Criticizing breastmilk pumping is the latest front in the effort to re-domesticate women

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If the mind of the mother be withdrawn from her child to other pleasures, her milk will be less nutritious and less in quantity. — Dr. Richard Kissam, The Nurse’s Manual and Young Mother’s Guide(1834)

…[P]umping … is not equivalent to direct nursing … The microbiome of expressed breast milk is different, for one. — Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic (2019)

A new piece in the Atlantic, Pumping Milk and Nursing Are Not the Same, by Annie Lowrey inadvertently gets to the heart of contemporary efforts at breastfeeding promotion. It has never been about what’s good for babies; the purpose has always been to re-domesticate women.

Central to that task is convincing mothers that having a job, a career or even interests apart from caring from children is harmful to their babies.

“Good mothers” provide breastmilk straight from the tap.

Although La Leche League has carefully scrubbed their website of the fact, it was a religion inflected organization originally founded in 1956 by seven traditionalist Catholic women. The goal was keeping mothers out of the workforce by convincing them to breastfeed.

In the book La Leche League: At the Crossroads of Medicine, Feminism, and Religion, Jule DeJager Ward explains:

[A] central characteristic of La Leche League’s ideology is that it was born of Catholic moral discourse on family life … The League has very strong convictions about the needs of families. These convictions are the normative heart of its narrative… The League’s presentations and literature carry a strong suggestion that breast feeding is obligatory. Their message is simple: Nature intended mothers to nurse their babies; therefore, mothers ought to nurse …

Breastfeeding professionals and researchers have fully embraced the task of re-domesticating women, creating new “benefits” of breastfeeding as fast as the old “benefits” are debunked. They’ve demonized formula, ignoring the fact that it was created for a variety of important reasons: insufficient breastmilk is common and many women want to utilize their minds in fulfilling work instead of being tied to the home by the need to breastfeed. And, of course, advocates claim that anything other than exclusive breastfeeding “interferes” with maternal-infant bonding.

Though natural mothering advocates decry medicalization of childbirth, they adore medicalization of breastfeeding — from pumps, to breastmilk banks, to the off-label use of powerful medications with the goal of boosting milk supply. While they initially sought to make breastfeeding compatible with work outside the home, the Atlantic article about pumping represents the newest front in re-domesticating women: convincing them that they must stay home because “good mothers” provide breastmilk straight from the tap.

Lowrey writes:

The number seems small, but gets larger and larger as you contemplate it: 6 percent. That is the estimated share of breastfeeding mothers who exclusively pump and bottle their milk for their infants, never directly nursing. It is a number that was functionally zero less than a generation ago. And it is a subset of a much larger figure, the 85 percent of breastfeeding mothers who use a pump at least some of the time…

Maybe this is a good thing, if pumping helps babies receive more breast milk, or if it enables mother and child to sustain a desired, direct breastfeeding relationship for longer. Maybe pumping helps women have it all—a full-time career and a breastfed baby.

But breastfeeding promotion is NOT about women having it all; it’s about convincing mothers that babies need breastmilk breastfeeding more than women need … anything.

The “research” such as it is, is surprisingly weak. No one knows what the normal infant gut microbiome is supposed to contain. No one knows whether deviations represent problems or merely individual variations. No one knows whether the infant gut microbiome has any impact on infant health or anything else. No one cares. It is a convenient cudgel with which to discipline women who dare to work.

If that were your goal, could you possibly do better than scaring women with this?

But while pumping might support direct nursing, it is not equivalent to direct nursing, researchers have found. The microbiome of expressed breast milk is different, for one. “Indirect breastfeeding” is associated with a greater prevalence of pathogens, which “could pose a risk of respiratory infection in the infant, potentially explaining why infants fed pumped milk are at increased risk for pediatric asthma,” according to Shirin Moossavi of the University of Manitoba. Plus, breast milk degrades when it is cooled, as it often is when stored for bottle-feeding. There is also the risk of contamination, given that dangerous bacteria flourish on pump parts.

“is associated,” “could,” “potentially” — weasel words all, but perfect for manipulating women.

And why stop there? Just tell women that their babies won’t love them as much if they bottlefeed, even when breastmilk is in the bottle.

Researchers also sense that the experience of breastfeeding—the eye-gazing, the cuddling—is a big part of the benefit of breastfeeding for the baby, and a big part of the joy of breastfeeding for the mother. How does bottle-feeding change the equation?

That — to use a technical term — is bullshit!

No matter. In the effort to re-domesticate women through breastfeeding, no tactic is too cruel. It is imperative to convince women that any time they spend away from their babies will harm those babies.

Lowrey concludes:

But however they pump, for whatever reason, they do it in a vacuum: with a thin body of knowledge and little social support. Alas, it sucks.

There is precisely ZERO clinical evidence (as opposed to laboratory experiments) that formula feeding harms term babies. There is even LESS evidence that feeding expressed breastmilk harms babies. But the truth doesn’t matter when you are trying to re-immure women back into the home.

That’s what sucks!

  • Zizi

    I get a strong Freudian vibe from the whole thing in general. I think the idea that breastfeeding or lack thereof is crucial to a child’s “normal” psychological development began with Freud (almost typed “Fraud”, which is, ironically, a Freudian slip) but has never really been supported by evidence to my knowledge.

    • Zizi

      Should clarify: I’m talking about actual nursing, not the practice of bottlefeeding breast milk.

  • AnnaPDE

    Plus, breast milk degrades when it is cooled, as it often is when stored for bottle-feeding. There is also the risk of contamination, given that dangerous bacteria flourish on pump parts.

    This is actually a valid point and completely realistic — my milk certainly never looked as good when it came out of the fridge or freezer as freshly pumped.
    We just need to draw the right conclusions: There’s no point in pressuring mums to pump (possibly exclusively) instead of simply using formula for their term babies, under the pretense of “it’s much healthier” or “it has beneficial bacteria”. Especially since these claims are factually unsupported, and it might be a better use of time and possibly even safer to just mix a fresh bottle of formula.
    Whoever wants to pump is welcome to do it, but with the massive effort involved, it shouldn’t be the “well at least you’re trying” expectation of mothers who for some reason don’t nurse most feeds.

    Also:

    How does bottle-feeding change the equation?

    By taking up the usually phone or book holding hand for the bottle and therefore increasing the chance of gazing into baby’s eyes. Who, since they’re not turned in towards the nipple, actually have a much better chance to gaze back.
    Oops. Wasn’t that what the author was getting at? Luckily, there are these “hang over shoulder fake boob” bottle holders — if I ever have another baby, I’ll definitely try one of them to have my free hand back for comfortable phone reading.

    • BeatriceC

      I was much more distracted when direct nursing than with bottle feeding. I find that other moms frequently say the same thing.

      • AnnaPDE

        I mean with a bottle you kind of have to focus on having that stuck at the right angle into the kid’s mouth. Spacing out or reading is not easy.
        With a boob, if things work well, after the initial latch is made and letdown initiated, there’s not much more to do than not dropping the kid or falling off the sofa. The weird sensation of it, for me a mix of the relief of peeing and of getting an itch scratched inside my boob, was very enjoyable but not exactly something that required conscious focus.

  • k_cayte

    I’d love to see these people say that in front of mothers of preemies who rely on alternative feeding methods and donor milk. So heartless.

    • rational thinker

      Their whole culture is just about upping each other so they have no sympathy for other people.

    • BeatriceC

      As a preemie mom, I can tell you that the attitudes towards us are shameful. The crunchy community’s entire undertone is “what did you do wrong that caused this”. It dovetails nicely with religious fundamentalists who also like to blame you for having a premature baby. It’s a whole lot of fun when you have both types of people in your life.

      And yes, I’m still pretty angry, two decades later. What’s even worse is that the situation is so much worse for preemie moms today, and that’s heartbreaking.

      • mabelcruet

        So religious fundamentalists believe that parents must have sinned in some way and they must be punished by having a premie? A god who inflicts disease and physical harm on a baby is not a god of a religion I want to be any part of. People who believe that are seriously sick minded.

        • BeatriceC

          Not just preemies either. Remember I lost three babies babies in late second trimester as well. This was also my fault.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            I’m so very, very sorry. I wish I could add something that could actually help, but please know you have my deepest sympathies.

        • LaMont

          David and Bathsheba’s first child was stillborn because of their adultery. In Numbers, there is a test for pregnant women where they will miscarry (and possibly become sterile or die) if their child isn’t their husband’s. The god of the Bible is very much about this.

          • The Bofa on the Sofa

            To be fair, the test for the unfaithful wife in Numbers involves inducing an abortion (by the priest who gives the substance which will or won’t cause the abortion, depending on whether the woman was faithful), and it’s not just a miscarriage.

            It’s one of the few places where the bible addresses abortions directly, and, in this case, it says there should be one.

          • mabelcruet

            I remember ages ago reading a paper about abortion clinic protesters in the USA who had had an abortion-I wish I could find it again. They genuinely believed that they were better than the other women using the clinic, that there was a good reason they needed the abortion and the other women were just having an abortion because they were wicked child murderers, and they generally went straight back to protesting outside the clinic after their abortion, and abusing the very staff that had performed the clinical service for them.

          • PeggySue

            Though better translations describe it as David’s abuse of power and rape, not adultery.

        • PeggySue

          Well, ancient civilizations apparently had the same problem we do: why do bad things happen? So healthy folks felt that if someone got sick, or had sick kids, or was infertile, a God or Gods must be pissed at them. Jesus actually disagreed but his followers to this day have trouble believing that. Some things don’t change.

          • mabelcruet

            I think Jesus would be seriously offended by the actions and speech of ‘Christians’ in certain parts of the world, should he ever turn up again.

  • MaineJen

    Jesus Christ. It’s official: women literally cannot do anything “right.” Ever. No matter WHAT you do as a mother, there will be someone there to criticize you and tell you you’re doing it wrong. Might as well just say F$%^ It and do what the hell you want/need to do.

  • rational thinker

    How do people not immediately call bullshit on this kind of crap, especially when the term “researchers sense” is used? I have a feeling this article was not written for rational people but for sanctimommies who like to shame other women for not exclusively breast feeding or baby wearing ect. Ultimately this article will probably be linked on all the big NCB websites within a week.

    • rational thinker

      Also a little off topic but have any studies ever been done about babies who spent the majority of their first year or two tied to mom (baby wearing)? My point being that from a few months old babies are learning about sensory things by touching and playing with everything they can get their hands (or mouth) on. If their access to sensory exploring is hindered because of baby wearing are those babies a bit behind their peers because they could not learn about sensory things until much later.

      • Christine O’Hare

        Now that is a really interesting thought! How much of kids hitting milestone at different times is natural variation and how much is based on the choices we (parents) are making. Walking comes to mind specifically, does using a walker/scooter device make a baby slower to walk independently, because they have something that aids balance?

        • StephanieJR

          Funny story – my older brother took longer to walk than me, because he was lazy and worked out he could get places just as easy if he shuffled along on his bum.

        • Marie

          I had one that wouldn’t tolerate slings or carriers at all and one who spent the first 8 months of his life in one because he screamed if I put him down while he was awake and wearing him was the only way to use my hands. Both kids hit their milestones at about the same time and do equally well in school (although they excel at different subjects). I guess I’ll just have to wonder which was was meant to be the genius until I messed everything up.

      • KQ Not Signed In

        Anecdotal information – my kid completely rejected being worn. At three months he wouldn’t tolerate being carried – in arms, sling or carrier – unless he was facing forward so he could see what was going on. At 7 months when he started crawling, he barely let me carry him at all. As soon as he started toddling at 13 months he would throw a fit when I’d carry him. Now he’s doing math and reading several grades ahead of the level he’s at.

        That proves it. Babywearing makes kids less smart and not babywearing adds IQ points.

        (the last bit is sarcasm, if that wasn’t clear)

        • Cristina B

          Hahaha, I’ll throw my 2 in as well! Kid #1 refused carts and strollers at 18 months and taught himself to read at 4. He’s way ahead with math too. Kid #2 took the easy road and is now just reading at nearly 6 years old.

        • FormerPhysicist

          My first was similar. Even from week one she couldn’t stand being held facing in. Now she’s applying (realistically) to Ivy League schools for science and engineering. Further proof that not babywearing adds IQ points. 😉

      • MelJor

        My son loved to be worn, and for the first 5 months of his life, until he was old enough to be taught to self soothe in sleep, it was the only way to get a nap longer than 15 minutes out of him. He has always blows past gross motor milestones and is an independent monkey of a toddler now, who still asks for the Ergo because it means he gets to go on a long walk. He also never took a pacifier, and took forever to attach to a lovey, so I think the carrier was his mode of self soothing. But it worked for *us* and I always am happy to loan to or teach parents to use a soft carrier for their little ones, but I also own 2 strollers and a kid leash for other methods of transport.

  • RudyTooty

    I also have to wonder if WIC is manipulating moms into ‘exclusively breastfeeding’ via pumping… especially when the WIC benefits are more generous for exclusively breastfeeding mothers.

    Do they feel pressured to keep lactating so they get more food support through WIC? GAH.

    • Mel

      The food support for exclusively breastfeeding moms is more generous (and lasts longer)… but the total cost savings to a family unit is much higher if you pick “partially breastfeeding” or “formula feeding” than exclusively breastfeeding. Pretty much, the deal is exclusive breastfeeding moms get double the food benefits per month for twelve months instead of a single food benefit for six months. There’s also something about baby foods – but I opted for a certain amount of fresh fruits/vegetables to make into baby food because I like cooking and we already suspected that Spawn was going to need high fat everything to gain weight.

      I picked partial because I was still pumping for Spawn and about 3 days out from the time I realized that pumping + medically complicated infant = crazy mom. I don’t remember the details of what I got, but we struggled to consume all of the milk, pasta, cereal and juice between my husband and I for the 6 months that I qualified. If I remember right, WIC provided around $100-$150 of food for me a month and $330 of formula for Spawn since he needed Alimentum. So, that’s a total of $3960 in formula + $600-900 in food for Mom during Year One compared to $1200-1800 in food benefits for Mom.

      The other option would have left us drowning in whole-wheat pasta while paying a ton for Spawn’s formula.

      • RudyTooty

        Are you saying the WIC benefits are probably not that influential? Maybe it’s the straight-shaming she gets at the WIC office that keeps her pumping?

        • Mel

          I’m not making any blanket statements; just letting you know what my experience was.

          My best guess is that it varies a lot from clinic to clinic (or even nutritionist to nutritionist) depending on viewpoint, but that there might be some funding pressure that whoever designs the programs recognizes that the EBF package is a whole lot cheaper than the PBF or EFF packages and designs materials to push EBF over the other two options.

          My WIC nutritionists were the most supportive people of my decision to stop pumping because of my son’s medical issues. My nutritionist Hannah was the first professional outside of the NICU that point-blank said that the needs of parents matter too – and that our current workload with making fortified breast milk and pumping sounded exhausting. She also seemed to enjoy helping me figure out how to stuff more calories into my wiry petite son who eats like a bird. Most importantly for me, she always told me that I was doing a great job with my son and that she was glad he was in such good hands. Raising a medically/developmentally complicated kid often means getting lists of things to try differently – so hearing that I was doing a good job felt really good during a time I often struggled.

          Yup, there were lots of pro-breastfeeding posters on the wall – along with lots of faded bulletin boards on the dangers of sugary drinks and why shopping once a week is great – but the most common poster was on why reading to your kids is great. They also had a full wall of support materials for local charities/government support.

          Your mileage may vary – but my WIC clinic has been awesome.

          • BeatriceC

            WIC is very, very hit or miss. Some locations are amazing, others are downright abusive, and most fall somewhere in between. I’m really glad you got one of the good ones.

  • swbarnes2

    I remember reading some articles written by women who exclusively pumped. They were so proud of how much work it was. These are people who bring the pump to parties, even to Disneyland. What would they think now, that the queens of lactivism who previously told them that all that work was sooo worth it are now saying that pumping isn’t good enough?

    • attitude devant

      None of it is never enough. You can always be out-mama’d by someone else. You didn’t breastfeed long enough. You used ‘sposies. You didn’t make your own baby food. You didn’t do attachment parenting.

      Our kids are not our props for our performative mothering. They are our children. If their needs are being met, that’s plenty.

    • MelJor

      I think it is important to remember that needing to take a pump to Disneyland or a party does not make you a lactivist. I never would have chosen to exclusively pump because it is a ton of work, and is we formula as an excellent alternative. But I have had to pump at times do to separation from baby (work or fun) and have had to pump when my son was ill with very frequent ear infections and could not direct nurse. I also have a friend who’s daughter has a diagnosed cows milk protein allergy and that formula is expensive and poorly accepted due to taste, and my friend happily pumps to avoid dealing with that. Like avoiding epidurals, women choose to pump for a variety of reasons, we should just make sure they are informed that it isn’t a moral choice to do either.

  • attitude devant

    Why don’t the lactivists ever use these worries to advocate for a year of paid maternity leave with a guaranteed return to the same position for every mother? Problem solved!

    Except that, a boatload of my patients pump and bottle-feed because of nipple issues or latch issues or whatever, essentially feeding their kid twice. From where I stand it looks exhausting (and it objectively is), and the very last thing they need from the lactivists is that their heroinic efforts aren’t good enough.

    • Ozlsn

      This frankly fucking ableist attitude that every child and every mother can breastfeed gives me the shits. The kids in NICU – where there is some minor evidence suggesting colostrum and breastmilk may reduce the incidence of NEC (still curious if the probiotics do the same) – aren’t feeding directly from the breast. The kids who are born with issues affecting latching or swallowing or often breathing aren’t feeding from the breast. About the only thing I can see that this article might help some women with is the decision to say “screw this, I’m exhausted” and go to formula.

      And I agree – maternity leave, flexible work, support in continuing careers (one university department here has funding to hire RAs for researchers going on maternity leave to help support projects), there are so many things theh could focus on that would actually be helpful.

      As to the asthma and expressed breastmilk allegation – what an absolute crock. I strongly suspect yet more data torturing to find a preferred outcome.

      • attitude devant

        Honestly, when I see these exhausted 100% pump-and-feed mamas I DO usually say something along the lines of “Wow, you’re working really hard to provide breastmilk for your baby! Good on you! But truly, there will come a day when it seems like it gets in the way of everything else you want for your life with your baby, and I want you to remember that I said that formula is ok too.”

        I was never able to breastfeed successfully due to supply issues. And my kids both went to college and are fine moral people. Neither one has asthma, btw. If I sound completely unapologetic about it, that’s because I am.

  • JDM

    I used to bottle feed my youngest brother at times. It always involved cuddling and eye contact. How do these lactavists imagine people bottle feed, throw a bottle at the crib from across the room?

    • LaMont

      They think people are throwing the *baby* across the room towards the bottle.

      • Marie

        Perhaps they even get some much needed sleep while the (gasp!) father throws the bottle in the baby’s direction! And they have the nerve to call themselves mothers.

    • MaineJen

      Me too! It’s one of my fondest memories from childhood. 🙂

    • Volyund

      I have actually seen many cases of babies under 6 months with bottle propped. To me it was kind of heartbreaking. I still have a photo of my husband in a night robe bottle feeding my daughter at night, and it was just so heartwarmingly cute, it literally brings tears to my eyes. I guess it depends on how you do it.

  • EllenL

    The study below references the “ubiquity” of expressing breast milk. In a U.S. survey, 85% of breastfeeding mothers were using some expressed milk.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5490526/

    This is a topic where the stakes are high, as so many breastfeeding mothers are using mixed feeding.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    Researchers also sense that the experience of breastfeeding—the eye-gazing, the cuddling

    This was brought up recently. How much “eye-gazing” actually goes on during breastfeeding, where the baby’s face is smashed into the boob, compared to bottle-feeding?

    And when I was bottle-feeding our kids, we did a lot of cuddling.

    • KQ Not Signed In

      My kid spend most of the time staring at my armpit, if his eyes were open at all.

    • Volynd

      To be honest, for the first 3 months of BFing, my daughter took 30-45min/feeding, and I was BFing 5-8h/day. I mostly did it while watching Netflix… I got through 11 seasons of Bones, and all documentaries on Netflix (this was 2014). You can only gaze in your baby’s eyes for so long you know. I couldn’t do it for 5-8h/day….

  • EllenL

    It’s the new frontier in the control of infant feeding. Giving breast milk is no longer enough. It must be at mother’s breast. There’s even a name for the supposedly superior practice – direct breastfeeding.

    They will never run out of ways of grading mothers.

  • Brenna Goode

    “Researchers also sense” – WTF?? Aren’t they supposed to be dealing in, I don’t know, actual facts? That line alone makes everything else in that suspect.

    • Mel

      From “Better Off Ted” when a group of scientists are discussing a social problem:

      “Stop it! We are scientists, not people who can accurately examine every variable of a phenomenon to determine an accurate understanding of a specific event!” – Dr. Bhamba