Breastfeeding ableism

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Recently Chrissy Teigen issued a full throated defense of infant formula.

ok I’m gonna say something and you all are definitely gonna make it a thing but here goes: normalize formula.

[N]ormalize breastfeeding is such a huge, wonderful thing. but I absolutely felt way more shame having to use formula because of lack of milk from depression and whatnot…

As for efforts to increase her supply:

Insufficient breastmilk is a disability; refusing to believe it is ableism.

[T]he stress of it, combined with the guilt that you cannot do nature’s most natural thing for your own baby is too much. I dunno why this is my crusade now. I just remember the sadness I felt and want you to know you are doing it right if your baby is fed, mama.

The lactivist response has been predictable and predictably ableist — including the belief that breastfeeding is perfect and the assumption that insufficient breastmilk could have and should have been “fixed.”

What do I mean by ableist? Let’s do a little thought experiment. I’m going to share with you a typical lactivist response and as you read it, try substituting a different disability like deafness or paraplegia or autism.

The following quotes come from Lucy Ruddle IBCLC.

Breastfeeding ableism assumes that disability is the result of lack of effort on someone’s part, either the person with the disability or those responsible for his or her care.

We know that around 80% of women wanted to breastfeed but weren’t able to meet their goals. And when we look at why it boils down to lack of proper help… and being offered formula instead.

Are people deaf because of a lack of proper help and being offered lip reading or hearing aids instead?

No, and insufficient breastmilk is not the result of a lack of proper help or the availability of formula.

Breastfeeding ableism like many other forms of ableism is remarkably condescending:

I need to say this very clearly, Chrissy. You did not fail to breastfeed. Lack of good, skilled, early and consistent help, alongside a societal belief that breastmilk is only valid if it’s exclusively fed is to blame. Not you. Not your body. Not breastfeeding.”

Is paraplegia the result of lack of skilled help? No, and neither is insufficient breastmilk.

Is it appropriate to infantilize people with paraplegia by declaring that your body is not to blame, nor is the ability to walk? Of course not.

Breastfeeding ableism like many forms of ableism reeks of pity:

My heart aches for you, and so many like you who are failed every single day. If you ever want to talk through your experiences in what we call a debrief, I would be very happy to hold a safe space for you, judgement free. Sometimes just unpicking all of those swirling angry and painful feelings can help us to find peace with how things turned out.

Is it possible to be more presumptuous than to imagine that a person who is not neurotypical appreciates your heartache or wants to debrief with someone who insists that they could have been “fixed”?

Lucy Ruddle is hardly alone in her ableist beliefs that insufficient breastmilk isn’t a real disability and is the result of lack of support. She’s not alone in her striking condescension nor her assumption that those who are disabled welcome her pity.

She’s parroting the currently popular lactivist philosophy known as “beyond choice.”

As explained by social scientist Suzana Ignjatović in her paper Breastfeeding Divisions in Ethics and Politics of Feminism:

The “beyond formula vs breastfeeding debate” position focuses on constraints to successful breastfeeding, addressing breastfeeding and women’s economic, social, and political status. It is assumed that women are constrained by structural factors and that these factors should be addressed instead. According to Hausman, the constraints include lack of paid maternity leave, lack of support, the sexualization of women’s body …

But “beyond choice” is NOT beyond choice. It presumes that the only correct choice is to breastfeed.

…[This] approach is usually implicitly pro-breastfeeding. Shifting focus to obstacles and support means that women would choose to breastfeed (“all woman will ‘naturally’ adore breastfeeding”), if they get proper support.

It’s just like forms of ableism that assume that people who are deaf or autistic want to be “fixed.” They don’t.

Insufficient breastmilk is a disability, like many other disabilities. It is not the result of lack of effort or lack of support. Those affected do not merit condescension and they certainly don’t benefit from pity. They want — and they deserve — to be accepted on their own terms not the terms of lactation professionals who flatter themselves by imagining they know better.

  • Also, it annoys me when women are told “But did you try this?” or made to believe that just a little more suffering would lead to breastfeeding success. If you try breastfeeding once, decide “Not for me,” then stop, that’s fine. If you don’t try at all, that’s fine. You don’t have to prove that you reaaaally tried, not to anyone!

  • StephanieJR

    I think it’s also important to note that Chrissy recently lost a baby; she’s one of the few celebrities I actually care about, and I’ve been following what she’s been going through. She and John Legend have two children, Luna and Miles, both conceived by IVF (I think), after years of fertility struggles. Then they have a surprise ‘natural’ baby, but the pregnancy is difficult, and they lost their child, whom they named Jack, a couple of months ago. It’s been an incredibly difficult time for them, and nobody should be coming for her.

    • seenthelight

      They’d be mad she isn’t madly trying to pump and donate

  • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

    I also hate how these people center “breastfeeding goals” over FEEDING your baby! “Just clap harder, never offer formula! your baby lost a third of their birth weight, pish tosh! perfectly normal!” Add this to the fact that most of them have NO actual medical training AT ALL. and it makes me want to throw things.

    • Cristina

      Or when they prioritize their goals over their baby’s desires? Baby self-weans at 10 months? Starve them back into submission!

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

        That one really throws me for a loop. My baby started staring at us whenever we were eating something she though looked or smelled interesting. She was also a very early crawler(4.5 months hands and knees) and walker(9months) which I am sure burned a lot of calories. When formula just did not seem to be enough for her I started cereal(maybe 3 or 4 months) and a month or 2 later started on a few jarred baby food fruits and veggies. Seemed to work for us and I didn’t have a baby that was constantly wanting a bottle anymore. I don’t really understand exclusive breast milk when your baby already has teeth (also ouch!)

        • Cristina

          My oldest got his first tooth at 4 months!

      • demodocus

        Yeah, my two both stole their first piece of food at exactly 4 months past due date (the weirdness is why I remember it.) At 6 mo my younger child was downing more than a bottle of formula at a meal. I can make enough and then some, but she was clearly saying MOAR SOLIDS! (My eldest was ebf because I bought into the hype. Until I couldn’t stand to be touched ever again, when he was 10 mos. Youngest was eff)

        • If I looked at your oldest and youngest kids, could I tell which was ebf by the special shine in their eyes? Or did you ruin them with vaccines?

          • demodocus

            Oh, they’re both fully vaccinated, including this year’s flu, so damaged forever 😉

      • rational thinker

        Have you seen that woman on Amy’s facebook that brags that she pinned down a newborn to force him to breastfeed.

        • Cristina

          I keep trying to come up with a snarky comment about bonding and breastfeeding, but it isn’t working. That is truly horrific.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      That’s what happened to us with our first. We had stated the goal of wanting to breastfeed, but made it clear that it was not the end-all-be-all. Baby was sucking great, but when my wife’s milk came in, he didn’t like it, and quit eating. This went on for a couple of days, and he was losing weight. They had my wife pump every couple of hours and then syringe feed him.

      He ended up jaundiced, and had to stay in the hospital an extra day, and my wife was exhausted.

      If they would have said, “He needs to eat, can we give him some formula?” we would have jumped at it. But they treated it like formula was forbidden. We never said that.

      • Lupe Diaz

        I’m a lactation consultant and we never tell parents that formula is forbidden. We educate that breast milk is superior in ingredients to formula. The only time we use formula is weight loss of >8-10%,high bilirubin count (jaundice) and that’s given via SNS (supplemental nursing system) a syringe and tubing at the breast. The baby gets breast milk and formula as supplement. You can also feed formula with a dropper, spoon or a cup rather than a bottle with an artificial nipple. Baby probably was having issues with swallowing or tongue issues. Needed to see a lactation consultant. Did your hospital have a help line to call? I know with COVID, a lot of places have cancelled support i person groups. Was your baby introduced a bottle before the milk came in? just curious. BTW I really don’t like that the author of this blog calls lactation consultants “lactivist.” We avoid making moms feel guilty for not trying hard.

  • fiftyfifty1

    These lactivists are so full of themselves. They heap guilt on women who can’t exclusively breastfeed and then offer to help them “debrief.” Yeah, screw that. REAL support is normalizing formula.

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    • Lupe Diaz

      I’m confused what you guys mean by lactivists. I’m a lactation consultant and nurse midwife. I help moms in the immediate postpartum period to the best of my ability and educate the plus of human colostrum vs. formula. As you know there are huge differences between the two. I’m not here to pontificate because I’m sure you’ve heard an earful. There is also a commercial/economic interest in keeping formula around for the companies including the developing countries. So if you don’t want to BF that’s ok; it’s your choice and no one is making you feel guilty only your peers not us lactation consultants that work even harder than ever in this horrific pandemic. I’ve seen COVID + moms breastfeed and others formula feed. Ultimately, it’s your baby your choice.

      • Amazed

        We mean you. Brainwashed liars who try to beat into women’s heads that good moms breastfeed. That’s what your self-aggrandizing drivel amounts to.