Disciplining the uncompliant breastfeeder

severe young woman grumbling, acting like a judge mental

Breastfeeding professionals have discovered a problem. After nearly a generation of aggressive breastfeeding promotion undertaken at their instigation a lot of women and babies have been harmed. Sadly, that’s not the problem. The problem for breastfeeding professionals is that the women are fighting back.

These women are uncompliant breastfeeders. Formula was not their initial choice. They fully embraced the mythology of breastfeeding as having major benefits (though its benefits are trivial), its inherent perfection (though like all biological functions it has a high failure rate) and were completely socialized to believe that breastfeeding is an integral part of good mothering (when it is irrelevant to the mother-child bond).

Uncompliant breastfeeders are those who learned the hard way that breast is NOT best for many mothers and babies.

But they were disillusioned by reality. They couldn’t breastfeed successfully; they sacrificed their mental health trying to breastfeed; they put their babies’ health at risk or actually harmed their babies trying to breastfeed. In other words, uncompliant breastfeeders are those who learned the hard way that breast is NOT best for many mothers and babies.

Professional lactivists tried their favorite tactic first: they ignored them. But in the last few years uncompliant breastfeeders have become impossible to ignore because there are so many of them and they have begun to organize. So now they must be disciplined and managed.

The first effort at disciplining uncompliant breastfeeders in still playing out. It involves characterizing them as ignorant, lazy and selfish, thereby exacerbating the trauma they already experience. This tactic has been gleefully deployed by both professional and lay lactivists to torment women who can’t or don’t wish to breastfeed.

The second effort has been institutional, in the form of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative that literally forces women to breastfeed or endure unpleasant consequences. The BFHI is truly dystopian in its tactics, ranging from mandatory education efforts, through muzzling of providers, to locking up infant formula and forcing women to sign consent forms detailing its “dangers.”

Not surprisingly, both these methods of disciplining uncompliant breastfeeders have brought a feminist backlash with academics and lay people arguing that the choice of whether and how a woman uses her breasts should be left to women themselves. So professional lactivists have turned from exacerbating the trauma of uncompliant breastfeeders to expropriating the trauma.

Psychology professor Amy Brown has been leading the way in attempting to manage uncompliant breastfeeders by mischaracterizing their trauma and prescribing more “support.” Brown is one of the contributors to a new book Social Experiences Of Breastfeeding; Building bridges between research, policy and practice.

Writing about the conference that serves as a source for the book its authors note:

We wanted to create a space where people could meet to consider how to further our understanding of women’s embodied, affective and day-to-day experiences of trying to breastfeed their babies, and to talk about how more UK women might be helped to breastfeed their babies for longer…

They should have talked to mothers but instead they talked to each other and thereby ignored the harmful impact they have on women. The chapter headings reveal lactation professionals insistence that uncompliant breastfeeders are traumatized a “lack of support”:

Changing cultures of night-time breastfeeding and sleep in the US
Breastfeeding and modern parenting culture: when worlds collide
Parenting ideologies, infant feeding and popular culture
Cultures of breastfeeding: reflections for policy and practice

No matter that there has never been more support for breastfeeding than exists today.

The contributors to the book should have read Misshapen motherhood: Placing breastfeeding distress by Catherine Robson, who found something very different when she did talk to mothers. Contemporary culture isn’t unsupportive of breastfeeding; it is obsessed with breastfeeding.

I became intrigued with the lived dynamics of breastfeeding struggle after being thoroughly immersed in the world of breastfeeding remedies and lactation support as a mother-patient … From the birth of my first child in 2008 to my third in 2014, the grief and frustration at failing to ever exclusively breastfeed slowly translated into a drive to shed narrative light on the maternal underworld of breastfeeding struggle…

As both a distressed mother and academic researcher it was difficult to find lived accounts of what exactly brought women into this zone of struggle and support, of what it was like, of how they and their babies survived, and of how they experienced and made sense of the clash between the unthinking expectation to breastfeed and the surprising corporeal and emotional mess this could end in. I developed a great hunger, as the women who took part in my eventual research likewise reported, to encounter alternative narratives of breastfeeding where anger, disappointment, fear, intense pain, struggle, failure, deep sadness and an enormous corporeal workload were vocalized, nutted out, engaged with front and centre…

She came to understand:

…[T]he breastfeeding distress I focus on here also emerges within a broader socio-spatial context of ‘total motherhood’ and within privileged, white, middle-class motherhood with which the principles of total motherhood most closely align. I will argue that it is the particular coalescence of these corporeal and sociospatial geographies which works to frame and maximize feelings of maternal distress – including grief, loss, shame and failure. As such, this research can be understood as a micro case study of how notions of the ideal proximate motherhood … are currently being socio-culturally amplified and with deep effect on maternal feelings, practices and identities…

Such an imperative to breastfeed … is framed by the emergence of a form of ‘total motherhood’ in which mothers are held responsible for the complete risk-management of their own and their infants’ bodies. This is a style of mothering which requires proximity, monitoring and information gathering, and which emphasizes the role of personal choice. In this context, breastfeeding becomes a widely relevant venue through which contemporary anxieties about general health risks and healthy choices play out, with extraordinary public pressure being brought to bear on mothers to mobilize scientifically evidenced best-practice in their feeding… Here personal morality powerfully melds with risk-management such that the breastfeeding mother is unquestionably the good mother who not only knows that breast is best and but who is prepared to make every sacrifice to ensure breastmilk is what her infant receives.

Robinson is eloquent in explaining the source of distress for women who want to breastfeed but find they can’t:

…[T]he contemporary call to make motherhood so specifically through exclusive, direct breastfeeding remains dangerously structured by a ‘dichotomous spatial logic of proximity and distance’. The fetishising of breastfeeding as the key or even only venue of authentic infant-maternal connectedness positions all other infant-maternal contact as a form of separated and artificial interaction. This stigmatizing spatial logic and the broader embeddedness of breastfeeding as ‘trope’ of ‘risk culture’ combine to produce a paralyzing maternal landscape in which the effects of not breastfeeding creates social and emotional risks for women.

In contrast, the contributors to Social Experiences of Breastfeeding, rather than acknowledging and unpacking this source of maternal distress — the relentless pressure to breastfeed in a world that equates breastfeeding with good mothering — gaslight women by denying their experiences.

Women are telling breastfeeding professionals that they are reeling from too much pressure to breastfeed and breastfeeding professionals are trying to discipline them by misappropriating and mischaracterizing their trauma.

  • Anna

    Yep, this is/was me again. My little girl, second rainbow after full term preventable intrapartum stillbirth was born Dec 10 and immediately had serious complications. So my intentions to breastfeed and top up with formula as required went out the window and I began the pumping regime I said I’d never do again. My husband came back from the NICU and said he’d signed a consent to use teh evil formula as the donor milk is only for babies under 34 weeks. I had intended to tear that paper up in an act of defiance but in reality I couldnt walk and DH just said, yep, do whatever to save our baby. By day 3 I was able to supply enough EBM to go down the NG tube and she had a glucose drip too. She thrived and got better quickly under the incredible care of the NICU team. The NG came out on day 5 and we had our first breastfeed but she was falling asleep after 3mins at the breast and started losing weight. By day 7 we were on triple feeding full quota every 3 hours undressing her in the middle of the night to wake her up, tickling, cold cloths – naturally one feed cycle was takibg over an hour, even with Mums help. She gained weight but I could feel the PND/A creeping up. Husband and Mum would be back to work at 2week point and I have a 2 year old as well as two bigger kids. I decided to give it one more week, if there was no improvement in her suck strength I was gonna stop pumping and just formula fed. At 3 weeks her suck was no better and even the LC admitted it wasnt likely to improve quickly, by next weigh her gains were slowing so it was suggested to stop breastfeeding her first and give the bottle first, so my milk is all but dried up. Im just offering her a comfort suck ifnshe doesnt settle after her bottle. I know I have to do whats best for my girl and she is growing now and settling well on the formula but it still hurts. I think as the hormones calm down its getting easier to accept. Fed is best. I bf my first two kids for 5 years plus combined, I know its great when it works out but it doesnt always and wanting to have a feeding relationship with my daughter, and not a pump, doesnt make me lazy or selfish. It was more selfish that I sacrificed the bond with my 4th baby to give her EBM and had to strive to get it back, I dont even remember her first two months! I carry an enormous guilt burden for the poor choices I made that contributed to the death of my precious 3rd child. I refuse to feel guilty for feeding and bonding with her sister. I owe it to my little girl in the stars to be the okayest Mum I can be.

    • Box of Salt

      Best wishes for your family.

    • PeggySue

      You have been through so much. I hope things go much better from here forward. Please snuggle that baby for me.

  • LaMont

    OT except for “dealing with dogma”: does anyone from a progressive/secular background have experience with a relative marrying into a conservative/religious family? Our side is being depicted as the intolerant side whenever we voice anything about the bigotry we see. Help!!

    • Who?

      I don’t, but that sounds tough.

      When dealing with people who know everything (which is essentially what you are doing) I tend to pick my battles; don’t get into arguments where I won’t change their minds; let them know that I respect them as people but find their views abhorrent. They likely won’t be happy to ‘agree to disagree’ so it’s a pure waste of time and emotional energy and capital to come into a disagreement.

      Find places to agree and build from there.

      I hope your family member won’t be moving far from family, and that as/when children arrive they will also be close to your family.

    • AnnaPDE

      I have been that relative. Luckily only the older generation’s on my husband’s side is that way… but it’s grating enough.
      Basically I try not to get into any of this kind of discussion (and luckily the husband’s family doesn’t have this love for debating at the dinner table that mine has…). But just in case stuff comes up, most arguments of the other side are easily predicted, and it’s possible to be prepared with a short response to end the topic before it really gathers steam: Usually something snarky and sarcastic pointing out hypocrisy and the complete absence of compassion and humility in the supposedly Christian stance, combined with a good dose of passive aggression, does the trick. Not exactly classy but better than putting up with hours of being chipped away at…

      • LaMont

        Oh I don’t talk to the in-laws about serious things at all. The problem is my relative is taking their side, and starting to say that anything we say to him is functionally as rude as saying it to his in-laws’ faces. It’s… an adjustment, to be sure. After hearing the in-laws’ pastor say awful, horrific things, I was accused of having an ax to grind and reading too far because “I hate Christianity”. I am slightly guilty of not loving religion, but I only objected to real things I heard! I also understand that Christianity contains both good and bad strains/practices/people.

    • PeggySue

      I have very conservative family members. Claiming victim stance is a totally common response to being challenged. It’s maddening, simply maddening. But for some conservative folks, I’m beginning to see that “victim” is a big piece of self-identity, so it’s pretty tightly held. I’m sorry.

  • AnnaD2013

    I love how simply if you don’t breastfeed, you are allegedly a lazy mom. Uh, I think parenthood, in all of its forms, is the exact OPPOSITE of laziness! Who does all of the feeding (breast or bottle), laundry, dishes, cooking, errand running, disciplining, diaper changing, rocking to sleep, reading stories, singing songs, going on walks to the park, plus sometimes working outside the home??? Plus home improvement projects??? All in the name of raising a family? Mothers do. Fathers do (side note: I know in past generations men did not contribute to home life very much, but my dad was very involved in our house and my husband does as much around the house as I do).

    In conclusion, not breastfeeding does not make you lazy. It means you decided to feed your child another way. And that is PERFECTLY FINE. Also, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for how you feed your child!

    • Box of Salt

      AnnaD2013 ” if you don’t breastfeed, you are allegedly a lazy mom”

      I continued breastfeeding because I was lazy.

      Once it was going well – and overlooking the “not going all that well” and this “this really, really sucks, pun intended” parts – it was easy. It was way easier than dealing with bottles. If I wanted to take the baby out, I took the baby, and the diapers and burpcloths. And a large supply of water to rehydrate myself. No extra feeding supplies needed, until the babies needed to figure out how to move beyond the liquid diet.

      I remember being a little bit bummed when my younger child hit spoon-feeding age, because the silver lining of I-won’t-drink-more-than-a-mouthful-from-any-artificial-nipple-device-currently-on-the-market was never having to bring anything with me besides the diapers. At the time, I had a Very Active Toddler, which meant I had to carry both the baby and all the supplies in order to keep up; no stroller.

      Watching friends and relatives (most of whom had initially breastfed) move to bottles on outings, and you know what? What I was doing was easier. And I was lucky that I got to do it, instead of returning to paid work as quickly as they did.

      • Vast

        The ease varies, I’m sure. I’ve done both and formula is a LOT easier for me. Strong letdown? MAJOR hassle. Leaking nipples, need to put pads in. Vagina is so dry that no amount of lube will make sex possible. Have to watch what medications you take. Have to wonder, if your baby is acting strange, if it could possibly be a reaction to something you ate. Husband can’t feed baby in the day. Husband can’t feed baby at night (way worse)!!! With formula I got a ton of glass bottles, we washed them in the regular dishwasher loads every other day or so. When going out, you premeasure scoops of formula into tiny containers and put them in the diaper bag along with bottles full of the correct amount of water. For feeding time just dump in the container, seal bottle, and shake. It’s sooooo much easier than breastfeeding. I was like, no wonder they have to promote breastfeeding: no one would want to do it otherwise!

        • See, that’s great–you and Box of Salt did what worked for you, baby got fed, everybody was happy. That’s how infant feeding should be.

      • AnnaD2013

        It’s nice breastfeeding went well and made your life easier! That wasn’t my experience. I think each family has to weigh the pros & cons as well as the safety/health/happiness of their family members to make a decision.

        My point was that parents of all different parenting philosophies work hard, and to say that one particular approach is easier and therefore makes the parent lazy is harmful.

        • Juana

          I think the point Box of Salt was going to make was that mothers get branded as “lazy” for not breastfeeding (so breastfeeding must be harder that formula-feeding), but on the other hand, it’s always touted as “so much easier that bottle-feeding: always the right temperature, don’t need anything to carry along, etc.pp.” (which might even be true in several cases, such als Box of Salt’s case) – but then, it can’t be exactly _harder_ than bottle-feeding, can it?
          They’re just contradicting themselves all the time.

          • AnnaD2013

            That’s a good point! I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective.

    • Childraising is the toughest job in the world. And, once begun, it never ends. [ mine are 38, 36,35]

      • AnnaD2013

        Amen amen!

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        There is a line in the movie Parenthood by the old father, talking to Steve Martin, about the younger son and his business adventure. He says something like, “He is still my son….”

        For some reason, that always stuck with me. We understand how we have to care for our kids growing up, but the love for them doesn’t end when they are 18, or 21, or whatever.

        I also remember my 90 yo neighbor sitting in the chair sobbing because both his sons had died before he did – granted, they both died relatively young (one was like 55, and the other was maybe 65), but he was still distraught because his sons were dead.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    OT, but not really:
    Among the reasons why CNMs that do homebirths are just as bad as CPMs:

    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/withoutacrystalball/2019/01/midwife-killing-unregulated/

    Summary: Homebirth CNM lost her license after killing 2 babies with incompetence, so changed to a CPM so she wouldn’t have to put up with those nasty regulations that afflict CNMs…

    • Who?

      She’s being an efficient businesswoman, freeing herself of ‘red tape’.

      Eyeroll.

      ‘Red tape’ is that pesky thing that makes people toe the line.

      Per your patheos example, I have an anecdote. We bought our house in 1996. It’s a nice house. We needed some minor electrical work done, and a friend recommended an electrician. He came over, and when he opened up whatever it was he was to fix, took me aside and asked me who had done the electrical work on our house. I didn’t know, but on asking around, it turned out it was the neighbour who (I’m not joking) used to work at the power station. That was his entire qualification.

      Anyway. We got a plan in place and over several months the actual electrician checked everything and gradually fixed it. He was a good guy.

      Why did he ask who did it? If it had been an actual electrician, he would have reported the shoddy, incompetent work. As it was, there was no one to report the retired power station worker to.

    • PeggySue

      Awful. So very awful. The lost babies must have suffered, and certainly their families suffered, but no remorse. I wonder where this woman got her nursing education–and why she didn’t listen.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    This whole “support for breastfeeding for women” is pretty trivial. I am all for doing things like supporting breastfeeding-friendly work policies, but too much the current approach to “support” is merely cheerleading: “You can do it! Push it out! Push it out! Push your milk WAYYYYY out!”

    That’s not real support. It’s thoughts and prayers, and not anything helpful.

    • Merrie

      Yeah, that’s like the support I had at work… In theory I can pump at work–there is space and of course we’re “allowed” to do it–but when the workflow means I have to basically chew my leg off to get time away from my workstation, or else stick those free-hand things in my
      bra and continue to talk to patients (this idea makes my skin crawl), in practice it’s not so practical.

      • demodocus

        Fudge, I wouldn’t want to do those hand free things at my dh’s work, and it’s all cubicles so slightly more private than anywhere where you have patients or students.

        Gah, imagine the questions and never mind what the lactivists said about how teenagers should be okay with that sort of thing if only they saw it everywhere. Utter nonsense. They see people in bathing suits all the time but are shocked to see their teacher at the pool!

  • AirPlant

    The thing that breaks me about breastfeeding promotion is the assumed homogeneity of women’s experience. All women are assumed to have exactly the same desires, resources, and capacity to produce breast milk and any deviation from script is ascribed to trivial reasons. Nothing about the unique lives and perspectives of all the women who enter into motherhood is thought to matter, exclusive direct breastfeeding is the only acceptable goal and people act like you are somehow a dysfunctional substandard mother if you admit to different priorities or challenge the narrative that exclusive direct breastfeeding has only incredible benefits and no downsides.

  • Sarah

    I genuinely enjoy being characterised as lazy and selfish by some of these jokers. But I’d be willing to sacrifice that pleasure for the greater good. We need an end to this nonsense.

  • Griffin

    “The BFHI is truly dystopian in its tactics, ranging from mandatory eduction efforts, through muzzling of providers, to locking up infant formula and forcing women to sign consent forms detailing its “dangers.””

    Dystopian is an excellent word for describing the grotesque BFHI.

  • Cartman36

    I have said for years that what lactivists are telling women does NOT comport with their lived experiences. When I was pregnant with #2 a doctor in my OB practice told me my body would make what my baby needed. My experience with # 1 and my hypothyroidism told me differently. It didn’t matter how confident he was in what he told me because I knew, at least for me, it wasn’t true”.

  • demodocus

    Mom considered herself someone who breastfed her babies, though I remember her telling my 10/11 yo self that as soon as the baby got teeth, she switched to bottles. So, by today’s standards, she’s a failed bf’er. By the standards of the 70s and 80s, she was successful. Never mind that she fed 4, including a boy who’d been born addicted to drugs about the same time I was. (It was the 70s, that)

    • EbbyBee

      My mom is the same. I was born in the 1980’s and my brother was born in the early 1990’s. She breastfed both of us until she went back to work and then switched to bottles. She considers herself a breastfeeding mother. By today’s standards she “barely tried.”

    • AirPlant

      My mother told me my whole life that I was a breastfed baby.

      Turns out she quit at three months in spite of being a SAHM because she hated it so much. I even found pictures of newborn me (during the breastfeeding window) being fed bottles of formula by my dad and brother. She considers herself as having breastfed me none the less.

    • rox123

      Somewhat similar for me, my mother says I weaned myself at 9 months and tells me she breastfed me. Now I hear people say ‘I won’t even bother breastfeeding past one year’ or ‘a year of breastfeeding is the bare minimum’. I think WHO is to blame for this for pushing for at least two years of breastfeeding.

      • Cristina

        It’s interesting that nowadays if a baby chooses to self-wean, women are told to starve their baby back to nursing

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      I agree. This obsession with “exclusive breast feeding for X months” is really doing a disservice to those who do things like do mostly breast feeding, or EBF for less than X. For example, our kids were EBF for maybe 2 – 3 months, and then were combo fed (albeit mostly breastfed, with formula as needed when their mom went back to work) until they quit when they were 9 – 10 months old. They both started rice cereal around 4 – 5 months. By modern obsessive breastfeeding standards, they are considered breastfeeding failures. However, I can’t see it as anything but a great success!

      And as for health benefits: older child was as healthy as could be (only one cold in his first 14 months, when he was 1 mo old and still EBF), until he went to daycare. At which point, he was sick constantly for about 4 months while catching up.

      Our younger guy got his first cold when he was also 1 mo old, presumably from his brother, and when he was EBF, and basically never got over it for 2 years.

      There was no correlation between getting sick and breastfeeding. There WAS a correlation between getting sick and being exposed to others, either at church or through daycare.

      • Box of Salt

        Bofa, your story parallels mine: my first child got sick once during infancy. My second suffered a cold at three weeks old, presumably due to having more social contacts thanks to the older sibling.

        I sent my older child to preschool, and the older child would get colds, and pass them to the younger one. Younger child started preschool and did not have as many sick days: the illnesses had been spread out over more years.

        Older child had antibiotics due to illness once. I spent a lot of time on the nurse’s phone line with the pediatrician, and occasionally brought older child in for ear checks for (with hindsight) no reason. Younger child was did not quite get enough ear infections to warrant considering ear tubes for drainage. One infection was antibiotic resistant. What was the difference between child one and child two? Surely I must have formula fed, or at least bottle fed expressed milk more with child two, since breastfeeding didn’t protect that child from ear infections as alleged.

        Nope. Child two never took a bottle: we went from boob to cup.

        Did the breastfeeding matter, in terms of illness? No. It was teh amount of social contact, and the shape of the ear canals.