Is breastfeeding like sex?

Cuddling

Lactivists are in a frenzy over the success of the Fed Is Best Foundation. How dare anyone suggest that breastfeeding — unlike every other aspect of reproduction — is not always perfect? How dare anyone point out that the relentless focus on exclusive breastfeeding is harming babies and harming mothers? And how dare anyone deprive lactivists of the opportunity to bash women who don’t mirror their own feeding choices back to them?

Uncomfortable, exhausted women do not owe their husbands sex and they do not owe their babies breastmilk.

Breastfeeding researcher and lactation consultant Miranda Buck, PhD, writing on my Facebook page compares breastfeeding to sex:

A better analogy is sex. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that women have a right to a pain-free sex life. Nobody says to a woman that she’s just not good at sex. That she should have IVF instead. Nobody says ‘conceived is best’, to just forget about it and that sex is overrated. It is a natual and healthy normal activity that women should have the choice to do or not do. Same with breastfeeding…

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, I’m not sure what a “right” to pain free sex means. As a gynecologist, I have seen that there are a variety of conditions — from vaginismus, to uterine fibroids, to lichen sclerosis — that make penetrative sex painful and while we do all we can to alleviate the pain of penetrative sex, we aren’t always successful. Claiming that women have right to breastfeed without difficulty is analagous to claiming that women have a right to painless penetrative sex. Invoking a right does nothing to make it reality.

Second, lactivists go much further than invoking a right; they insist that there is an obligation to breastfeed — even if it is painful, exhausting, inconvenient or distasteful — since it is “so much better” than formula feeding. That’s like insisting that every woman has an obligation to have penetrative sex regardless of whether it is painful or enjoyable; that’s cruel.

Third, to the extent that a “right” exists, it is a right to obtain sexual pleasure. But heterosexual penetrative sex is not the ultimate way or the only way to enjoy sexual activity. Some women are not heterosexual. Are we supposed to believe that they are abnormal because they find pleasure having sex with women instead of men? I hope not. Then why are we supposed to disdain women who don’t want to breastfeed?

Fourth, there are a myriad of pleasurable sexual activities that don’t involve penetration. Should those activities be considered deficient compared to penetrative sex? That’s up to the sexual partners to decide, not outside observers. Similarly, infant formula is another excellent way to nourish a baby besides breastfeeding. Why should women who choose it be made to feel like that they are lesser beings, deviant or selfish?

Buck, like many lactivists, cannot resist the humble brag:

… Personally I didn’t much enjoy it, it was a practical way to feed a baby and then a toddler that was convenient for a lazy woman who couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed to feed them. It reduced my risk (which was considerable as I have both PCOS and GDM) of heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes and will reduce my BMI for the rest of my life. I’m all for having smaller thighs. Not all women weigh up the leaking, dependency, discomfort and intimacy of lactation against the benefits and make the same choice. But they should have a right to that choice.

Analogizing to sex as Buck has suggested would give us this:

Personally I didn’t much enjoy it; it was a practical way to satisfy my husband that was convenient for a lazy woman who couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed.

Why would a woman accept those terms as the basis of a sexual relationship? And if she wouldn’t — if she dared to believe that the relationship should be conducted on terms that were enjoyable for her — would we condemn her for not fulfilling an obligation? Uncomfortable, exhausted women do not owe their husbands sex. Similarly, they do not owe their babies breastmilk.

Sure, some women find giving into their husband’s sexual demands while contemplating the ceiling to be acceptable and make that choice, but most would not boast about that. Moreover, it’s hardly something to which other women ought to aspire.

Is breastfeeding like sex? I don’t think it’s a particularly good analogy except in one way. Women have the right to control their own bodies. They have the right to decide for themselves what is pleasurable, what is tolerable, what they owe their partners. Everyone else should mind their own business.

Similarly women have the right to decide for themselves whether they will use their breasts to feed their babies. It’s up to them to decide what is pleasurable, what is tolerable and what they owe their babies. And lactivists, including lactation professionals, should mind their own business.

  • franny

    ” the relentless focus on exclusive breastfeeding is harming babies and harming mothers”

    I,m sending this to the Onion.
    Please keep it going!

    • Azuran

      You might want to look up Landon Johnson. He’s dead because of relentless focus on exclusive breastfeeding.

  • cookiebaker

    I also gained a lot of weight while nursing and I’m still trying to lose it, but it’s really hard (PCOS and insulin resistance).

    • 3boyz

      I also have insulin resistance (no PCOS though). I only found out a few months ago, and I can’t believe we didn’t figure this out sooner. Had GD in 2 out of 3 pregnancies. Have difficulty losing weight even though I work really hard at it (and pretty much gain weight just by looking at carbs). My dad’s sisters all had multiple GD pregnancies and one of them is now a type 2 diabetic. We (including my dad) are all very short and stockily built and struggle with weight.

      • cookiebaker

        It took me a while to get diagnosed, too. My blood sugar was always normal, so no one ever checked, until one doctor did. She found my insulin was 10x the normal limit and she put me on Metformin immediately. It bothers me that a lot of doctors only check blood sugar since I was so close to burning out my pancreas. I’ve never had GD during my pregnancies. My PCOS is mild, I think. Extremely irregular cycles, but I have 6 kids (and 3 miscarriages), so conceiving has never been an issue.

        • 3boyz

          I also have completely normal blood sugar when I’m not pregnant. My mother sees an endocrinologist every few months because she’s a breast cancer survivor, and I guess she must have mentioned something about me, because the doctor recommended a colleague who specializes in diabetes and other insulin related issues. I also take metformin now. It’s changed my life. I hope next time I’m pregnant, I can avoid GD (or at least control it more easily). I definitely don’t have PCOS, my cycles are like clockwork (while nursing, I don’t get periods at all for well over a year, but when I do get them, it’s every 29 days on the nose).

  • 3boyz

    Did she really say that lie about breastfeeding making you lose weight? THAT IS NOT TRUE FOR EVERYONE. Plenty of people can’t lose or even gain while breastfeeding. I have an incredibly difficult time losing weight while breastfeeding. I can’t lose weight at all until about 6 months, and can’t lose more than 3-4 lbs a month till I stop entirely (this recently changed when I started taking metformin). I still choose to breastfeed each kid till about 2, but I do it knowing full well that my weight loss efforts are not going to amount to much during that time. And btw, after having my third kid, I was 50 lbs overweight. And again, that’s AFTER 4 years of collective breastfeeding. So “BMI protection” my fat @$$.

  • Gæst

    “will reduce my BMI for the rest of my life” Oh, I just want to slap her in the face for this boast. I gained thirty-five pounds during my pregnancy. I very quickly lost all but ten pounds of that (I had pre-eclampsia and suspect that I was retaining more water than anyone realized). And I breastfed twins…and very quickly put all that weight back on, as fat. Breastfeeding has ruined my BMI since this weight is still with me four years later. I also fail to see how BMI cold be protected “for life” unless you are breastfeeding for the rest of your life.

    • Heidi

      Seriously. I breastfed as best as I could, which wasn’t even near enough, but I gained 25 pounds during pregnancy, and was only down 4 after birth and while breastfeeding. Of course, I retained water for a few weeks after pregnancy and I’m sure breastfeeding hormones contribute to water retention, too. Now that I’m eating at a deficit and totally done with breastfeeding, I am almost down 15 lbs., but still 10 above my pre-pregnancy weight. But no, breastfeeding did nothing and continues to do nothing for weight loss. Eating less is unfortunately the only thing that’s working.

      • Gæst

        I think I would have lost more if I could exercise the way I did pre-pregnancy. I started to and promptly injured myself, and now my physical activity is limited to low or no impact. But if I had not gained all that weight from being so uncontrollably hungry while breastfeeding, I wouldn’t have had so much to lose.

    • myrewyn

      Yeah I was wondering about that too. I know the caloric drain helps some women lose weight but even so, how would that reduce your BMI for life?

      • Lion

        I didn’t have much of an appetite while breastfeeding and still gained weight.

    • Azuran

      Despite breastfeeding, my mom was never able to lose her pregnancy
      weight. She basically gained an additional 30 pounds with every single
      baby she had. And 18 years later, those 120 additional pounds are still there.

    • J.B.

      Shoot, I lost most of the weight by 3 months in of breastfeeding then kept 10 extra lbs until weaning-and lost it within 2 weeks. Hormones perhaps? Then regained 15 lbs later, due to kids and anxiety, soo…

      • Gæst

        Everyone’s body is different. I have no doubt that breastfeeding helps some women lose weight – women should be told THAT and not given misleading advice about how breastfeeding will definitely melt the pounds away.

        • J.B.

          I agree, and am particularly rolling my eyes at the suggested long term weight loss. What biological basis do they suggest for that?

      • sdsures

        Maybe when Spawn starts to be mobile and you’re forever chasing him around the house, the weight comes off from that new level of physical activity?

        • Empress of the Iguana People

          On Spawn, yes. Mom, not necessarily.

  • Heidi_storage

    “Is breastfeeding like sex?”

    Eww, no…unless that’s your thing. It definitely isn’t mine.

  • Rebecca

    Aren’t we forgetting that lots of people drink before having sex to make it less painful/more enjoyable? Which would be frowned upon before breastfeeding?

  • Mel

    OT: When you give the Spawn a bottle, he’ll drink it then ask for another…..

  • StephanieA

    OT: PPD vs PPA. My PPD after each pregnancy has been obvious. I have all the classic symptoms and have taken 40 mg Prozac each time. It helps with the depression, but the past few months it seems like something is still off. I still feel like I’m treading water and just surviving each day with my 3 and 1 year old. I find that I worry and overthink all day long…the usual things like making meals and cleaning. Those things seem normal, but I also worry about ridiculous little things, like what clothes to dress my boys in (when we aren’t leaving the house) or what sippy cup to give them. It’s like I can’t get out of my head, and I have a hard time relaxing because I feel like I should always be cleaning or organizing. Does any of this sound like anxiety? I know Prozac is supposed to help with anxiety, but so far not for me (if that’s what this is).

    • Mel

      I’d get checked out by your preferred medical professional.

      I didn’t think I was having an increase in depressive symptoms after Spawn was born until my therapist pointed out that I was describing increased irritability. (Which, par for the course, made me feel even more annoyed with medical professionals telling me things. Never the less, I made an appointment with my GP and described said irritability.)

      I needed a slight increase in my current SSRI. After about 2 weeks at the higher dose, I was feeling much less irritable and more like myself. You may need a higher dose, there may be a better replacement drug or there may be an additional drug you can add.

    • BeatriceC

      It sounds like it could definitely be anxiety. I agree completely with Mel. Please bring it up with whichever doctor manages your medication for PPD. Anxiety is often present right along with depression, so your doc won’t be to surprised to hear symptoms, and can determine if a change in diagnosis and/or a medication change is right for you.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      hugs. Yeah, get it checked out.

    • Spamamander, pro fun ruiner

      Oh yes. Please talk to your healthcare professional. Classic anxiety that is exacerbated by depression. (Please note I am not a professional- just someone with both diagnoses).

    • sdsures

      I overthink a lot. It’s a daily struggle. Hugs.

    • kilda

      sounds like anxiety to me. Maybe a change in dose or a change in medications is in order?

  • Lurkerette

    Man, I thought she was going to go a different direction with the sex analogy. Because I can see someone saying very easily, “while I’d love to be able to conceive naturally, it isn’t working, and so we’ve decided to move onto IVF because having a child is best.” Are we meant to stigmatize those who struggle with infertility? (Perhaps insurance could pay for their very own Shame Septa.) Sex doesn’t always work to produce babies. Boobs don’t always work well to feed babies. You have a right to have your care provider listen to your needs and help you find a solution — so-called natural or otherwise.

  • Sheven

    I’m absolutely for the sex analogy, but let’s use it properly.

    Imagine someone saying, “Your kid can’t eat until you get good at sex. Try every hour and your body will adjust. Use a dildo when you partner isn’t available. Masturbate when you can’t use a dildo. Wake up every two hours at night to do it. Don’t stop even if it hurts. Don’t you want what’s best for your baby?”

  • Guest

    What about painful sex because of breastfeeding? I’m dealing with that now, and will likely wean my daughter earlier than I hoped so I can be intimate without intense pain. But hey, it’s lactivism, so I’m sure I’d be told it’s all in my head or something. Or that I’m being selfish maybe? Who knows, they are all bonkers.

    • Vast

      Oh gosh, I’d forgotten about that! I hadn’t known it was possible to have a vagina that dry. Mine felt like tissue paper. Sex wasn’t just painful, it was like physically impossible even with lube (maybe we didn’t lube deep enough inside?) And even just existing with a vagina that dry made me irritated down there. I had to change what underwear I wore just so it didn’t drive me crazy.

      • Guest

        Yeah, lube makes it so it hurts in a way that isn’t frightening, just unacceptable. Did yours resolve with weaning, or did you have to work with a gyn?

        • Vast

          Around 3mo postpartum I abruptly had super severe panic attacks and psychosis and due to the chaos/medication, I weaned. The vaginal stuff definitely resolved on its own… I’d say by 5mo postpartum at the latest. I was ultimately pretty grateful for my break with sanity because even though it was an awful few weeks, it caused me to go from EBF to EFF and at the time that was not a decision I would have ever made without such a strong impetus. (The vagina stuff was the very least of my issues with breastfeeding… I was so miserable.)

          • Guest

            Hey mental health and painful sex buddy! I’m setting up appointments to get my long simmering now boiling depression taken care of! I am grateful for you being willing to share with me your story, glad you got treatment and that things improved.

          • Vast

            I hope you get help soon! I ignored it until it was a crisis… not good.

          • Empress of the Iguana People

            i hear that. *hugs*

      • I had to use lubricant from my first birth onwards — that’s 37 years now.

        But there’s another aspect to this “pain-free sex” business: everything Dr. Amy says about all the various conditions a woman can have is perfectly true, but why is it assumed to be the woman’s problem? As an analogy, it makes no sense. Not all women are blessed with partners who have generous endowments and marvellous technique. If my husband doesn’t satisfy me in bed, do I have a license to have extramarital affairs, in order to obtain my sexual “rights”?

        Once again, whether it’s the ability to conceive naturally, carry to term, have an easy birth, breastfeed easily and make lots of milk, it seems the finger is always pointed at the woman as being the one inadequate or incompetent — and, to be even more annoying, it’s generally women who are critiquing other women. The subtext is, “I managed to do all these things, aren’t you ‘woman enough’ to do what I did?” Makes steam come out of my ears.

    • FormerPhysicist

      Wean! I didn’t, I kept breastfeeding, and I *so* regret it. Many years later, the time of painful sex/lack of sex due to breastfeeding echoes in my marriage way more than the breastfeeding helped my children.

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    Lie back and think of England. But won’t my child sense my resentment? How can that be beneficial? I loathe breastfeeding to the point where I’m starting to shudder again just thinking about it.

    • Guest

      We all have to put our oxygen masks on before we assist others, a parent having a problem means a kid has one. You solved the problem by finding appropriate food for your kid that works for you too. Anyone that argues against that is a goddamned fool.

    • Go to formula — now! You and your baby will be much better off in the long run. There’s so much more to motherhood than just breastfeeding and you should enjoy each other.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        Oh, hon, bless you. I figured that out last year and she’s been formula fed since the beginning. But thank you for worrying about us!

        I was asking a hypothetical lactivist, the kind who haven’t figured out that this stuff happens in real life. Not that they believe I’m “real,” but maybe someone else reading this will.

  • LaMont

    Wait, the IVF comment seems to imply that you have a right to traditional fertility and that the availability of IVF is undermining old fashioned conception. So, basically, the hardline anti-choice viewpoint. How can these people claim to be feminist???

    • Angharad

      That part was especially weird to me. If your goal is to conceive, we wouldn’t say you’re bad at sex if you turn out to struggle with infertility, but your doctor probably could/should recommend fertility treatments. This is EXACTLY like how we shouldn’t tell women they’re doing breastfeeding wrong if it’s not working; we should recommend formula with no shame or stigma.

      • LaMont

        And somehow, they have this idea that women are just “giving up” on sex after failure to conceive rather than actually trying to conceive the old-fashioned way. Because doing things that cost five figures when you could do it for free makes SO MUCH SENSE.

  • Heidi

    I’d rather think we have right to feed our babies enough of an appropriate substance, whether that be breast milk or formula. I couldn’t produce enough but I surely didn’t see that as infringing on my rights. I legally was able to go to a store and buy a canister of highly-regulated formula. Some extreme lactivists want to take that right away, though, no? Prescription only formula! That would be super dangerous and I think infringe on a lot of rights but since when did they really care about rights?!

    • sdsures

      Yeah, terming it a “right” doesn’t feel right, in the semantic sense. Feeding your kids isn’t a right – it’s a LEGAL OBLIGATION you have when you have children (no matter how they come to you: conceived, IVF, adopted).

  • mabelcruet

    Probably off-topic, but my favorite quote about sex comes from Terry Pratchett

    “He’d noticed that sex bore some resemblance to cookery: it fascinated people, they sometimes bought books full of complicated recipes and interesting pictures, and sometimes when they were really hungry they created vast banquets in their imagination – but at the end of the day they’d settle quite happily for egg and chips. If it was well done and maybe had a slice of tomato”

    • sdsures

      Love this!

    • MaineJen

      That’s perfect.

  • Roadstergal

    Sure, I’ll go along with ‘breastfeeding is like sex.’ It can be enjoyable for some women, it can be a great bonding experience, sometimes there’s a little pain at the beginning that can go away afterwards – and it’s nobody else’s business if she does it or not, and she owes it to nobody to do it, or even just to ‘give it a try’ if she doesn’t want to.

    • sdsures

      And for others, breastfeeding, like sex, never becomes NOT painful, due to things like vaginismus. The way to have a comfortable, happy sexual relationship (ie feeding the baby) is to realize that there is more to it than just penis-in-vagina sex (ie you can use formula and still have a great bonding experience).

  • Sarah

    Breastfeeding is like sex in that some people can’t possibly tolerate the idea that not all women want to do it.

    • Roadstergal

      And this nasty undercurrent of ‘you owe it to [other person in your life] to just give it a try…’

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        And this nasty undercurrent of ‘you owe it to [other person in your life] to just give it a try…’

        Oh sure, that undercurrent is there and all, but amazingly, when it comes to sex, everyone can see how clearly “non-feminist” that is. How many lactivists, who think they are all about “supporting women” would agree with the statement that women have a responsibility to satisfy their husband’s sexual desires?

        But if it is breastfeeding…

        Hey, it’s her analogy (breastfeeding and sex), not mine.

        • Roadstergal

          Can you imagine a ‘feminist’ telling a woman who’s been raped that she owes it to her husband to at least try to have sex, and it’ll help her heal to do so?

          • sdsures

            *shudder*

    • Spamamander, pro fun ruiner

      My panromantic asexual daughter doesn’t want to have sex at all . Or children. Eeeeevil. Oh wait, I’m perfectly happy as long as she finds happiness in relationships. And I have a grand-cat.

      • BeatriceC

        I just became a grandparent to a couple of grand-birds. YK brought home a couple of parakeets Sunday night. I was less than thrilled, but he was operating on the philosophy “better to ask forgiveness than permission”. It’s not like I don’t already have a houseful of birds. At least they’re parakeets and not another macaw or something!

        • Heidi

          Really not on topic, but my son loved the macaw at the zoo. That and the skunks were the only two animals that got his attention.

          • BeatriceC

            Macaws are awesome! Your son has good taste. Though I might be a tad bit biased.

        • Empress of the Iguana People

          I was wondering about that. Just so long as OK doesn’t bring home that penguin?

          • BeatriceC

            lol. Yeah, I’m waiting for the day OK actually does bring home a penguin. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.

            And now that I’ve had a day to think about it, I think the parakeets will be good for YK. He’s scared of the bigger birds, even Leo (the Senegal), but he really wants to be able to care for them. So the smaller birds are less scary and will help him learn to care for birds, and also give all the other benefits of being responsible for a pet. Plus, they’re kinda cute.

        • StephanieJR

          Ooh, new birdies! How are they settling in?

          • BeatriceC

            They’re doing well. YK is thrilled. I facilitated a vet visit, and my vet, who’s pretty much the most awesome vet on the planet spent about 45 minutes with him and the birds teaching him how to tame and train them. He also spoke to YK directly as his client instead of through me, which was amazing. The birds and the child are both progressing nicely. We’re just waiting on the results of some blood work (for communicable diseases) to take them out of quarantine and bring them into the big bird room.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        I really hope for grandchildren some day, but if neither of my kids want kids, I’ll just “adopt” a few neighborhood kids 🙂

      • Sarah

        It’s probably your fault for having had an epidural.

        • Spamamander, pro fun ruiner

          AND I stopped breastfeeding early on! And had her vaccinated! #worldsworstmom

      • StephanieJR

        Give her a high five from me, a fellow childfree ace! My mum currently has a grand-bun, but we all know my animal loving heart means that once I can, she’ll have a grand-zoo!

        • Spamamander, pro fun ruiner

          Oh, I’m just waiting for her to eventually get settled in a house instead of an apartment so I can go love on all the critters!

    • Roadstergal

      But if you’re biologically capable, you owe it to your partner to give him the best, whether you want to do it or not. Otherwise, you’re being selfish. *barf*

      (Actually, that’s another good part of the analogy. Not every man loves PiV sex, and not every baby loves breast more than bottle.)

    • Nick Sanders

      And that nobody has the right to force you to do it if you aren’t interested.

      • Sarah

        Unless, you know, they really want you to do it and you don’t have a good enough reason to say no, obv. And some people think they’re the ones that get to decide what’s a good reason.

  • fiftyfifty1

    “will reduce my BMI for the rest of my life. I’m all for having smaller thighs.”

    My aren’t the lactivists getting desperate! They used to threaten mothers that their babies would be fat if they didn’t breastfeed them. But then the discordant sib study and the randomized Belarus PROBIT study came along and totally disproved that (the PROBIT study actually found that the breastfeeding group was marginally MORE likely to be overweight/obese). So now, instead, they threaten mother that failing to breastfeed will leave HER fat. Keep on talking lactivists–nothing is better at showing the world how anti-feminist your movement is than your very own words!

    • maidmarian555

      I wish my body had known that breastfeeding was supposed to make me skinny. I couldn’t lose a frikking pound until I stopped. And that was long after the first couple of weeks (where I was pretty much inhaling biscuits), I was eating really well and there was no logical reason why I was staying fat. Anecdotally, MANY of my breastfeeding friends have said the same thing. We were all told by midwives that breastfeeding would help us lose that baby weight and were all rather annoyed to discover that was a big fat lie. It’s just another bullshit thing to beat new mums over the head with, like we need extra pressure or to be made to feel like our bodies are somehow failing us. And surprise, surprise it’s coming from the all-natural, lactivist lobby. I am sick of this unbridled misogyny coming from OTHER WOMEN.

      • MI Dawn

        Yeah, I didn’t lose any weight while breastfeeding either. It came off after I went back to work at 6 weeks and cut back nursing to 1-2 x/day.

      • cookiebaker

        With all 6 of mine, I lost weight while pregnant, gained it while nursing. Not just a little, either, like 20-30lbs. I remember being constantly hungry breastfeeding, especially in the beginning. I was really ticked that the weight-loss promise didn’t work for me.

    • MaineJen

      Yeah, I’m one of those women who lost weight without trying while breastfeeding. It was great; skinniest I’ve ever been in my life. Of course, as soon as I stopped, the weight all came back. She kind of left out that part.

  • anh

    I’d say that while not every woman has the “right” to pain free penetrative sex, they do have the right to have their medical practitioners listen to their concerns and try to treat them, if possible. Of course we know there is a long history of medical staff ignoring women’s pain, particularly in this area.
    Along the same vein, a woman struggling with breast feeding has the right for true professionals to truly listen to them and if possible assuage the problems and if not, find healthy alternatives. Instead we have lactivists who either say the problems are in a woman’s head, socially constructed, or just that a woman is being weak or lazy.
    So many lactation professionals are just proudly continuing a pernicious tradition of women’s health concerns being ignored or man/lactisplained