Lactivists’ fear based tactics come back to bite them

Scared shocked woman isolated on gray background

Kimberly Sears Allers is shocked, shocked, that fear is being used in discussions of infant feeding.

Her piece on Lactation Matters, the blog of the International Lactation Consultant Association, is part of the new #FactsNotFear lactivist campaign created to combat the message of the Fed Is Best Foundation that breastfeeding has risks as well as benefits.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactivists are bewailing the very tactic that they pioneered, exploited and spent millions of dollars promoting.[/pullquote]

Sears writes:

But there is one place where fear should not exist. There is one area, where, as women and
mothers, that we should insist that fear not enter—that is in the precious act of feeding our babies…

That’s why a recent spate of fear-based marketing, particularly from the Fed Is Best Foundation, stoking fears that exclusive breastfeeding kills babies is both erroneous and irresponsible. But it is also the type of insidious marketing that preys on a mother’s existing insecurities that should make all women concerned…

Excuse me while I catch my breath from laughing so hard. Using fear to pressure women into breastfeeding is a deliberate tactic beloved of lactivists. Indeed, lactivists are now bewailing the very tactic that they pioneered, exploited and spent millions of dollars promoting.

Lactivists have been completely upfront about their use of fear to pressure women into breastfeeding. It was first articulated by lactation consultant Diane Weissinger in a seminal paper, Watch Your Language!, in 1996. It’s a blueprint on using fear to pressure women to breastfeed.

Weissinger saw a problem.  For many women, the benefits of breastfeeding simply aren’t great enough to overcome the difficulties and inconvenience:

When we … say that breastfeeding is the best possible way to feed babies because it provides their ideal food, perfectly balanced for optimal infant nutrition, the logical response is, “So what?” Our own experience tells us that optimal is not necessary. Normal is fine, and implied in this language is the absolute normalcy and thus safety and adequacy-of artificial feeding …

She proposed that lactivists pressure women to breastfeed by promoting fear of the risks:

The mother having difficulty with breastfeeding may not seek help just to achieve a “special bonus”; but she may clamor for help if she knows how much she and her baby stand to lose. She is less likely to use artificial baby milk just “to get him used to a bottle” if she knows that the contents of that bottle cause harm.

For example:

…[B]reastfed babies are not “healthier” artificially-fed babies are ill more often and more seriously. Breastfed babies do not “smell better”; artificial feeding results in an abnormal and unpleasant odor that reflects problems in the infant’s gut.

Lactivists fully embraced fear based tactics for 20 years, until it turned out that breastfeeding has risks that women should fear — risks of dehydration, jaundice, starvation and death. In fact, we can point to literally hundreds of term babies injured annually by aggressive breastfeeding promotion, while we can’t find even a single term infant whose health has been substantially improved or whose life was saved by breastfeeding.

That’s why the hypocrisy of Sears Allers is so mind boggling.

Let’s face it, women are sold fear and anxiety as a marketing tool every day. In fact, the strategy, officially known in business circles as FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt—was designed by an IBM executive decades ago to persuade buyers to feel “safe” with IBM products rather than risk a crash, virus or server disruption.

Let’s face it, women are sold fear and anxiety as a marketing tool by lactation consultants and lactivist organizations every single day. Lactivist tactics are a paean to FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt. Women are told to fear the “risks” of formula feeding, to replace their conviction that their babies are starving on breastmilk with uncertainty about their own worth as women, and to doubt their ability to be good mothers if they don’t breastfeed.

Even while decrying fear based tactics, Seals Allers can’t stop resorting to fear based tactics:

The truth is, our bodies were uniquely made to feed the infants we create. Decades of scientific research proves that formula is nutritionally inferior to breastmilk.

The truth is that that our bodies were uniquely made to get pregnant, but that doesn’t prevent a nearly 20% infertility rate among couples; we’re uniquely made to carry babies to term, but that doesn’t prevent a natural miscarriage rate of 20%; and while we are uniquely made to breastfeed, that doesn’t prevent a high rate of infant dehydration, jaundice, starvation and death.

Seals Allers doesn’t hesitate to resort to claims contradicted by scientific evidence:

It’s no secret that, especially in the Western world, women already fear they will have insufficient milk. For some, this fear can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because fear and anxiety can literally limit lactation by stifling the letdown reflex that stimulates the milk glands.

There is no scientific evidence that fear of insufficient milk causes insufficient milk. Indeed, research shows that when women believe they have insufficient milk it’s because they do. In fact, new research shows that there may be a biomarker for low supply.

High levels of sodium in breast milk are closely associated with lactation failure. One study showed that those who failed lactation had higher initial breast milk sodium concentrations, and the longer they stayed elevated, the lower the success rate.

Another paper, The Relation between Breast Milk Sodium to Potassium Ratio and Maternal Report of a Milk Supply Concern, published in April 2017 noted:

…[T]he observed prevalence of elevated Na:K was 2-fold greater in the mothers with milk supply concerns (42% vs 21%)… This result challenges the belief that milk supply concern in the context of exclusive breastfeeding is primarily maternal misperception. (my emphasis)

Sears Allers concludes her piece with a flourish of hypocrisy:

Ultimately, women deserve facts not fear. Women have a right to guilt-free, confidence-building information and support.

Women have the right to the truth and the truth is that breastfeeding has very real, deadly risks.

#FactsNotFear indeed!