Breastfeeding women seldom make history

The future is female. Vector hand drawn quote.

Analyze a list of most influential women in history and you could reach a startling conclusion:

Breastfeeding women seldom make history.

Many of history’s most powerful women had no children. But even those who were mothers did not spend time breastfeeding; they hired wet nurses or they used formula. Otherwise they would not have been free to rule, or to create, or to compete.

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Is breastfeeding better for babies or better for the patriarchy?

You’ve probably seen this quote on T-shirts or tote bags or bumper stickers and it was put there to highlight a truism: the women who make history are the ones who break the rules.

Why?

Because the rules in most societies are designed to constrain women, to prevent or erase their accomplishments, and most importantly, to keep them in the home where they cannot compete with men. Being “womanly” is hedged around with so many prescriptions that those who aspire to womanliness will remove themselves from the world of political and economic power.

Fortunately, there were women who recognized that both law and society conspired to deprive women of power and they fought back.

A major transformation occurred within my lifetime. Like most women of my age, I was taught how to be “ladylike” during my childhood and being ladylike inevitably meant removing myself from academic and economic competition with men. Ending up at an legal, economic and political disadvantage to men was not a side effect of the pressure to be ladylike; it was a critical feature in a patriarchal culture.

In 2019 women can no longer be controlled by pressure to be “ladylike.” So now we are trying to control them by pressure to be “motherly.” Motherhood is hemmed around by more rules than ever, rules that not coincidentally end up rendering women at a legal, economic and political disadvantage to men. That’s not a side effect of the contemporary ethos of intensive mothering; it’s a critical feature in our patriarchal culture.

Consider the message that society sends women about breastfeeding. “Breast is best” — it could not possibly be more stark. But breastfeeding places significant physical, psychological and economic burdens on women. And that’s the point. It certainly isn’t because breastfeeding is particularly beneficial.

Ever since the 2007 publication of Joan Wolf’s Is breast really best? Risk and total motherhood in the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign there has been slowly rising awareness that nearly all of the benefits claimed for breastfeeding are based on scientific evidence that is weak, conflicting and riddled with confounding variables.

…The NBAC [National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign] and particularly its message of fear, neglected fundamental ethical principles regarding evidence quality, message framing, and cultural sensitivity in public health campaigns. The campaign was based on research that is inconsistent, lacks strong associations, and does not account for plausible confounding variables, such as the role of parental behavior, in various health outcomes. It capitalized on public misunderstanding of risk and risk assessment by portraying infant nutrition as a matter of safety versus danger …

As the scientific paper, Is the “breast is best” mantra an oversimplification? noted:

In recent years, an increasing number of researchers, physicians, and authors have begun to question whether, in the United States, the benefits of breastfeeding children are exaggerated and the emphasis on breastfeeding might be leading to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and anxiety among mothers …

After detailing an extensive scientific review of the literature, the authors concluded:

The evidence for infant breastfeeding status and its association with health outcomes faces significant limitations; the great majority of those limitations tend to overestimate the benefits of breastfeeding. Nearly all evidence is based on observational studies, in which causality cannot be determined and self-selection bias, recall bias, and residual confounding limit the value or strength of the findings.

Indeed, as I have repeatedly noted, the predictions of breastfeeding researchers — that increased breastfeeding rates would lead to lower mortality of term babies and reduced incidence of various diseases and conditions — have utterly failed to materialize.

But that hasn’t stopped breastfeeding researchers from doubling down by finding ever more arcane “benefits” (the microbiome! epigenetics!) and by creating ever more restrictions for women.

Consider this recent piece in The New York Times, Breast Milk Is Teeming With Bacteria — That’s Good for the Baby. In case you didn’t get the message, the subtitle pounds you on the head with it: Breast-fed milk may nourish a baby’s microbiome in ways that bottled breast milk can’t.

Obviously, if you want to be a good mother, you must feed your baby breastmilk.

But you can still work, right? You can just pump your milk.

No, no, no!

Moreover, breast milk seems to be rich in beneficial bacteria only when it comes directly from the mother’s breast — not even when the same milk is pumped and delivered later by bottle.

Good mothers must stay home and breastfeed! Who could have seen that coming?

You would never know from the irresponsible NYTimes piece that the research is so preliminary that it is unclear its findings are either real or clinically relevant. The studies involve only tiny numbers of subjects. Moreover, it is entirely dependent on two unsubstantiated beliefs of breastfeeding researchers that 1. differences in the gut microbiome of breastfed and bottle fed babies are meaningful and 2. we can assume that the differences mean that breastfed babies are getting a benefit and bottle fed babies are not. To date, there is no evidence for either of those assumptions.

But that’s not the point. Breastfeeding has received so much cultural support NOT because it is particularly beneficial for babies. The pressure to breastfeed is like the pressure to be ladylike. It’s not about what’s good for babies or mothers. It’s about keeping women immured in the home.

The next time someone tells you something is best for babies, consider whether that claim is just another way to keep women from seeking the same legal, economic and political power as men. In other words, it is really better for babies, or better for the patriarchy?

Breastfeeding women seldom make history. That’s not a coincidence.

  • Marie

    This is very interesting to me since we recently spent a couple of weeks in Vienna and the legacy of Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa was everywhere in that city. One thing that is emphasized a lot is that she managed to effectively rule an enormous empire while almost continually pregnant or recently postpartum; she gave birth to 16 children between age 20 and 39. While this is still very impressive, it’s interesting to realize that while she did all the work of pregnancy and birth herself (obviously) she was able to delegate the work of feeding her infants to other women, which is probably one of the main reasons that she was able to rule so successfully. I hadn’t though of this until now, but it makes total sense.

    • mabelcruet

      A modern day version is Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. It should be possible to be a mother and continue to work if that’s what she wants to do. This is why we need women like members of Parliaments around the world-Larissa Waters, Karina Gould and Carolina Bescansa. I know they’ve all been criticised for ‘making a statement’, going over the top and having an agenda. I know there is criticism that having babies in session in parliament is playacting, disruptive and an attempt to be deliberately provocative, but the fact remains that a new mother or breast feeding mother is still first and foremost a woman with a brain and a contribution to make. They are making a statement-they are saying that being a mum is simply part of her life, not the be-all and end-all. She should have the absolute right to decide for herself whether she wants to stay home or continue to work, as well as making the decision on how to feed her baby. Some women want to continue to work and a decent society should help her do that-a financially secure family is the best start in life a child could have, and the first step on the road to being a contributing member of society. It benefits everyone when women are supported in their choices.

    • rational thinker

      Another reason royal women did not breastfeed is because it is more difficult to become pregnant again while breastfeeding. Royal women were used as baby making machines to ensure the family dynasty would last as long as possible. They were expected to produce an heir and a lot of spares.

  • alongpursuit

    Any type of intensive motherhood (exclusive BFing, modern interpretations of attachment parenting) is going to by definition divide domestic chores according to sex. And the other parent is free to engage as they did before with economic, professional and political spheres. My colleagues are all surprised that I don’t want to take a full year of maternity leave (the norm here), but the last time I did take a full leave and a major part of me died.

    On a more specific note, I was never able to breastfeed exclusively and felt so much guilt and shame about it. Part of that shame what that I couldn’t fit in with the “breastfeeding on demand” moms though that expression always irked me. Even if I could BF exclusively, if I was BFing on demand I would only be fully engaging with my infant and never truly able to fully engage with the outside world.

    • fiftyfifty1

      Yes, many of my friends are surprised that I am not on the side of pushing for longer maternity leaves. They think that long paid maternity leaves such as are provided in many European countries is a good sign of how feminist a country is. Yet long maternity leaves are well demonstrated to limit the career attainment of women. So instead I think we should prioritize high quality affordable childcare (that, and keep up the pressure for male partners to do their half.) Maternity leave beyond what is needed to physically recover from birth and adjust to a newborn (say 6 weeks) is a lifestyle choice, not a necessity.

      • alongpursuit

        For me maternity leave could benefit from pro-choice arguments. Do it if you want to; don’t do it if it’s not for you, but protect the right for others to do it. It would be great for people without babies to be able to take an equivalent leave.

        The dominant discourse where I live is that even one year of mat leave isn’t long enough and proper moms should feel so sad to go back to work after that year. I’d rather have my partner take part of the leave so I can go back to work and regain a sense of what’s normal for me.

        • rational thinker

          I know how you feel. When I was working I called the days I went to work my “break time”.

      • Sarah

        That seems a very conservative estimate. You’d really only need to get a bit unlucky for that not to be enough. I must say I was still rather a physical wreck with both of mine at that stage: one was a Cat 1 EMCS which I assume there’d be some provision to extend for, but the other was a VB. If you’re going to base it on the average recovery time I think it still needs to be more than that.

        A lot of European countries actually go for about 4 months, but better paid than eg the UK where we can take a full year but most of it isn’t very well paid and 3 months is nothing at all. So for example Switzerland, Holland and France. Often they get the same amount of money as British women on statutory pay do but over a much shorter period. There might be something to be said for allowing more flexibility in terms of compressing the leave but keeping the same amount of money. As things stand, if you decide to go back before the end of paid leave, as I did with one of mine, you effectively sacrifice that state support.

        In terms of making things more equal between parents, as well as better childcare, I’d also like to see part time and flexible work be more available. Not possible in all jobs of course, but there are some where it’s just not done because it’s not done. We know that many parents, and let’s be honest usually mothers, are kept out of the workforce because of this. This is an issue that needs multiple solutions.

      • Inmara

        I strongly disagree that 6 week leave is universally enough to adjust to newborn and recover after birth. Also, putting such
        small children into daycare even before they get the 2 month vaccinations is not a good idea. 6 months (which many European countries provide) seems to be better option, also there are some Scandinavian countries (if I recall correctly) that provide split parental leave – 6 months for each of parents, take it or lose it. That doesn’t work for everyone but in general I think it would make things more equal between parents.
        Where I live we have almost 2 months before birth as a sick leave, some weeks after birth as a sick leave, and then up to 1 or 1,5 years of child’s age (second options means less money per month, 80% or 60% from salary respectively). I’m glad that I chose only 1 year, after that I was longing to get to work (and had some projects earlier, during parental leave). What makes things difficult for many families is that in theory you should get subsidized childcare from 1,5 years, but in biggest cities there is not enough facilities, as a result many families pay huge sums for private daycares and nannies. We spent about 1/4 of our family income on nanny for a year, until we got into kindergarten (and we were lucky to get there so soon).

    • Marie

      Don’t forget homeschooling in those intensive mothering methods. I’ve seen a big uptick in homeschooling amongst my circle and it always amazes me to see my formerly feminist, independent friends willingly fit themselves into the 50’s model of one income family in the name of homeschooling. It seems so bizarre to me to willingly take a step backwards like that.

      • alongpursuit

        Absolutely! Maybe it’s OK for them, but it’s certainly not for me!

        For most of my life I thought if I optimized my time and was efficient at what I was doing then I could do more, more, more. This strategy failed badly with my first baby and left me a complete wreck. I thought I could go “full pioneer” doing everything myself, from scratch, the way nature intended, but the reality was that something had to give. Part of my healing was to repeat to myself “At what cost?” when I felt compelled to do something soul-destroying and self-effacing for my baby (or rather, do something society thinks I should do for my baby). I have finite resources. Homeschooling is something I could never do because it would mean giving up the fulfillment I get from working and interacting with other adults. I think my baby benefits from my personal pursuits too! Plus, I’d be foolish to think that my baby needs me and only me. I think school is part of social development as much as it is about learning.

  • Mel

    I love how breastfeeding advocates seem to miss some gaps in logic.

    The only group of infants for whom receiving breast milk has a demonstrable health benefit is premature infants born prior to 34 weeks gestation who have yet to reach 34 weeks of age. Receiving human breast milk without formula reduces the risk of NEC in this group by half.

    But that leads to an obvious conundrum for this new experiment because the number of preemies who can be breastfed directly is vanishingly small*. To align these two ideas, the breasteeding-directly-is-microbiome-builder group would need to work out a plausible method by which pumped milk works just fine for far more frail babies but then becomes a negative effect for the fat, bouncing term babies…..

    *I’d say “zero” – but there was that 28 week preemie who managed to breastfeed according a video produced by their mom who was on a single person crusade to make all micro preemies breastfeed. My two cents: my kid was in an open crib by 31 weeks gestation which was described as “really unusual” by the straightlaced medical folk and “freakish” by the looser group – but that didn’t lead me to try and take an isolette away from your preemie, thank you very much.

    • mabelcruet

      I’ve no personal experience, but breast feeding looks to be an energetic process for babies-just how much muscle power, strength and endurance do they think micropremies actually have? These are wee tiny scraps weighing not much more than a tin of beans. And muscle coordination? They are premature, meaning everything is too soon and immature and not yet connecting up-I know its supposed to be a reflexive type of action, but a growth restricted premie, suffering the effects of whatever it was made him growth restricted or premie probably isn’t up to anything vaguely resembling hard work like suckling for hours. Or are lactivists viewing this as some sort of gladiatorial contest and survival of the fittest? Those that can, suckle, and those that can’t-expose them on the hillside like in ancient Rome…

      • rational thinker

        This is something I never hear lactivists talk about concerning preemies. They want preemies to nurse but I dont think a lot of them realize how much muscle power it takes to nurse. A preemie needs lots of calories and you burn calories when you exercise. Nursing can be exercise for a babys facial muscles. These are calories a preemie or especially a micro preemie cannot afford to lose.

        • fiftyfifty1

          “but I don’t think a lot of them realize how much muscle power it takes to nurse.”

          Oh they realize it when it suits them, and forget it when it suits them. They are forever blathering on about how bottle feeding is “lazy” for babies and won’t exercise and build their jaw muscles right. Bottle feeding is so much easier that don’t even let your babies try it or they might forever after refuse the breast and then their faces are sure to grow up weak and ugly. But they forget all this when it comes to preemies-it should be no problem for a micro-preemie.

          • AnnaPDE

            Though this whole talk about “lazy” gets put into perspective rather harshly when you see how a well-functioning letdown looks once you get it going: The nipple is actively squirting milk, and baby has to focus on swallowing it while breathing (as opposed to drowning in it). Far cry from a bottle nipple that you have to continually suck on to get the milk out.

          • Brenna Goode

            Maybe for you – that sort of letdown certainly NEVER happened to me, or to anyone else I know.

      • Mel

        Heck, a lot of the littlest ones lack the instinct to breathe reflexively. Spawn had an adorable habit of removing his own breathing tube and he didn’t try to start breathing on his own until 29 weeks gestation.

        Similarly, most NICU won’t try oral feeds until 33-34 weeks gestation because the suck-swallow-breathe coordination/reflex doesn’t show up until around then.

        Feeding orally is a major workout for a healthy newborn. For my son, it was like being asked to run a marathon while breathing through a straw. When he was finally able to do oral feeds around 42 gestational age (or 2 weeks adjusted), he’d suck three times, swallow, then breathe three deep breaths before starting again. That’s the amount of energy it took with the gravity feed of a bottle.

        • mabelcruet

          Even us middle aged biddies still manage to mess up the suck-swallow-breathe coordination at times! The larynx is a really stupid design.

        • mabelcruet

          Its the same with kittens (the only babies I’ve much experience of feeding, other than my nieces and nephews, who were all total heifers as babies and scoffed everything and anything!). With the very tiny abandoned kittens you use a syringe or a dropper, that way all they have to is swallow.

      • Sarah

        The views some of them also espouse about birth, maybe.

  • alongpursuit

    I imagine triple-feeding women are even less likely to make history 😛

    • fiftyfifty1

      So the hand that rocks the cradle is NOT the hand that rules the world after all?!