Breastfeeding is incompatible with capitalism … just as it was designed to be!

hands in the air trying to reach money bag hanging on the hooks

A piece in today’s Guardian asks the intriguing question: Is breastfeeding incompatible with American capitalism?

And while it reaches the right answer — yes, it is incompatible — it fails to note the right reason: breastfeeding is promoted so aggressively precisely BECAUSE it is incompatible with capitalism. La Leche League, the engine of contemporary lactivism, was started with the express intent of keeping women out of the workforce.

La Leche League, the engine of contemporary lactivism, was started with the express intent of keeping women out of the workforce.

Journalist Brianna Bell compares what she was told about breastfeeding to the reality of breastfeeding.

…B]reastfeeding … was not as cost-effective as I had first believed…

There’s also an unspoken cost that many breastfeeding proponents neglect to mention: the cost of a mother’s time…

And that’s time that is taken away from paid work, forcing many women to choose between breastfeeding and working. There’s no contest since most women who work cannot survive without the income it provides.

The solution seems obvious to Bell: paid maternity leave.

I’m strongly supportive of paid maternity leave because both babies and mothers benefit from it. But there are two reasons why it is not the solution.

First, Bell fails to consider that the country with the LOWEST rate of breastfeeding in the world is the UK and it has a system of generous maternity leave. Would more women in the US breastfeed for longer if we had such a system? There’s no reason to think so.

Second, breastfeeding is promoted as aggressively as it is NOT because its benefits; in industrialized countries the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial. (Don’t believe me? The UK, the country with the lowest breastfeeding rate in the entire world, has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.) It is promoted as aggressively as it is because contemporary lactivism is intended SPECIFICALLY to keep mothers out of the workforce.

That was the conscious plan of the founders of La Leche League, seven devout Catholic women who saw the promotion of breastfeeding as a way to keep mothers of young children from working and send them back home where they belonged.

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.

In the late 1950’s when LLL was founded, its members believed that if they forced women to choose between working outside the home vs. breastfeeding as “best” for their babies, mothers would choose breastfeeding. That may have been what happened in the beginning but for at least the last 40+ years, when forced to choose between working and breastfeeding, most women chose working.

That’s why lactivists persist in grossly exaggerating the benefits of breastfeeding far beyond anything supported by the scientific literature. That’s why they dream up ever more arcane “benefits” of breastfeeding (the microbiome! epigenetics!) as the substantive benefits are systematically debunked. And that’s why they have made breastfeeding ever more onerous: refusing to supplement, promoting bedsharing — a practice deadly to babies — and normalizing maternal exhaustion

These onerous restrictions dovetail with LLL’s original mission, to force women to choose between breastfeeding and working. The last thing lactivists want is to make it possible for women to do both. That’s why it is going to be a very long time before the US adopts universal, extended, paid maternity leave.

Breastfeeding as promoted by contemporary lactivists is incompatible with American capitalism … just it was designed to be!

  • fiftyfifty1

    “I’m strongly supportive of paid maternity leave because both babies and mothers benefit from it.”

    I have wondered about this. Everyone takes as a given that babies and mothers benefit, but do they? Beyond a minimal physical recovery period, what sort of data do we have? Let me play Devil’s Advocate and make the following claim: “A 2 month paid maternity leave should be provided. At this point women are no longer on any activity restrictions and babies are out of the window when infections are more serious. After that, more time at home is not associated with significant benefit.” Do we have any actual data to refute this?

    • Sarah

      If you want to consider a minimal period to cover physical recovery rather than leave for the purpose of leave iyswim, it’s going to need to be more than 2 months. Of course there are still women whose activity is restricted by their recovery at that point.

      • fiftyfifty1

        Activity is very rarely restricted at 2 months. Those few women could apply for short term disability.

        • Sarah

          Depends entirely on the availability and operation of such benefits where they are. Also how are you defining very rare?

    • Lurker

      When you say “minimal physical recovery period,” do you mean the amount of time it takes to have activity restrictions lifted, or do you mean ACTUALLY recovered? I had no activity restrictions after 8 weeks, but after my first, my commute involved a short bike ride to the train station. It was not comfortable when I went back to work at 12 weeks and I can’t imagine it at 8 weeks. It got better around 4 months. At 8 weeks a lot of women have a milk supply that’s still regulating, and not that you can’t leak through your shirt in a meeting at any point while breastfeeding, but it’s more common earlier on. Babies aren’t sleeping, but are too young for sleep training, etc. There are lots of ways that going back to work could be physically harder than it needs to be at such an early age without it necessarily being so ill-advised as to be potentially dangerous or damaging.

      On top of that, in my experience the advice is always that “fever is dangerous in a baby under 12 weeks” and babies aged 8-12 weeks still need an ER visit for a fever, so I would think that for the baby’s health, avoiding daycare for that extra month would be worth it.

    • CanDoc

      The idea of *not* having a lengthy parental leave sounds incredible to me as a non-American. I took 4 months and my husband took 9 months for each of our children. I would contend that during this period, our kids had the benefit of close bonding to primary caregivers, and a lot of very personalized social and language interaction and development. They went to a great daycare, but there are only so many staff for a *lot* of infants, so a lot of time was spent just sitting, waiting for a bum change, to get fed, to roll around in the same contained space they spent every single day in.
      Additionally, I don’t know any parent of an infant under 6 months of age who is sleeping well or regularly. Napping while an infant is napping is a survival skill given that sleep deprivation is a major risk factor for mood disorders and adverse health outcomes. Apparently naps are frowned upon in the workplace.
      It would be great to see actual data, although I’m not sure much exists. Not many people outside the US have a culture that would be willing to study it since longer leaves are the norm pretty much everywhere else in the world.

      • AnnaPDE

        Yeah, it’s a bit weird how this “working while you have the more than full time job of keeping a newborn alive” is considered normal.

        I guess the famously not so great US maternal mortality stats might be one piece of evidence to suggest that making women go back to work very soon after birth is a crappy idea? As discussed in an earlier post, a large proportion of those maternal deaths aren’t during childbirth, but a bunch of time after. Not giving people the time to recover from a major physical ordeal (or even surgery) tends to have such detrimental outcomes.
        I’d link to the example, but not sure where I read it a few days ago: A mother explaining how she had to go back to work waiting tables a few weeks after a C-section (because she had to make rent) and ended up tearing the scar.

  • Christine O’Hare

    Yes, yes, yes! A mother’s time commitment in breastfeeding/pumping is never taken into account! Time is incredibly valuable. There is a reason my husband pays to outsource things like mowing the lawn and plowing our driveway – his time is worth more than the cost of outsourcing those tasks. And no one questions that. But that same equation just doesn’t seem to apply to women, ESPECIALLY when our body’s are involved. The same person that might congratulate me on outsourcing my house cleaning would very easily shame me for using formula because the time burden of pumping was cutting into my work schedule.

    • Cristina B

      Yes! One of my good friends pumped for her baby and even though her child was sleeping through the night at 3 months, she kept pumping at 3 am to keep her supply up. She was on maternity leave and her husband even did the bulk of the child care, but she definitely bought into the “benefits” part

    • mabelcruet

      The thing is though, if you say ‘I’d rather pay someone to do it than do it myself’ you get accused of setting yourself up as thinking you are better than them, that you value your time more than you value theirs, and that’s privilege or classism or something. It’s not that at all-for me personally, I could do my own painting and decorating, but it would be done 3 times as quickly and 10 times more neatly if I got a proper professional in. I have a grass mowing company come every week in summer-if I did it myself it would take ages, I wouldn’t get the lovely stripes like they do, and I usually have to get my neighbour to switch it on (it’s a pull cord petrol mower and I can’t pull the cord quickly enough). Outsourcing jobs like this to professionals means the job gets done properly to good standards-getting someone in isn’t setting yourself up as better or more important than them, and it doesn’t mean you think you are above doing menial tasks and your time is more valuable, its actually respecting their time and abilities and professional standards. I’d far rather pay for a good job than do it myself and bodge it. My skills allow me to pay for their skills, all of our time is of value and we all have to decide how best to use it.

      • swbarnes2

        As far as the environment, it’s probably better for one person who has one lawnmower that they use a lot than for everyone to own a lawnmower that they only use 15 times a year.

        Though not better for lawnmower companies.

    • Sarah

      I’d agree about the feeding, but I’ve seen a lot of shaming of women for outsourcing cleaning too. Even when there’s a male in the house too, it’s still her call and responsibility. See, all the arguments about privileged women relying on underprivileged women to be able to have their careers. Not all privileged people you understand, just the ones who dared to think their possession of a vagina didn’t automatically make all the family’s housework and childcare their responsibility.

  • mabelcruet

    OT a bit, but its about breast feeding.

    I recently bought Bill Bryson’s new book ‘The Body’. I love Bryson’s writing both his travel books and all the rest and he always seemed to be well informed and well researched. But….page 301:

    “There is some evidence that a nursing mother absorbs some of her suckling baby’s saliva through her breast ducts and that this is analysed by her immune system, which adjusts the amount and type of antibodies she supplies to the baby, according to its needs. Isn’t life marvellous?”

    I’m so disappointed. The only source he’s quoted for this is Idan Ben-Barak’s book “Why aren’t we dead yet? The survivor’s guide to the immune system” and it seems to be a direct quote from that book. Ben-Barak does have a degree in microbiology, but this utterly unproven idea is now being peddled in mainstream books and newspapers (apologies for the Daily Mail link: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2810205/The-real-reason-feel-ghastly-catch-cold-s-immune-s-fault.html)

    Why is it so hard to accept that if you are in close contact with your baby, you get exposed to the same viruses, and so your immune system will respond to that, in exactly the same way that more than one person in a household comes down with the same infection at the same time? Why do they need to perpetuate this myth of a nipple-based suction pump and breast epithelial duct molecular bioengineering units? It’s not often I think about correcting someone in print, but I’m very disappointed that he hasn’t used his brain to consider just how unlikely this unproven suggestion (I hesitate to even call it an hypothesis) is, especially when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative to how mum produces antibodies.

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      Contemporary breastfeeding promotion ISN’T about science; it’s about forcing women back into the home. Lactivists will say anything to keep up the pretense that breastfeeding has major benefits.

      • mabelcruet

        But Bryson is a late middle-aged writer, he isn’t known to be a lactivist, and his previous science based books are very balanced. You would think someone with a modicum of intelligence and a logical brain would be able to actually think about what nonsense he’s writing. I wonder if he was told by an editor that he wasn’t allowed to question the claim in case it unleashed a lactivist army of frothing milk ladies attacking him? Or maybe pro-breastfeeding is now the only acceptable viewpoint you’re allowed to have in public?

        Years ago, we had a pathology scandal in the UK about organ retention. It wasn’t illegal to retain organs following an autopsy examination, whether these were done with next of kin content or mandated by the coroner, but it turned out that many families weren’t aware that organs could be retained. Anyway, it resulted in a brand new human tissue act that made retaining organs without consent properly criminally illegal.

        Not long after this, I did a report for our royal college about ‘national pathology week’. I was our regional coordinator and we were holding exhibitions and school sessions to publicise the role of pathology in healthcare. We had an exhibition in the lobby in the hospital with a microscope set up, and we showed people exactly what we did. One elderly woman stopped for a chat, and it turned out her husband had died following surgery, and she had been very angry with the hospital, but the coroner had ordered a post mortem and it was discovered why her husband had died and it was not due to the surgery. So she wanted to say how grateful she had been to the pathologist who came to the meeting with the surgeon and explained everything. I thought ‘good news story for pathology’, and asked if she would give me permission to write her story up in my article (anonymous, of course), which she did. When I got the copy back from the college for checking before printing, some nameless editor had stuck in a whole paragraph about how she found out that no organs had been retained and that proved the new law was working. I emailed back and told them to remove it-that was nothing to do with the story, was never raised by her as an issue and was a total invention. I was told it was the current policy to make that sort of comment in any piece about autopsies, it was an editorial decision. I asked for the whole piece to be withdrawn because I wasn’t prepared to put my name to it, seeing as though it was untruthful, and in the end we compromised by taking out the whole section on the elderly lady. It struck me then that it was an obvious sop to the media, which had the viewpoint that pathologists steal organs, so the college was trying to hammer home about how we stop them stealing organs, even when its irrelevant to the story. I wonder if the lactivist issue is the same-no one dare comment on, or criticise, or impugn breast feeding in any shape or form, and in every possible situation, you must get in good news stories about how miraculous it is.

    • rational thinker

      Lactivists think that breastfeeding and breast milk is so perfect that people will believe anything they say about, and unfortunately its true. When they say this stuff enough times people become so use to hearing it that they accept it as fact. Its a shame when a usually reliable source also becomes victim to this tactic.

      The infant saliva backwash thing gets me angry when I hear it in a usually credible source. I dont know why people dont question it more often. Its actually basic 3rd grade science when you think about it, and the answer is PROXIMITY and CONTAGIOUS viral strains and thats it.

      • mabelcruet

        It shouldn’t be impossible to prove one way or the other. The backwash theory seems to be that saliva enters the nipple and breast, and from there antibodies are created in response. The only way viral or bacterial antigens in infant saliva would get into the maternal tissue is if the breast duct epithelial lining cells have the appropriate transporter molecules-its usually active transportation of this sort of pathogen going by how other epithelia behaves. We know there is transport in the other direction, from mum to baby. We know that the most common mechanism for pathogens to enter the body is across the epithelial barriers of the mucosa lining the respiratory, digestive, and urogenital tracts, or through damaged skin, and than can then establish infections in the tissues. So, if someone can prove that pathogens cross the epithelium from duct to internal tissues then that should settle it. Until then, I wish it would stop being pushed as a fact, because it isn’t.

        • Cristina B

          Wouldn’t baby spit cause infections or increase bacterial loads in the milk (or something) if it entered the mother’s body?

          • mabelcruet

            You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I’m actually surprised that I haven’t seen much written about the saliva backwash theory and mastitis yet. Mastitis is thought to be due to bacterial contamination from baby saliva/oral microbial fauna if you have cracked nipples, because the bacteria can enter through the damaged areas. But if the backwash idea is correct, why don’t mothers get mastitis without cracked nipples? If the nipple is hoovering up bacteria, surely the reaction to those bacteria would be the same in the breast, whether the tissue is damaged or not?

          • demodocus

            I’m kind of amazed I never got mastitis, considering the number and size of my cracks and even blood blisters that popped later on. …also part of the reason why my 2nd was formula fed.

        • Griffin

          “It shouldn’t be impossible to prove one way or the other. The backwash theory seems to be that saliva enters the nipple and breast, and from there antibodies are created in response.”

          It should be quite easy to test in animals, presumably the magical backwash thing would operate in other mammals too, right? So:

          1. Germ-free mouse pups born by cesarean in a sterile environment could be infected with a well-studied non-pathogenic virus or bacterium that generates maternal milk antibodies

          2. The pups are allowed to suckle their uninfected mother’s teat through a hole in a sterile sheet/cage setup that separates them from their mother and that we have shown will prevent the mother from becoming infected via the respiratory or gastrointestinal system

          3. Then the mammary tissues and draining lymph nodes of the mother are assessed for the presence of the microorganism.

          Seems quite simple, I bet a mouse house specialist would know which setup could block the usual forms of transmission to the mother.

          But no one would fund this research because immunologists would deem the backwash theory to be extremely unlikely…

          • mabelcruet

            Do you remember that anti-vaxx group who funded research that they thought would prove them right, but it proved exactly the opposite?

            https://www.newsweek.com/anti-vaxxers-accidentally-fund-study-showing-theres-no-link-between-autism-and-379245

            I wonder if the lactation industry could be persuaded to fund a study looking into the backwash theory? Immunologists would do it if they had funding, because they are generally proper scientists and know that negative findings are as significant as positive findings, so they wouldn’t worry if it proved correct or not. Then again, the anti-vaxx figurehead Wakefield had no compunction about falsifying data, so lactivists probably think its perfectly acceptable to manipulate the results in order to ‘prove’ their pre-ordained outcomes in the way he did.

    • Emilie Bishop

      John Medina’s “Brain Rules for Babies” fell into the same trap, using research done with a lactivism bias to say breastfeeding for at least a year is a way to increase infant intelligence and health. He’s a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, which has some amazing research in child development, yet his writing that I’d admired before I had my son was one more nail in the coffin of the farce that was my breastfeeding “journey.” It’s so accepted people don’t question it and I’m so tired of that.

    • Griffin

      “Why is it so hard to accept that if you are in close contact with your baby, you get exposed to the same viruses, and so your immune system will respond to that, in exactly the same way that more than one person in a household comes down with the same infection at the same time? Why do they need to perpetuate this myth of a nipple-based suction pump and breast epithelial duct molecular bioengineering units?”

      I agree, it makes my eyes roll too. One of my immunologist friends often says, “If something jumps on the savannah, first assume that it is a gazelle”. He works in molecular immunology, where people often get excited and come up with complicated mechanisms even though a much simpler – but banal (and not very publishable) – mechanism effectively explains all of the observations.