Are lactivist campaigns abusive?

Woman sitting alone and depressed

Breastfeeding is great. Lactivism not so much.

Breastfeeding is about feeding a baby. Lactivism is about pressuring women to use their body in lactivist approved, ways. Breastfeeding support is undeniably good. Lactivist pressure can be frighteningly abusive.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Sadly the abusive nature of lactivism is not a side effect; it’s a feature.[/pullquote]

Indeed, lactivist pressure shares a disturbing number of characteristics of psychological abuse.* Even more disturbing, the abusive nature of lactivism is not a side effect; it’s a feature. It seeks to control women’s behavior in the exact same ways as many male abusers seek to control women’s behavior.

This website Out of the Fog, about escaping abusive behavior, defines emotional abuse:

Any pattern of behavior directed at one individual by another which promotes in them a destructive sense of Fear, Obligation or Guilt (FOG).

Emotional abuse is designed to benefit the abuser at the expense of the abused.

One of the foundational documents of contemporary lactivism, Diane Weissinger’s Watch Your Language, is a veritable primer on emotional abuse. It explains in detail how to use fear, obligation and guilt to force women to breastfeed.

Weissinger acknowledges that lactivists want to control women:

All of us within the profession want breastfeeding to be our biological reference point. We want it to be the cultural norm; we want human milk to be made available to all human babies, regardless of other circumstances…(my emphasis)

That phrase, “regardless of other circumstances,” makes it clear that lactivists aim to force women to breastfeed and do not care about the physical and psychological toll of forced breastfeeding has on mothers. They apparently consider emotional abuse to be a reasonable approach to promoting breastfeeding.

The website offers a list of abusive tactics. It is disturbing to see how many of them are routinely employed by lactivists, including:

1. Thought policing: This is the foundational tactic and Weissinger waxes poetic on techniques of thought control:

When we … say that breastfeeding is the best possible way to feed babies because it provides their ideal food, perfectly balanced for optimal infant nutrition, the logical response is, “So what?” Our own experience tells us that optimal is not necessary. Normal is fine, and implied in this language is the absolute normalcy and thus safety and adequacy-of artificial feeding… Artificial feeding, which is neither the same nor superior, is therefore deficient, incomplete, and inferior. Those are difficult words, but they have an appropriate place in our vocabulary.

What better way to ensure fear, obligation and guilt than to insist that infant formula is “deficient, incomplete, and inferior”?

Lactivist thought policing goes far beyond the mere use of words. It’s a key principle of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), which mandates that staff must be trained to substitute their clinical judgment on what is best for a specific baby with a relentless effort to promote breastfeeding.

The acme of lactivist thought policing is a breastfeeding contract. The Fraser Health System in Canada tried to implement such a contract containing phrases like:

Although most babies grow on formula, studies show the routine use of formula comes with some risks to both mothers and babies…

Even one feed of formula can damage (baby’s gut) coating and make illness more likely…

Babies who do not receive breast milk are more likely to get significant illness and disease…

Beyond thought control, these phrases exemplify another trait of emotion abuse: lying.

2. Lying: Lactivists lie routinely in promoting breastfeeding. Yes, breastfeeding is beneficial, but in first world countries with access to clean water the benefits for term babies are trivial. Honesty is unlikely to promote the fear, obligation and guilt desire by lactivist so they lie instead. This deprives women of the opportunity to make informed decisions about breastfeeding since the information they are given is proganda, not scientific evidence.

3. Invalidation: In the world of lactivism, women’s thoughts, needs and values are dismissed out of hand. Maternal exhaustion? Who cares. Maternal need to return to work? Just pump. A history of maternal sexual abuse that leads a woman to avoid anyone touching her breasts? She should just get over it. Mothers’ feelings aren’t simply irrelevant; they are invalid.

4. Gaslighting: This is a specialized form of invalidation that involves denying reality. A mother says her baby is hungry? Tell her all babies scream like that. A mother worries that she is not producing enough breastmilk? Lie and say that all women produce enough milk. A mother needs medication incompatible with breastfeeding? Tell her she doesn’t really need it. In other words, lactivists refuse to accept the lived reality of breastfeeding for many women, substituting preferred beliefs instead.

5. Alienation attempts to extend thought control efforts by encouraging distrust of anyone who places the needs of mothers and babies above the effort to promote breastfeeding. Mother-in-law expresses fear that baby is losing weight? Tell her to mind her own business. Pediatrician recommends formula to prevent dehydration and life-threatening hypernatremia? Ignore him. Friends tell you to stop being so hard on yourself? Drop them. Those who place the needs of mothers and babies first are obviously not suitable allies in promoting the fear, obligation and guilt needed to force women to breastfeed.

6. Projection: This plays a more subtle role in lactivist emotional abuse. Whenever their abusive tactics are exposed lactivists respond by insisting that they are the victims and that critics are “anti-breastfeeding,” as if anyone opposes breastfeeding itself. Like many abusers, when lactivists are confronted with evidence of their abusive tactics they seek refuge in self-pity.

These are not the only emotional abusive tactics used to promote breastfeeding, but they are among the most prominent. Rather then treating women as autonomous individuals with their own needs and desires, emotional abusers treat women as less beings who exist to be manipulated to satisfy the abuser’s own needs. Rather than treating women as autonomous individuals with their own needs and desires, lactivists treat women as milk dispensers who exist to be manipulated into breastfeeding by deploying fear, obligation and guilt.

Like all emotional abusers, lactivists deploy thought control, lying, gaslighting and alienation to exert control. Why? Weissinger has told us: lactivists “want human milk to be made available to all human babies, regardless of other circumstances,” the actual needs of mothers and babies be damned.


* I am not suggesting in any way that the emotional abuse meted out by lactivists has anywhere near the destructive effects of the emotional abuse that can occur within personal relationships.