‘Breast Is Best’: How Science, Feminism, & Politics Shape Our Views on Breastfeeding

When I gave birth to my son, I was fully committed to exclusively breastfeeding him for the recommended six months. I had seen enough literature espousing its incontestable benefits to even consider formula. Once the process began though, I started to have some questions:

How much better, really, is breast milk? I mean, can’t science create a formula that’s nutritionally equivalent to mother’s milk? After all, I had just been sold on the wonders of prenatal vitamins so it can’t be a distrust for lab-made nutrition that’s behind the thinking here. We all dutifully popped our pills. If science can provide me with medicine that makes my pregnancy healthier, then can’t it do the same for my baby?

I also had a lot of questions about formula’s bad rap. I mean… Doesn’t it deserve some praise, at least for helping moms who can’t breastfeed? And why weren’t feminists applauding it for its equalizing role in gender politics, allowing women to work and men to pick up some of the childcare duties? And when it comes to health, we’ve seen generations raised on formula, and from what I can see at least, they don’t seem to be worse for the wear. Obesity, diabetes, increased allergies… The spike in those illnesses seems to have appeared since the 1970s after formula-feeding started to wane.

And, as I sat there through hours of breastfeeding, I couldn’t help but be irked by yet another ‘breast is best’ benefit: The idea that breastfeeding isn’t just nutritionally superior, but that it’s also FREE. Well, it is, isn’t it if your personal hourly rate is $0. If your time is valued at absolutely nothing, then I suppose that’s true.

Still, years later with breastfeeding done and out of the way, I can’t help but feel that aside from pure medical science, there are other issues at play.

What Do the Medical Studies Really Have to Say?

First off, I needed a bit more insight on what the actual medical research (rather than the pamphlets) really has to say about formula:

Don’t get me wrong. You can find data supporting a connection between breastfeeding and its benefits to health or intelligence. But once they’ve been adjusted for other factors like race, socioeconomic background, parent’s education level, the amount of time the mother spends with the baby, medical biases, and other major flaws, the results are less conclusive. They are certainly not as definitive as what the pamphlet in your OB-GYN wants you to believe.

How Did We Become Breastfeeding Proponents in America?

In most American parenting circles, anything less than exclusively breastfeeding is practically considered irresponsible. Stacks upon stacks of ‘breast is best’ literature line our gynecologists’ offices. Lactation consultants are on hand to make sure that, no matter what, you get the breastfeeding thing down: Your nipples are split and bleeding? Rub this on. Your supply is too low? Drink this tea. Eat this cookie. Try this hold.

Your pain, your mental state, your need for sleep, your desire to work, to take a shower, to go out… They’re all inconsequential. Breastfeeding your baby trumps them all. How selfish to even think otherwise!

But this wasn’t always the case…

The war against formula-feeding began in 1956 when a group of seven Catholic mothers created a breastfeeding support group just outside Chicago. That group became known as La Leche League, named after a shrine dedicated to “Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto”, meaning “Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk.” They believed in “God’s plan for mothers and babies”. Licensed medical professionals and the medical community as a whole were looked down upon as paternalistic and misogynist, while mothering and breastfeeding grew to be synonymous.

And that’s how a unique feminist movement focused on women’s health began in the United States. Supporters believed that teaching women about their bodies would be empowering. Breasts had a higher purpose – they held the magic elixir for life.

But this branch of feminism was in conflict with an entirely different female trend. In the same year that La Leche League was founded, Fortune published an article called The Great Back-to-Work Movement. The article reveals that whereas in the past, some women worked because they needed the money, “women now go to work because they want to work. Working, rather than being at home… has become the ‘natural’ thing to do” and “the desire for personal freedom, especially among middle-class women, undoubtedly has been a major element in the decision to take a job.”

Needless to say, many people were seriously pissed by the trend. Moralists argued that working mothers would lead to an increase in the three D’s: Disease, Delinquency, and Divorce. Obviously, working mothers at the time couldn’t breastfeed easily and a rising support for breastfeeding was an easy way to keep women at home. And to drive the point home, La Leche League’s founders argued that “the needs of their babies are not only for mother’s milk, or mother’s breast, but for all of her.”

Flash forward to today. We’re a nation where 81% of mothers ever breastfeed (which goes down to roughly 50% after 6 months) while only 64% of mothers with kids under the age of six work. We’ve grown into a country where we have the least generous maternity leave of any wealthy nation, clocking in at about 12 weeks. It’s a real ‘chicken and the egg’ situation – a far cry from those working mothers back in 1956 who felt that taking a job was the “natural thing to do.”

Recent findings from the Pew Research Center reveal that “75 percent of Americans feel that having a mother who does not work full-time would be best for her children” and about the same amount believes that breastfeeding is healthier for babies than formula

So, as a nation, we put greater value on a mother’s role as a source of nutrition and childcare than on her work outside the home.

Breastfeeding Is a Form of Slavery in France

Now for a completely different perspective: French women are the mothers the least likely to breastfeed in the Western world. The country has one of the highest birthrates in Europe but also one of the highest percentages of women in the workforce. And traditionally, breastfeeding is frowned upon… Actually, that’s a total understatement.

In France, it’s common to compare breastfeeding with slavery. Yes, SLAVERY! Feminists want to have nothing to do with it and even those mothers who do breastfeed their babies opt to do it for the least time possible. In fact, in French society, formula has none of the nefarious connotations it has here. It’s modern. It’s convenient. It’s liberation.

On the other hand, many French women, like philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, think that while formula is a-ok, it’s organizations like La Leche League that are nefarious. She sees the league as a powerful and oppressive anti-feminist lobby driven by fundamentalist Catholic beliefs dedicated to using the World Health Organization and a load of unscientific, patriarchal data to roll back the gains made by the women’s movement.

While the number of French women who breastfeed at least a day comes out to roughly 62%, it drops ways down to under 25% by the time their babies are six months old. Generally 50% of (full or part-time) breastfeeding moms do it for less than three weeks.

Far from the feminist viewpoint in the U.S. where breastfeeding is empowering, in France it’s nothing more than slavery and exploitation. You will not be seeing much of those ‘Breast is Best’ pamphlets in a doctor’s office in France. Quite the contrary, you’re more likely to hear your doctor tell you to stop, reclaim your body and your sexuality, and to refer to breastfeeding as a demeaning bovine activity.

While American “feminism” would like to see you quit your job and get motherly pleasure from feeding and taking care of your child, French “feminism” wants you to unshackle yourself from your biology and give your breasts back to your husband. Think I’m kidding? The French national health system will actually provide you with 10-sessions of perineal re-education FREE OF CHARGE so that you can get your sexual prowess back as soon as possible.

But again... Is the breastfeeding question just a matter of nutrition here? Is it a feminist issue? And how do economics and working mothers come into play?

As mentioned, French women are an important part of the workforce. Yet, they receive the shortest maternity leave in Europe. That means, most French women go back to work by 16 weeks. The government provides a wonderful support system for their babies while mothers work through a free and extensive daycare system, but the shorter maternity leave means that formula is necessary. And you get the medical advice and the feminist theory to support that in France.

Norway Wants Mothers to Breastfeed and Work Too

In Norway, which is a small country, gender equality is a competitive advantage and working women are an essential part of the economy. A whopping 75% of women work outside of the home, far more than any other country in the world.

So where do they stand on breastfeeding? Norway actually has the highest breastfeeding rate of any developed country. Ninety-nine percent of women at least partially breastfeed and 80% of them for six months or more.

Much like the rest of the world, Norway used to rely on formula. But when Elisabet Helsing got her hands on a La Leche League pamphlet, she started a fast-growing grassroots movement that had women swapping formula for good, old natural methods.

So Norway is even more die-hard about breastfeeding as we are here in the U.S. It’s expected. It’s the norm. In fact, advertising formula is banned. But you won’t get the same “feminist” arguments we have here or the ones you see in France. While the reality of women’s biology is acknowledged, gender equality is a big consideration too. So while Norwegian culture compels women to breastfeed, it also allows them to work. Remember: Gender equality is a competitive advantage.

To make that possible, the government not only provides a very generous maternity leave (you can choose between 46 weeks at full salary or 56 weeks at 80% pay) but it also provides fathers with an additional 12 paid weeks – which fathers do actually take. It would be frowned up otherwise.

The three month parental leave together with free childcare once your child turns one make it so that the childcare isn’t only the mother’s job. She can breastfeed for a full 46-56 weeks (that’s over a year, people!) knowing full well that her job will be waiting for her, that her husband can take over her childcare duties, and that a daycare system is in place for her baby. On top of all that, when women do go back to work, they are entitled to nursing breaks for as long as they choose.

Sure, all these programs are costly. But the value of mothers in the workforce makes it all worth it to them.

The Shame Game

For me personally, it was very eye-opening to see how a nation’s views on breastfeeding differs based on how a women’s contribution to the workforce is valued. The sad part is that whether you live in a country like the U.S. where 75% people believe a mother’s place is at home with the kids, or a country like France that values women workers, breastfeeding is a very political issue where women are shamed for decisions that don’t immediately serve their country’s interests.

If you’re an American mother and you got to work to pay someone to feed your baby formula, shame on you! If you’re a French mother and you’re actually putting a four month old to your breast, then shame on you!

Ultimately, shouldn’t we – as mothers – drop the shame game and give each other the right to choose the best, most healthy decisions for our families?

Tags : pregnancy   breastfeeding   

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