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).

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Uncompliant breastfeeders are those who learned the hard way that breast is NOT best for many mothers and babies.[/pullquote]

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.