World Breastfeeding Week 2017, another ridiculous lactivist campaign

Concept of lies. Lie detector with text.

I’ve been writing about mothering issues for over a decade and that gives me an interesting perspective on lactivist marketing campaigns: they’re constantly changing because they never work to lactivists’ satisfaction.

The latest campaign has been trotted out for World Breastfeeding Week 2017: ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity. This campaign is going to fail for the obvious reason that breastfeeding is incapable of doing any of those things and anyone with a modicum of sense would know that.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Breastfeeding as a way to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity? That’s bullshit.[/pullquote]

But lactivism isn’t about common sense and it isn’t even about babies. It’s about marketing the products and services of the breastfeeding industry while pretending that all women need these products and services and all babies benefit from these products and services. That’s why the moralization of breastfeeding has paralleled the monetization of breastfeeding.

The primary lactivist goal is unreasonable: to ensure nearly 100% exclusive, extended breastfeeding. It’s simply not biologically possible since the incidence of insufficient breastmilk supply is common, not rare (a lactivist lie). The goal is also anti-feminist. One of the cornerstones of feminism is the right of women to control their own bodies including their breasts. The lactivist goal is also absurd. For most of human existence there was nearly 100% exclusive, extended breastfeeding, and infant mortality rates were astronomical.

Before addressing why the World Breastfeeding Week 2017 campaign is the most ridiculous yet, it’s worth reviewing the previous campaigns.

The heart and soul of contemporary lactivism is lying about the benefits and risks. Breastmilk is literally presented as the “perfect food” for babies. But for a food to be perfect for babies, it needs to meet three criteria:

  • It must be nutritionally complete.
  • It must be available in the perfect amount.
  • A baby must be able to access as much as he or she needs.

Breastmilk is not nutritionally complete; it lacks vitamin D. Many women don’t make enough breastmilk to fully nourish an infant. And many infants have impediments (low muscle tone, poor suck) that make it impossible for them to access as much milk from the breast as they need.

But claiming breastmilk as perfect for all babies is only the beginning of the lactivist lies. Lactivist organizations — and sadly the WHO and UNICEF under the relentless lobbying of lactivist organizations — has insisted that the scientific evidence shows that breastfeeding has a host of health benefits. Most of the scientific evidence about breastfeeding is weak, conflicting and riddled with confounders. Since breastfeeding in industrialized nations is associated with maternal socio-economic status, most of the benefits claimed for breastfeeding are actually benefits of being well off with easy access to healthcare. No matter, lactivism has positioned fear of depriving babies of benefits as critical to their efforts.

Even lying about breastfeeding hasn’t been able to achieve lactivist goals, so they’ve extended their campaign in a variety of ways.

For years, “normalizing” breastfeeding has been a centerpiece of lactivist efforts. Ignoring what women told them about why they stopped or didn’t start breastfeeding — it can be painful, frustrating, exhausting and inconvenient — lactivists insisted that breastfeeding rates are low because of social pressure to formula feed. They embarked upon a relentless, multimillion dollar campaign to normalize breastfeeding, in other words to apply social pressure to breastfeed. Although many more women leave the hospital claiming they will breastfeed, and many more women feel guilty about not breastfeeding, the lactivist goal of 100% breastfeeding is nowhere in sight.

Critics of lactivism pointed out that it takes a village to raise a child, not a breast and therefore pressuring individual women to breastfeed is a classic neoliberal response to a health issue: putting the blame on individuals and discounting the role of government. Lactivists have responded with a new iteration in which government is condemned for not supporting breastfeeding enough — although it is supporting breastfeeding with more money and greater effort than any time in the past.

Moreover, it has become obvious that breastfeeding has risks as well as benefits. Critics have drawn attention to serious complications and deaths from insufficient breastmilk. The Fed Is Best Foundation has led the way in this area and its spectacular success in changing the dialogue is testament to the widespread nature of breastfeeding problems. How have lactivists responded? They’ve responded with unadulterated chutzpah. After literally decades of promoting breastfeeding by making women fear formula as substandard and a sign of personal weakness, lactivists have had the unmitigated gall to decry the fear generated by informing women about the fact that insufficient breastmilk is common, not rare.

World Breastfeeding Week 2017 represents a new acme in lies about breastfeeding: it’s not just a feeding method; it’s a way to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity. That’s bullshit.

According to WBW2017:

Breastfeeding is a vital part of sustainable development and a non-negotiable component of global action to end malnutrition…

Really? For most of human existence, when all babies were breastfed, there was never any hunger or malnutrition? Actually, as everyone knows, hunger and malnutrition were ubiquitous. Breastfeeding never prevented hunger and malnutrition in the past and it isn’t about to start now. Breastmilk does not come from thin air; it is produced from food eaten by mothers. No food for mothers = no breastmilk for babies. Unless and until breastmilk causes food to grow, it will never prevent hunger and malnutrition.

The health of our planet is affected by the way babies are fed. Breastmilk is a natural, renewable food that is produced and delivered without pollution, packaging or waste. The breastmilk substitute industry, on the other hand, carries a negative environmental impact that is not commonly recognised…

That’s hilarious! How green is the extra food (including meat from cows) needed to create breastmilk? Is there any evidence that the production of breastmilk takes less farming, fertilizers and transportation of food than the production of cow’s milk? How green is the plastic used in breast pumps? How green is the electricity used to run the pump and store the refrigerated or frozen breastmilk? How green are breast pads, nursing bras and lactation consultants (fuel needed to get to and from patients)? Oops! Maybe breastfeeding isn’t that green after all!

How about the claim that breastfeeding increases prosperity? The folks at WBW2017 don’t even bother to provide evidence of that, presumably because there is no such evidence.

The truth — an inconvenient truth that lactivists refuse to acknowledge — is that breastmilk is just milk, not magic. It doesn’t have magical health benefits. It doesn’t magically make women better mothers than those who formula feed. It doesn’t magically prevent hunger and malnutrition. It isn’t particularly environmentally friendly compared to formula feeding and it has no impact whatsoever on prosperity.

Therefore this campaign, like all the lactivist campaigns before it, is doomed to failure.