Is exclusive, extended breastfeeding natural?


One of the most disturbing things about the natural childbirth and lactivists movements is the way they treat our distant foremothers; they treat them the same way we tend to treat all people who are non-white and non-industrialized, as one mass of undifferentiated, never changing animals.

It seems to have never occurred to them that for most of 30+ thousand years prior to the advent of writing, human beings existed in discrete cultures with discrete cultural practices. They had highly advanced civilizations complete with tools, pottery, and art … as well as traditions around birth and breastfeeding.

Exclusive, extended breastfeeding is like the missionary position: just one possible choice among many natural choices.

Natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates don’t really pay much attention to what those specific traditions are. Either they behaved like animal relying on their “instinct” (just like contemporary natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates!) or, to the extent that their traditions differed — think belief that childbearing women were unclean or supplemented their babies with prelacteal feeds — ignorant and “uncivilized.”

Why does it matter? Because both natural childbirth advocates and lactivists are longing for a past that may have never actually existed. Practices like exclusive, extended breastfeeding may exist only in their imaginations and nowhere else.

That’s what Anthropology Prof. Jonathan Wells explains in The Role of Cultural Factors in Human Breastfeeding: Adaptive Behaviour or Biopower?

Referring to the variability of breastfeeding practices among cultures, he notes:

Evidence from a variety of sources, including isotopic analyses of prehistoric skeletons … is consistent with the long-standing primary role of breast-feeding in infant nutrition, but both the historical and ethnographic literatures offer ample evidence that exclusive maternal breast-feeding for the first six months of life cannot be considered either “traditional” or the “natural” norm.

Furthermore, even when exclusive breast-feeding is practised it is not … an “instinctive” or uniform process.

He points out a phenomenon that contemporary lactivists prefer to elide:

Cultural factors therefore pervade breastfeeding at many levels. As the benefits of breastfeeding become clearer to the medical scientific community, those seeking to influence maternal behaviour, with the aim of improving maternal and child health, must develop an improved understanding of the role of cultural factors in infant feeding…

While all mammals suckle their young, there is wide variation in breastfeeding behaviors:

Mother-infant suckling interactions can be considered through a continuum model … At one extreme are altricial infant marsupials and monotremes, born in a premature condition and spending days or even weeks in the maternal pouch attached continuously to the teat. At the other extreme are the precocial ungulates and cetaceans, well developed and fully able to move on their own from birth. Primates lie between these extremes, and have been termed semi-altricial.

In many species, whether altricial or precocial, suckling is a relatively instinctive process. The newborn kangaroo searches out the teat itself, despite its relatively early stage of physical development… Many ungulates can stand very quickly after birth and orient towards the mother to search for the teat. In contrast, primate infants contribute less proactively to the initiation of feeding … The role of offspring instinct appears to be decreased, and there is an increased role of the mother, including learned maternal behaviour, in instigating lactation…

Even among animals, there is a cultural dimension to infant feeding:

In chimpanzees, our closest primate relative, both tradition and learning contribute significantly to the ontogeny of the offspring’s diet. Whiten and colleagues analysed data from a number of relatively discretely distributed populations, and found that groups inhabiting similar ecological environments nevertheless differed in the types of behaviour demonstrated. This scenario extends to diet, with only a selection of all possible foods eaten by any given group. These analyses demonstrated that both innovation of behaviour within populations, and diffusion of behaviour between populations, were important factors in accounting for nutritional intake.

Chimpanzee nutrition in general, including lactation, therefore involves “culture” – the learning of behaviour from others who have also learned it … This role of culture is relevant to our theoretical understanding of instinct in animal behaviour, and the notion of what is “natural” in human behaviour.


Despite the tendency to portray human breastfeeding as a “natural” process, in opposition to supposedly “unnatural” approaches such as bottle feeding, the reality is that there is no single “instinctive “ or “natural” way to breastfeed…

Breastfeeding resembles sex in this way. Labeling exclusive, extended breastfeeding as natural in opposition to any possible variation makes as much sense as labeling the missionary position natural and any other forms or practices of sexuality as “unnatural.”

Both lactivist recommendations and medical recommendations about breastfeeding often ignore this fundamental reality, assuming — despite widespread evidence of a multiplicity of cultural practices around breastfeeding — that exclusive, extended breastfeeding is “natural.” Then, through the use of biopower, they pressure women to conform to a “natural” practice that never existed in nature.

Biopower does not involve overt repression or force, but employs quiet and subtle coercions whose very invisibility enhances their effectiveness. Techniques include normalizing judgements which subtly define the properness of an indivdual’s behaviour, the institutionalisation of knowledge through which individuals are objectified and devalued, and the “panoptic gaze” which subjects individuals to continual surveillance …

That is similar to the way in which biopower is exerted around homosexuality and gender identity. Until very recently, our society objectified and devalued gay and transgender individuals, in some cases going as far as characterizing their behavior as criminal.

The exertion of biopower around breastfeeding has been going on for centuries:

While the literature does not tell us what women actually did in previous generations, it shows that male institutions and interest groups have had a long-standing role in prescribing “optimal” feeding, while also simultaneously containing many normative judgements of acceptable and unacceptable maternal behaviour…

The central role of breastfeeding in the generation of biopower can be attributed to the competing demands on women’s identities and hence behaviour. Women may simultaneously be daughters, sisters, wives or partners, and mothers. Perhaps most importantly, the sexual relationship between women and their partners may conflict with maternal roles, particularly given the relationships between lactational ammenorrhoea and breastfeeding duration. Maher has argued that male control over breastfeeding tends to be stronger in societies emphasising marriage and childbearing as “institutions for the confirmation of wealth and status”. More generally, the nature and duration of breastfeeding are a function of negotiation between the two sexes pursuing different goals …

Of course men are not the only ones who employ biopower around breastfeeding. Lactation professionals consider it an imperative to pressure women into breastfeeding whether they want to do or not, whether they are capable of doing so or not, whether it is in their best interests and the best interests of their babies or not.

They are no different than insitutions and authority figures who consider it imperative to pressure all individuals into heterosexual, penetrative, intravaginal intercourse whether that is what they want to do or not, whether it is in their best interests or not.

The bottom line is that the decision by lactivists to portray exclusive, extended breastfeeding as natural is an example of biopower in action.

It isn’t merely longing for a past that never existed; it can be actively harmful to women and babies.