The antediluvian sexism of the lactivist movement

bearing and breastfeeding babies

Lactivism, like all natural parenting, suffers from three serious flaws:

1. It perverts the scientific evidence to support pre-approved conclusions
2. It is an industry that relentlessly markets its own services
3. It is deeply sexist and retrograde

Don’t believe me? Consider this latest attempt by lactivists to move the goal posts, appearing in the Pacific Standard, The Unseen Consequences of Pumping Breast Milk. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it … and it’s meant to.

Exclusive pumping is becoming more popular among American moms, often seen as a way moms can “have it all.” Meanwhile, the effects on maternal and infant health—and workplace policies—are rarely discussed.

You thought that breastfeeding made you a good mother? Fool! The only good mother is one who sacrifices her career and her income to stay home 24/7/365 with her baby.

Problematically, the rise of pumping also implies that moms don’t need as much time at home to spend with their babies—they can simply pump, store, and go back to work. What most moms may not know is that beneath the perceived convenience of pumping, there are potential consequences both for workplace norms and for the health of themselves and their infants. There’s an assumption that bottle-feeding breast milk to a child is equivalent to breastfeeding, but that may not be the case.

Oh, the horror! Women don’t have to be with their babies 24/7/365 in order to provide them with the benefits of breastmilk. That can’t be right; there must be some way we can make women who work feel that they are not giving their children the very best, and not so incidentally, proclaim the overweening sense of superiority of lactivists. Hence the claim that feeding a baby pumped breast might MAY not be the same as breastfeeding.

It’s a trifecta! Lactivists have managed to pervert the scientific evidence, market their own services and advance their antediluvian sexism all in a single claim.

Let’s take a look at the scientific evidence, but before we do, let’s examine what we would need to see in order to conclude that pumped breastmilk is inferior to the breastmilk of women who love their babies enough to stay home instead of putting their own trivial, selfish need for income and/or career on hold.

That’s going to be hard to do since in industrialized countries the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial, amount to nothing more than a fewer episodes of colds and diarrheal illness among infants in the first year. You’d have to show that the babies whose mother fed them breastmilk exclusively and never pumped were appreciably healthier than those who received pumped breast milk.

Are there any studies that demonstrate this? Of course not, since it isn’t true.

What evidence does the author of this piece marshal to support her assertion?

There’s a commentary in a public health journal that makes the bizarre claim that:

Milk expression may also be problematic for mothers, and it may be particularly problematic for infants if they are fed too much, fed milk of an inappropriate composition, or fed milk that is contaminated. (my emphasis)

The authors then proceed to offer NO EVIDENCE that this is happening.

Nonetheless, they offer the truly obnoxious suggestion that:

To characterize women’s behavior related to milk expression, it may be necessary to develop a new vocabulary for breastfeeding so as to distinguish milk extracted from the breast by the baby from that extracted by a pump for feeding to the baby at a later time.

Wouldn’t want those selfish, self-absorbed, career- women who are pumping to imagine that they are providing “real” breastmilk, would we?

Then there is a commentary in The Journal of Human Lactation entitled New Insights into the Risk of Feeding Infants by Bottle discussing a study published elsewhere.

[T]hose who received human milk by bottle only gained 89 g (P = .02) more than their breastfed only counterparts, respectively.

So babies fed breastmilk from a bottle reportedly gained of 3 ounces/month more than babies who received breastmilk directly from the breast. That’s not very impressive when you consider that the babies’ weights were based on maternal recall and may not be accurate.

That’s it. No other data was presented to support the claim that there is any difference between breastmilk from a bottle and breastmilk from a breast. That doesn’t stop lactivists:

“Promotion of breast-milk feeding as identical to breastfeeding is misleading,” says Virginia Thorley, a lactation consultant and honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia. “The new challenge is to use language accurately, and tell mothers the truth that feeding their milk to their babies by bottle is less than equivalent to breastfeeding.”

Thorley has written extensively on the potential perils of “normalizing” the separation of breast milk from breasts. She says that bottle-feeding of breast milk has a place in specific circumstances, such as when a baby is unable to adequately stimulate the mother’s milk supply, or in cases like Boss’, where a baby is unable to nurse directly. And while she agrees bottled breast milk is better than infant formula, “breastfeeding is about more than the milk.” Babies don’t just breastfeed for nutrition; they nurse for comfort, closeness, soothing, and security.

And what “perils” might those be. Thorley doesn’t mention any, but we can guess. One peril is that women who pump instead of breastfeed might not need the services of a lactation consultant. Lactation consultants have a habit of making claims that result in profit for themselves. They grossly exaggerate the benefits of breastfeeding; they grossly exaggerate the “risks” of formula feeding. They attempt to punish women who will never be their clients by banning formula gift bags, locking up formula in hospitals, and denigrate women who can’t or won’t breastfeed.

The chief peril, of course, is that “normalizing” the separation of breast milk from breasts actually normalizes working while mothering. And we all know that “good” mothers never work. “Good” mothers give up income, career and self-actualization in favor of staying home, having babies (vaginally, without pain medication, of course!), breastfeeding (no pumping allowed), baby wearing, and welcoming them to the family bed. “Good” mothers judge themselves and others by the functions of their breasts, vaginas and uteri. Their intellect and their character are irrelevant.

The piece concludes with a flourish of the viciousness for which lactivism has become known:

The three infant-feeding options available—formula, pumped breast milk, and breastfeeding—likely fall on a continuum of good, better, best… For parents who have the luxury of truly choosing any feeding method, it’s fine to choose exclusive pumping in the same way that it’s fine to choose formula, as long as they understand the differences in health outcomes. The problem is that for exclusively pumped milk, moms need to understand there’s still a lot we don’t know.

“I feel like I both succeeded and failed. Many moms can’t or won’t exclusively pump for as long as I did, but I still feel like I failed at breastfeeding,” Boss says. “I realize I did the best that I could. And that’s all our kids can ask from us.”

There is NO EVIDENCE that feeding babies pumped breast milk is in any way inferior to breast milk directly from the breast, but the dirty little secret of lactivism is that it has nothing to do with babies or even with breastfeeding. Lactivism is all about lactivists and their desperate need to feel better than other mothers, about hating and hurting women who make choices different than theirs, and it rests on an antediluvian, sexist conviction that a woman’s place is in the home, bearing (vaginally! without pain medication!) and nourishing babies, and ignoring their own wishes and needs.

The fact that such shaming aligns with their never ending attempts to market their services is purely coincidental.