The moralization of breastfeeding parallels the monetization of breastfeeding


Courtney Jung is getting great publicity for her forthcoming book Lactivism.

First there was the NYTimes op-ed Overselling Breast-feeding.

Now there’s a piece in the Atlantic The Big, Bad Breastfeeding Industry. As you might guess from the title, the author, Ester Bloom, is dubious of Jung.

Bloom explains Jung’s claims:

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#874338″]The moralization of breastfeeding parallels the monetization of breastfeeding.[/pullquote]

People tend to associate the formula faction with corporate profits: It generates, by some accounts, “two million dollars a day.” But, Jung asserts, “some of the research that corroborates the benefits of human milk for infants is funded by companies like Medela, which makes breast pumps, and Prolacta Bioscience, a company that makes infant nutrition supplements from human breast milk.” The breast-pump and nursing-accessory industries, she writes, have market share to gain from an increase in the number of breastfeeding parents.

In other words, self-interest is inescapable, and unbiased information is hard to come by. This echoes an argument put forward in The Federalist by Rebekah Curtis, which came with the subtitle, “Breastfeeding wasn’t just revived by La Leche League but by those who figured out how to profit off it.”

Unfortunately, Bloom gets side tracked condemning the formula industry (which certainly deserves condemnation for past actions):

The commercial history of infant formula is a long and colorful one. In the ‘70s, Nestle was “accused of getting Third World mothers hooked on formula” via misleading promotional campaigns. The results were disastrous: Since many mothers could not afford the stuff they were told they needed, they over-diluted it, often using contaminated water. An in-depth New York Times Magazine investigation from 1981 reported that “the health consequences of the shift to bottle-feeding in the third world have been severe.” A worldwide consumer boycott of Nestle products ensued and lasted seven years.

This view can best be summed up as “who cares what the breastfeeding industry does when the formula industry has done such bad things in the past?”. No doubt Jung is going to hear this a lot but it’s a faulty argument. But the overselling of formula feeding in the developing world is not a justification for the overselling of breastfeeding in industrialized countries.

Bloom also falls for another facile argument in defense of the breastfeeding industry:

It helps no one to draw false equivalences between both sides of this debate when they’re as different, in terms of resources, as PBS and Comcast, or to imply that, when health organizations recommend nursing when possible, as they have done for centuries, they are doing the bidding of profit-hungry corporations.

She’s wrong about that. It helps the millions of women who have been harmed by the moralization of infant feeding. The benefits of breastfeeding have been grossly exaggerated by the organizations that profit from promoting breastfeeding. Being dishonest in counseling women (even for supposedly “good” motivations) deprives them of agency in making the best decisions for themselves and their families.

Moreover, Ms. Bloom’s draws the wrong conclusion from the relative sizes of the formula and breastfeeding industries. Consider: an individual who works for minimum wage is likely to be more aggressive in pursuing an opportunity to an earn an additional $50/week than someone who makes $1,000,000. Furthermore, formula is only one product of many for the large corporations that sell it whereas breastfeeding is the only product of the breastfeeding industry. The breastfeeding industry may not make as much money as the formula industry, but it is every bit as motivated by profit.

La Leche League was founded by women who believed that promoting breastfeeding was a way to keep mothers at home and out of the workplace. It was a volunteer organization providing peer to peer breastfeeding counseling. Then in the 1980’s the folks at LLL began to wonder why they were giving away information for free when they could make money from the same information. They spun off an organization that created the lactation consultant credential; women who previously earned nothing for giving breastfeeding advice at LLL meetings, now were earning $100/hr or more giving the same advice for profit. LLL and lactation consultants themselves began aggressively promoting and lobbying at all levels of government for lactation consultants in hospitals and doctors’ offices. They’ve grossly exaggerated the benefits of breastfeeding and minimized the difficulties for women. Regrettably, they hit upon the best marketing technique of all: they moralized infant feeding and convinced doctors (who should have known better) to moralize it, too.

Breastfeeding in 2015 has no greater or lesser benefits than breastfeeding in 1975, but the urgency around breastfeeding has grown phenomenally, far out of proportion to it’s actual benefits. That has harmed mothers and it hasn’t helped babies. The fact is that approximately 5% of women can’t make enough breastmilk to fully support a growing infant. Those babies are starving and their frantic mothers are admonished to “breastfeed harder,” get more help from lactation consultants, buy pumps and otherwise enrich the breastfeeding industry … and blame themselves for not giving their babies “the best.”

The history of lactivism shows that the moralization of breastfeeding parallels the monetization of breastfeeding. That’s not a coincidence and it needs to stop.