How does treating new mothers as breastmilk dispensers impact women?


One of the most pernicious results of our unthinking embrace of lactivism is the impact on women’s mental health.

My email inbox is filled with messages from women who hate themselves, blame themselves and are nearly incapacitated by guilt at being unable to breastfeed exclusively. Why? It’s certainly not because breastfeeding in industrialized countries is so beneficial for babies that it has any measurable impact on mortality rates, life expectancy or IQ. Walk into any kindergarten classroom and it is impossible to tell which children were breastfed and which were not.

It’s because in the past 30 years we have seen the rise and professionalization of a movement, lactivism, thats benefit from viewing new mothers in one dimension: as breastmilk dispensers.

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#555555″]Regardless of the difficulty, the lactivist prescription is always the same: “Breastfeed harder.”[/pullquote]


The concept of choice simply doesn’t exist among lactivists. There is only one acceptable choice and that is the choice to breastfeed. They will go to great lengths to help women who make that choice, but they will do nothing for women who bottlefeed.

A mother’s pain is irrelevant. For lactivists, just because a mother has cracked and bleeding nipples is no excuse for her to avoid being a breastmilk dispenser.

A baby’s hunger is irrelevant. For lactivists, just because a baby is screaming in hunger is no excuse for his mother to provide milk from any other source than herself or another mother breastmilk dispenser.

Breastfeeding difficulties are irrelevant. Regardless of the difficulty (poor latch, flat nipples, poor suck, insufficient breastmilk) and regardless of the severity of the difficulty the lactivist prescription is always the same: “Breastfeed harder.”

A mother’s need for sleep is irrelevant. She is supposed to dispense breastmilk 24/7/365. What else could be more important than being a breastmilk dispenser?

A mother’s need to control her own body is irrelevant. If breastfeeding makes her psychologically uncomfortable, she’s supposed to get over it.

A mother’s mental health is irrelevant. Lactivists are much more concerned with whether treatments for postpartum depression are compatible with breastfeeding than with whether they are the best possible treatment for the mother’s psychological condition. The mother must continue dispensing breastmilk even if she is inexorably approaching psychological collapse.

The connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression has been noted, but lactivists have chosen to spin it as evidence that successful breastfeeding prevents postpartum depression when the reality is more likely to be that pressuring women to breastfeed when they can’t or don’t want to do so is a contributing factor to postpartum depression.

Treating women as breastmilk dispensers has a corollary in pregnancy and childbirth and that corollary has been emphatically rejected by most women. The corollary is treating pregnant women as walking wombs, evaluating every decision they make by asking whether it is good for the baby. Ironically, many of the same people who would be horrified by reducing pregnant women to baby incubators, have no problem reducing new mothers to breastmilk dispensers.


It is because we have moralized breastfeeding far, far beyond any actual benefits. And it hasn’t merely become a signifier of social status and an emblem of maternal superiority, it has become a requirement for being a “good” mother.

As a result we treat new mothers as if they were cows and there only reason for being is to dispense breastmilk. Even if breastmilk were “the elixir of life” as some lactivists pretend, that would not justify this cavalier treatment of women. Since the benefits of breastmilk are in reality trivial, treating women as breastmilk dispensers isn’t merely unjustified, it’s gratuitously cruel.

Every women is capable of looking at the scientific evidence about breastfeeding in industrialized countries (the real evidence, not the wildly exaggerated benefits) and making her own considered decision of how she wants to feed her infant. Insisting that it is anyone else’s business but hers deprives a woman of autonomy and renders her nothing more than a breastmilk dispenser.