implications, affecting the help that women in the most precarious circumstances get, and the attitude with which it is given, especially when the 'total motherhood' stance is accepted by so many of the better-off.
posted by Wylla at 4:25 AM on October 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

I would never dream of telling another mother how to feed her child, but I have a bit of difficulty the implication that if you do choose to breastfeed exclusively you are "severely limiting" your activities outside the home. Breastfeeding doesn't work for everyone, but it isn't nearly so onerous a task as many would have you believe. The first month (for me, anyway) totally sucked--very painful and awkward. After that first month, however, things were awesome. Breastfeeding became super convenient, easy and actually enjoyable. I really did miss it when I stopped. You can breastfeed anywhere, anytime. Honestly, you can. You'd be amazed how discreetly you can do it once you get comfortable. If you pump once daily you'll always have milk on hand in the fridge so someone can watch your kid while you get out. You can have one or two drinks and still breastfeed. You can take most over the counter medication and still breastfeed. It's actually extraordinarily difficult for substances to end up in your breastmilk at a level that would harm your baby--there's no need to obsess over what you are eating. We had to supplement with formula for the first 24 hours home after the hospital and I found it exhausting and complicated. All that washing and sterilizing and worrying about the formula being the right temperature. Not to mention the cost. There's a lot to be said for having an unlimited supply of free sterile food with you at all times. Also a built in soothing device, as babies will generally always have a go at the boob even if they're not hungry.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I hate how this debate often obscures the fact that breastfeeding can be just as liberating as formula feeding as long as it's a choice you can make freely. You really do have to do what works for you. I also think it highlights a major issue at play, at least in the U.S., which is the shockingly inadequate maternity leave most women get. It's not fair to expect someone to breastfeed exclusively if they're going back to work full time in six weeks. It took me almost that long to get the whole boob thing sorted out, but I had a year to play around with. Kind of takes the pressure off. Maybe we should focus more on giving mothers the support they need--maternity leave, community support, resources--and less on forcing them to share our choices.
posted by Go Banana at 5:21 AM on October 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Go banana - I am in no way suggesting that breastfeeding itself limits women's activities! The types of practices some "lactivists" advocate have the effect of doing so, but that is their issue, and not one that is inherent to breastfeeding itself.
posted by Wylla at 5:57 AM on October 11, 2011

"You can breastfeed anywhere, anytime. Honestly, you can."

Assuming someone is raising your baby as opposed to their baby, this is true. Otherwise, there's really no way to know whether it's true.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:19 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I gave breastfeeding the college try and had some wonderful moments with my son. But you know what? With the post-partum depression and tethering to either baby or pump meaning even greater lack of sleep which then caused more problems with the post-partum depression, I said ENOUGH.

I also wanted my body back. Pure and simple. I had spent 5 years trying to have this child when I gave my body over to science for all sorts of procedures. I nurtured him for 9 months. I wanted to be able to eat what I wanted and not worry about making his poop smell funny. I wanted to drink what I wanted. I wanted caffeine. Most of all, I wanted to feel normal again in the midst of a very un-normal time.

I got no push back from my OB or my pediatrician. Maybe it was because I appeared to have no qualms about my decision. I'd like to think it's because they knew that women are all different and the most important thing is that the baby is healthy, not whether that health is because of a boob or a bottle.

Formula helped me get my mental health back which in turn helped me be an awesome mother to my son.
posted by Leezie at 7:01 AM on October 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I can see where there'd be ways to check up on the short term, immune-system booting benefits of breastfeeding in a good double-blind way.

A properly blinded trial would be tricky, but where trials are impractical or unethical it's common in medicine to accept weaker evidence of action if there's an obvious mechanism through which a treatment would be expected to work. It irritates the strict evidence-based-medicine crowd,* but it's a necessary evil.

Colostrum, a specific mix of breast milk produced during late pregnancy and shortly after birth, contains a wide range of stuff from the mother to supplement the immune system (lots of pre-made immunoglobulins) and encourage its development (a cocktail of cytokines), along with a bunch of growth hormones and a population of bacteria that will colonise the infant's gut to aid digestion and out-compete pathogens. Basically everything you'd want to kickstart a baby into being an independent organism. The trials that would be unethical in humans have already been done in several other species of mammal, consistently yielding the beneficial results that we'd expect.

It's a judgement call, but given the known mechanism and strong support from other mammals, I think we can accept much weaker evidence for benefits of early breast feeding than a full blown randomised, double-blinded study. I don't know anything much about longer-term breast feeding, but there's a strong case to be made for having breast feeding as the default option (with the understanding that this is a general rule, and that some mothers/infants will inevitably have different priorities), at least for the first few weeks.

*...who were brilliantly lampooned by a group of doctors who publicly called for a randomised, placebo-controlled trial of parachutes and invited the proponents of strict EBM to volunteer. Their paper is hilarious: Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials.
Conclusions As with many interventions intended to prevent ill health, the effectiveness of parachutes has not been subjected to rigorous evaluation by using randomised controlled trials. Advocates of evidence based medicine have criticised the adoption of interventions evaluated by using only observational data. We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.

posted by metaBugs at 7:20 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

anyone who uses any sort of support (such as a babysitter or leaving the baby with the father or another relative) to get some alone-time is failing (training the baby to take a bottle of pumped milk, and therefore selfishly 'getting ready to wean too early')

I've seen this very attitude expressed in AskMe- that teaching a baby to take a bottle, even one filled with breastmilk, is a bad, bad thing, one that will inevitably lead to a host of undesired outcomes. The bottles-are-bad-regardless-of-what's-in-them approach is the extreme end of the spectrum, and I've been fortunate enough to only encounter a few people in that category. But they do exist.

I breastfed both of my babies until they didn't want to anymore. From a practical perspective, there's a lot going for breastfeeding: the milk is always there, at the right temperature, no preparation required. But that is assuming that breastfeeding is going well, which isn't always the case.

For me, the important things are 1)keeping the parents sane and 2) feeding the baby. The specifics of breastmilk vs formula take a distant third.
posted by ambrosia at 7:28 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go Banana, I'm glad pumping worked so well for you, but one of the biggest drawbacks to my breastfeeding experience was lack of information about what to do if pumping is not cutting it. I could not pump enough to last for more than a couple of hours away from my son and thought I was faced with the eventuality of total weaning when he started daycare at 10 weeks. I was reasonably well informed about breastfeeding, but never read anything supportive of using formula at daycare and nursing at home, until a friend mentioned it was possible. I pumped once daily for 11 months and only ever had enough to give him one small bottle for daycare, he needed way more than that for his daily feeding needs. I wish there was more support for working out of the house moms about balancing formula and breastfeeding if they want/need to. I've somehow turned into a bit of an extended breastfeeder by chance and laziness, and it's worked out well for us. The formula our son chugged at daycare didn't seem to impact him one way or another, it certainly didn't encourage him weaning early. Also, formula temperature... we just gave it to him room temperature, never had a problem with that. Formula wasn't overly complicated for us because it was pretty much daycare-only and sometimes used when we were able to wrangle free babysitting from the grandparents. The only real drawback I found with formula is the extra money it costs.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 8:02 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's because I'm a "young mother" (only for certain neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn...) or something but I have been told repeatedly about how much I need to breastfeed, even from strangers on the street. I am really shocked (and a bit jealous) of those who never get this particular obnoxious nosiness.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:55 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

God, I wanted to breastfeed so damned bad. G was pretty tiny when she was born, so she never could latch on. I kept hoping she'd grow and we could make it happen, but it didn't, in spite of all my efforts. So I pumped. Every two to three hours, every day, for a full three months.

And even with all that effort (not to mention drinking stouts and taking so much fenugreek I smelled like a goddamned maple syrup factory), I would be lucky to get 2 mL per seasion, which isn't nearly enough to feed an infant.

So for me it was a choice of supplementing with formula or letting her starve, which is hardly a choice.

When I was going through all of that, I was on a Yahoo listserv for pumping moms, and at one point the big breastmilk vs. formula argument flared up, during which one of the moms actually said that if you feed your baby breastmilk it's as good as killing them, because if they don't die from the toxins and bug bits that Big Pharma put in there then they'll end up fat and stupid and might as well die young anyway.

Which is exactly what a young mother coping with the sleepless stress of raising a newborn and dealing with post-partum needs to hear, right?

Anyway. Judging women for their choices is pure bullshit and does way, way more harm than good, especially with regards to such an intensely personal and emotionally-charged issue as breastfeeding.
posted by shiu mai baby at 10:33 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know this is an old(ish) article, but I keep it around to show my newly minted parent friends. I think it's pretty reasonable. Exposing the myths of breastfeeding.
posted by gaspode at 11:23 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Child no 1 latched on quickly, and within a month, she grew from far too small to exactly on the median of the growth curve. She was impossible to wean - I had to leave for a week while my mother-in-law helped caring for her and she refused eating for the first couple of days. Or maybe I was just young and ignorant.
Child no 2 never really grew an appetite, for breastfeeding or formula, and only started to grow when the "real" food appeared. Now she is the tallest girl in her class. But those were some scary months.
I liked breastfeeding because I am lazy, and didn't want to spend time cleaning those bottles. Also, breastfeeding is cheaper. Small babies can be brought everywhere and with a big scarf over your shoulders, no one will even notice what you are doing. At our local cinema, there was a baby-club, where an attendant would look after all the babies and beep you if your baby woke up.

I feel I need to write this personal story before moving on to the political, so no one misunderstands me. We all love our children and want to do the best thing, and we all do the best we can within our means.

But it should be possible to deal with this on a political and societal level. When I read your personal stories, I marvel at how all you Americans deal with impossible conditions and still find the energy to fight over how to do that. Instead of fighting together politically for better conditions for raising a family. I think in societies that have a fair maternity leave (preferably shared between the parents), breastfeeding is more popular across class divides. I also think not having to worry about getting back to your job and career, finding daycare/help, paying the rent, etc. makes it easier to relax and focus on the task at hand.
In a sense, it is the same as the food threads: guys, some of your problems can be solved collectively, and that won't magically turn you in to socialists. The easy solution to this particular problem (of a decent maternity leave) should be able to find supporters across the aisle.

That said, some of the worries that come up in baby-forums are incredibly silly. I was lucky when I had mine, because I had smart friends who were real experts. So I didn't get any of the "can I eat oranges/chocolate/shellfish or can I drink wine/coffee/juice" Please trust me, it is all rubbish, with no scientific foundation whatsoever, and my kids have lived to prove it. I was told: small babies are simple creatures who eat, poop and sleep. Sometimes they get digestive problems, which is horrible. But still a very small part of their and your long lives.
Sometimes they smile at you, which is, I guess, why we do it in the first place.
posted by mumimor at 12:58 PM on October 11, 2011

gaspode, that's a fascinating article. I had been wondering about the effect size of breastfeeding, and it sounds like it isn't quite as large as would warrant the current public health push.

I think public health is in general a great field, and most people working in it have only the best intentions, but it certainly seems as though it does better with campaigns where the risks are quite clear-cut and there's no real trade-off in terms of modifying behavior (e.g., discouraging drunk driving, encouraging good hygiene/clean water/clean air, encouraging vaccinations). In cases where there are real trade-offs involved--and I think breast-feeding certainly qualifies, at least for a significant subset of women--public health agencies seem to be much less skilled at acknowledging the complexity of the issue and striking the balance of informing the public about the risks/benefits but leaving it to individuals to decide how to act. Maybe that's inherent in the nature of what public health agencies do, but move that into the sphere of pregnancy/childbearing/childrearing where 99% of the time it's aimed at women, and all of sudden you're aggravating a long cultural strain that holds that women's autonomy, time, and comfort are worth nothing when considering how and whether to take steps to reduce (even pretty miniscule) risks. (See also: suggestions about how to avoid being raped, recommendations about foods to avoid during pregnancy, etc etc.)
posted by iminurmefi at 7:00 PM on October 11, 2011

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