Lactivists fight back

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Breastfeeding has become an industry, an industry predicated on gross exaggeration of the benefits of breastfeeding in first world countries.

Now that the misrepresentations of the scientific evidence have been pointed out in a national forum (Overselling Breast-feeding by Courtney Jung) lactivists are doing what any industry would do: they’re fighting back to retain market share.

The science is pretty clear that the benefits of breastfeeding in first world countries are trivial; lactivists are not attempting to prove otherwise, because they can’t. Instead, they’re fighting back with weak arguments and logical fallacies. In fact, the arguments are so predictable that they could write a playbook:

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#bf7341″]“When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”[/pullquote]
Step 1. Reframe the issue

The issue under discussion is whether lactivists have oversold the benefits of breastfeeding. They have, but they don’t want to address that point. Instead they reframe the issue as opposition to breastfeeding itself.

Melissa Bartick, MD:

It’s become routine: a big anti-breastfeeding piece comes out in a major publication …

The Boob Geek:

How to write an anti-breastfeeding article

Step 2: Appeal to authority

“Because they said so” is a logical fallacy, not an argument. Yes, consensus involving major medical organizations can be an important issue when defending empirical claims like “vaccines are safe and effective.” But when the claim under discussion is “medical authorities have overstated the benefits of breastfeeding,” trumpeting the fact that major medical organizations agree with each other is not a defense.

Julie Taylor, President Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine:

For strong evidence that breast-feeding is by far the optimal nutrition choice to support maternal-child health, consult the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization.

Step 3: Imply guilt by association

Is there any industry more despised than the infant formula industry? Therefore, insist that those who question the overselling of breastfeeding are influenced by or in league with the infant formula industry.

Casey Rosen-Carole, MD:

… Courtney Jung’s op-ed… posits a false dichotomy, supported by formula advertising, that the true battleground for breastfeeding exists between “lactivists” and mothers who choose to, or must, formula feed their infants…

It is unclear why discourse on the “minimal” or “moderate” effects of breastfeeding continues; it is likely related to influence from both personal experiences of writers and influence from formula marketing.

The Boob Geek:

Remember, though, that no formula company has ever undermined breastfeeding by providing free samples of their products. There is no proof that advertising affects us in any way.

Elizabeth Grattan:

Jung feeds this fallacy to a tee when she neglects to address the tactics of the Infant Formula Council specifically targeting breastfeeding families.

Step 4: Denial

Lactivists are making women who choose infant formula feel bad by exaggerating the benefits of breastfeeding? No, they’re not.

Dr. Rosen-Carole:

This argument posits … that the true battleground for breastfeeding exists between “lactivists” and mothers who choose to, or must, formula feed their infants. Rather, breastfeeding advocacy today focuses on the social conditions that prevent women around the world from being able to make choices that support their health and empowerment, and the futures of their babies.

Dr. Bartick:

It only takes one “lactivist” to piss off a journalist. You never know who might turn around and write that next full page op-ed for the New York Times.


Jung positions those who don’t breastfeed as the victims in society… This lets her pander to the masses by convincing them that they are the ones more deserving of the attention. Again, this approach isn’t new, it’s quite common. This martyr complex is a well known deflect as a way for people to completely avoid social justice.

These writers would do well to keep in mind the immortal words of comedian Louis CK:

“When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”

Step 5: Never address the actual issue

Dr. Rosen-Carole:

It is unclear why discourse on the “minimal” or “moderate” effects of breastfeeding continues … I will not engage this discourse here, as it is clear from every medical expert panel in every country in the world that the benefits of breastfeeding for health of mother and baby

English to English translation: I can’t rebut the claim.

I’m not surprised that lactivists are running scared. Jung has pointed out two of the dirty secrets of lactivism: the real benefits of breastfeeding are trivial and breastfeeding is being promoted by an industry that profits from it. There is no way to disprove these claims because they are true. But that doesn’t stop lactivists from trying.

What’s the take away message for the rest of us?

Be aware of the lactivist playbook — reframing, appealing to authority, guilt by association, denial and refusal to address the scientific claims. The tide is turning, and inevitably the truth about the overselling of breastfeeding will out.