Synopsis: Many women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed their newborns are pressured into trying anyway. An expert and author discusses the political forces creating unusual unanimity behind the issue, and the truth of health claims on breastfeeding’s benefits.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guest: Dr. Courtney Jung, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto and author, Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy

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Nancy Benson: Most Americans take it on faith that breastfeeding is much better for babies than formula feeding. A couple of generations ago, it was exactly the opposite. Today’s grandparents were overwhelmingly formula-fed, but now 79 percent of new moms start breastfeeding their babies… And about half of them are still at it six months later.

Courtney Jung: I was born in 1965. My mother fed me formula and when my daughter was born 40 years later it was unthinkable to feed her formula. Everybody I knew had breastfed or at least tried very hard to breastfeed.

Benson: Dr. Courtney Jung is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of the book, Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy. Jung says breastfeeding may be good for babies. But the moral crusade to get new moms to do it has gone too far.

Jung: I have received so many e-mails from mothers explaining to me exactly how awful their experience was of trying to feed their babies, maybe failing to breastfeed or finding it very difficult, or deciding not to breastfeed, or even deciding to breastfeed, but feeling that it was a tremendous pressure and burden.

Benson: Jung says many new moms are no longer given the choice of breastfeeding or not. If they don’t want to breastfeed, or can’t, hospitals may shame and pressure them into trying anyway. Women who don’t breastfeed are stigmatized as bad mothers who don’t care about their children. Hospitals and lactation consultants usually justify their actions by saying that breastfeeding is so much healthier for babies than formula feeding. But Jung says sometimes, the act of breastfeeding itself seems more important than what it might do for a newborn’s health.

Jung: In many cases, nurses and doctors and lactation consultants have insisted that a mother continue trying to breastfeed even long past the point where it’s quite clear that the baby is actually starving, and not getting enough milk. They won’t let the mother move to formula, or they never recommend that the mother move to formula. They keep insisting that the baby is fine, and the baby is not fine, far from fine. When the mother finally turns to supplement with formula or switched to formula, as the case may, be the mother feels awful. And that’s one of the worst effects that you find in the United States. It’s a very common story.

Benson: But do the health benefits of breastfeeding really warrant such zeal? Jung says there’s really only one well-proven advantage.

Jung: Breastfeeding almost certainly has an impact on the risk of infection. It reduces the risk of ear, respiratory and gastrointestinal infections for babies during the period that they are actually breastfeeding. On the flip side there’s also fairly good evidence that breastfeeding has no impact on obesity, type-1 diabetes, asthma, allergies and cardiovascular disease, and dental cavities. And then, in the middle, there’s sort of a vast area all of the other conditions that have been associated with breast feeding. Basically the evidence is either weak or inconclusive. So, I would say that for everything else we basically just don’t know.

Benson: Still Jung says most advocates have completely bought in to the purported benefits of breastfeeding. So they may truly believe that new mothers are irresponsible if they choose to raise their baby any other way.

Jung: If you believe that breastfeeding is going to prevent your child from getting everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease to obesity and infections and that it’s going to raise his or her I.Q. and increase his or her attachment, then it’s very hard not to make the flip from, “I chose the breastfeed baby,” to  “everyone should breastfeed their baby.” But if it’s on the other hand to the case that it has a modest impact on reducing the risk of infection, then it seems more reasonable for mothers to weigh that modest impact against other things that art happening in their lives, that whether or not they have to go to work, whether or not they are producing enough milk, whether or not they need to take medications that may be contraindicated for breast feeders, and what’s going on with their families and make their own decisions about whether or not breastfeeding works for them.

Benson: However, Jung says health justifications alone probably wouldn’t produce such fierce insistence on breastfeeding. So where does it come from? Jung says strong political views are responsible dating back to 1956, when two Catholic women started the La Lecher league.

Jung: Was first and foremost committed to breast feeding, but it also was focused on… breastfeeding was part of a larger philosophy, a broader philosophy that included the mother staying at home, nurturing the children and the father having the role of the breadwinner. So it was a very traditional family structure. Subsequently, breastfeeding got picked up by the feminist movement as a marker of who we are and what we believe in, and a sign of the power of women’s bodies to sustain human life and breastfeeding as a symbol of what women can uniquely do.  

Benson: Even though feminists and evangelicals endorse breastfeeding for completely different reasons, groups as different as they are could probably never agree on any other subject at all. For example parental leave.

Jung: If the United States had a parental leave policy, paid parental leave, then mothers would be more free to make their own decisions about how best to feed their babies. It would be feasible to stay home and breastfeed your baby for six months. But at this point, the United States government recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for six months, and at the same time they fail to provide paid, federally mandate maternity leave. And mothers are expected to square that circle by breast pumping at work during unpaid work breaks so that somebody else can feed their baby breast milk from a bottle. That’s a very, very high price to pay for breastfeeding.

Benson: That’s one reason why Jung sees a backlash developing against those who make moral judgments about formula-feeding moms. It’s certainly laudable to support women who choose to breastfeed. But women who make an informed choice not to breastfeed deserve support, as well. You can find Dr. Courtney Jung’s book, Lactivism, at bookstores and online. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.

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