Is breastfeeding a moral imperative?


Feminist scholar Michele Crossley’s recent paper in the journal Feminism Psychology raises important questions about breastfeeding, and by extension, about unmedicated childbirth. Breastfeeding as a Moral Imperative: An Autoethnographic Study makes a controversial claim:

…[F]ar from being an ’empowering’ act, breastfeeding may have become more of a ‘normalized’ moral imperative that many women experience as anything but liberational. Accordingly, an uncritical appropriation of the idea that ‘breast is best’ may not only be disempowering for women, but also problematic for babies.

Crossley begins by exploring the place of breastfeeding within our culture:

Many contemporary social movements … highlight the risks associated with modern technology with the consequence that the rhetoric of the ‘natural’ has proliferated… This whole idiom of the ‘natural’ has surrounded childbirth and child-rearing and has been a key theme in the ‘alternative birth movement.’ As Oakley argued, ‘like natural childbirth, natural infant feeding has become fashionable in a society that is technological “by nature”‘.

…[B]reastfeeding has been associated with women’s personal agency and empowerment. The promotion of breastfeeding has constituted part of an attempt to ‘demedicalize’ life events (such as pregnancy) and to return such processes to the ‘rightful moral domain under the control of women themselves.’

Crossley’s paper isn’t really a study. It’s just a description of her personal experience, which has led her to re-evaluate the rhetoric she previously accepted. Like many white, Western, well off women, Crossley uncritically embraced the bizarre notion that there is a “right way” to give birth and to “bond” with a newborn:

Related to my desire to establish a strong ‘bond’ was my desire for a ‘natural’ childbirth. I had read that if a delivery entails a lot of intervention, then the baby emerges into the world potentially traumatized by the effects of drugs and bright lights, all of which make the bonding process more difficult…

In preparing for labour, I totally discarded any notion of interventions such as a caesarean … After over fourteen hours of labour, when the baby was eventually delivered by emergency caesarean section … the first thing I remember was that I ‘had to get that baby to the breast’. Because I had not had the opportunity to bond at the moment of birth as I had been anticipating, it made me all the more determined to ensure that breastfeeding happened in the way I wanted.

But the actual experience of breastfeeding was nothing like she had been led to believe. From the very beginning, the baby did not appear to be getting enough milk. Despite growing evidence that the baby was failing to thrive (his weight had fallen from the 75th percentile at birth to the 5th percentile at 10 weeks), and desperate entreaties by the baby’s father, Crossley refused to relinquish the fantasies promoted by breastfeeding advocates.

…The message that had been ‘drilled into’ my head at the antenatal classes and from the books I had been reading was that ‘you always produce enough breastmilk’, ‘breastfeeding is a perfect system’. In fact, I had even asked the health visitor at the time if the baby’s constant screaming could be explained by the fact that he wasn’t getting enough milk. Her response was that ‘you always produce enough breastmilk, always, there’s always enough …’

The baby’s father became frantic:

…I had to confront you about the breastfeeding. I felt at that point that we were gonna kill him or do him some serious damage … and I just thought he is not gonna survive this. I felt as if I was, I suppose, I was the only person who could see this …

They began bottle feeding the baby and he began to thrive. Crossley, however, was torn by feelings of guilt and shame:

I felt like a failure because … I had ‘taken on board’ the message that breastfeeding was really difficult, it was hard work and ‘many people didn’t manage to do it’. One had to be ‘really determined’ to succeed, but if ‘you tried really hard, you could manage it’… [M]y experience was entirely consistent with a woman in Lee and Furedi’s study who commented that women who ‘succeed at breastfeeding are made to feel like it’s such an achievement, they have done so well, they deserve a medal…’ As Lee and Furedi argue, some women have come to view breastfeeding as a ‘measure of motherhood and consciously or unconsciously judge other mothers accordingly’…

Crossley’s personal experience has led to an epiphany:

…[A]s with other health-related behaviours, the act of breastfeeding can become inextricably interrelated with the construction of identity and the creation of a sense of morality, values and orientation to ‘the good.’

[T]he act of breastfeeding came to symbolize all that was important about being a ‘good’ mother. It meant ‘bonding’ and forming emotional connections, ‘being there’ for the infant, learning to ‘go with the flow’, ‘letting go of the instinct to control’ and ‘learning to trust in one’s own body’. Dykes has previously characterized this understanding of breastfeeding as deriving from the ‘natural’ discourse that has been popularized in recent years.

Crossley concludes:

Breastfeeding, far from being the ‘resistant’ body-project that advocates of demedicalization and ‘women-centred’ alternatives originally promoted, may have become more of a ‘normalized’ moral imperative that some women experience as anything but liberational …


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