“Breast Is Best” is a social construct masquerading as a medical claim

Why do so many good mothers feel bad about breastfeeding?

Why has breastfeeding become the leading risk factor for newborn hospital readmission resulting in tens of thousands of readmissions each year?

Why have none of the benefits predicted for term babies (decreased mortality, severe morbidity and healthcare expenditures) come to pass?

It’s because “breast is best” is a social construct masquerading as a medical claim.

What does that mean?

Consider other examples of social constructs presented as medical claims:

– Women are flighty and nervous because of hysteria, located in and named for the uterus.
– Homosexuality is deviant behavior.
– Gender is always congruent with chromosomes.

Each is a belief or bias — a social construct — presented as a medical claim. These beliefs/biases are not disingenuous. People who insist that women are inferior, that homosexuality is a form of deviance and that transgenderism simply doesn’t exist don’t recognize that their beliefs are social constructs and not medical facts.

“Breast is best” is also a social construct, or rather a number of social constructs, and not a medical fact. Hence the damage, both physical and psychological, that is the inevitable result of presenting belief/bias as medical fact.

How is “breast is best” a social construct?

La Leche League was started by religious fundamentalists who deeply believed that keeping mothers out of the workforce and at home was “best” for babies. They reasoned that if convinced to breastfeed, mothers wouldn’t be able to work outside the home.

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…

For many lactivists “breast is best” really means “breast is best for enforcing traditional family norms.” That’s why lactivism is popular among the religious Right.

But the phrase “breast is best” wasn’t coined until the advent of a different social movement, anti-corporatism. Nestle, looking for new markets, promoted formula feeding in Africa despite awareness that the water to prepare it was often contaminated. Thousands of babies died as a result and revulsion toward Nestle’s unethical behavior was and is appropriate.

For many lactivists “breast is best” really means (whether they realize it or not) “breast is best for punishing greedy corporations.” That’s why lactivism is so popular among the anti-corporatist Left and why any attempt to point out the lifesaving properties of infant formula is met with a chorus of “formula companies are evil!”

Everyone is entitled to their beliefs. There is nothing wrong with believing that breastfeeding is best for traditional families or that breastfeeding is best for punishing greedy corporations. There’s something very wrong with presenting these beliefs/biases as a medical claim — breastfeeding is healthiest for babies — when it’s not and it never was.

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