It’s World Breastfeeding Week and it’s time to stop the lactivist madness

Child saying no

It’s an amazing fluid with amazing properties. It is critical to health and well being. It is adaptive: it’s amount and constituents can change as circumstances change. Human beings could never have survived and thrived to this point without it.

No, it’s not breastmilk. It’s sweat … and it’s arguably just as important to human survival as breastmilk.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Why is there World Breastfeeding Week and no World Sweating Week?[/pullquote]

So why is there a World Breastfeeding Week and no World Sweating Week?

Because there are special interest breastfeeding groups that have lobbied government to support them in promoting their product. World Breastfeeding Week is ostensibly about promoting infant health, saving money and increasing sustainability, but the truth is that the benefits of breastfeeding have been grossly exaggerated, the “dangers” of formula feeding mostly fabricated, and the risks of exlusive breastfeeding hidden or denied. Indeed, at this point, the harms of breastfeeding promotion — infants injured, infant deaths, maternal mental health compromised — arguably outweigh the benefits.

It’s time to stop the madness!

Let’s start with a fundamental premise:

Promoting process over outcome is wrong.

We’ve all heard the expression, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” It’s an aphorism that memorably expresses the folly of valuing process over outcome.

Breastfeeding is a process. Infant health is the outcome and it is infant health that should matter, not breastfeeding rates. Lactivists have managed to elide this critical issue by starting with the dubious conclusion — that breastfeeding must be healthier because it is natural — and promoting scientific data that is weak, conflicting and riddled with confounders to support it.

The scientific literature on breastfeeding affirms over and over again that breastfeeding is theoretically healthier for babies. But we don’t have to resort to theory when we have reams of actual data. Over the past 100 years we performed a major “experiment” in industrialized countries. Breastfeeding rates, which in the US were in the range of 90%, dropped precipitously to 24% by 1973 and have since rebounded to initiation rates of nearly 80%. What impact have actual breastfeeding rates had on real life populations in industrialized countries? They’ve had no discernible impact at all. The infant mortality rate dropped steadily regardless of whether breastfeeding rates were rising or falling.

But what about middle and lower income countries where access to clean water to prepare infant formula is uncertain? Surely breastfeeding rates must have a significant impact on infant mortality rates.

Here’s a scatter chart of breastfeeding rates vs. infant mortality created from data on 121 low and moderate income countries.


As you can see, as the breastfeeding rate rises, the infant mortality rate not only doesn’t fall, it actually rises, too. In other words, there is no correlation between breastfeeding rates and infant mortality rates. But, as demonstrated below, there is a strong correlation between economic activity and infant mortality.


There’s no evidence here that increasing breastfeeding rates improved infant health.

But breastfeeding is natural!

So is sweat. Indeed breastmilk is actually modified sweat and the breast glands are modified sweat glands.

Sweat is critical to human survival because it is a primary method of thermoregulation, regulation of the body’s internal temperature. People who cannot sweat face the very real threat of death from drastically elevated body temperature. Given the lifesaving nature of sweating, you might think it would be accorded the same treatment as breastfeeding, but you would be wrong.


It is widely recognized that temperature outstripping the ability to sweat is common. That’s why we recommend additional cooling methods like cold drinks and immersion in cool water. In contrast, lactivists refuse to accept that a mother’s ability to produce breastmilk can be outstripped by a baby’s needs for nourishment. Both are natural but only one is presumed to be nearly perfect.

It is widely accepted that using technology for cooling, like fans and air conditioning, is often superior to sweating. In contrast, lactivists insist that using technology, in this case infant formula, can’t possibly be as good as breastfeeding.

No one thinks that people who use technology to cool themselves are lazy or selfish, yet lactivists often assert that women who refuse to breastfeed are lazy and selfish. Many mothers are left with shame and guilt when they cannot meet the arbitrary lactivist imperative to breastfeed.

Cooling technology saves lives and improves quality of life. Sure, sweating is great and quite effective, but fans and air conditioners are far more pleasant and allow people to be productive in hot climates or during heat waves. In truth, infant formula also saves lives and improves quality of life for both mothers and babies, but lactivists vehemently deny what it right in front of their eyes and what mothers tell them.

Hence we have World Breastfeeding Week, when activists insist that babies’ health is threated by low breastfeeding rates, though there is no evidence of this; that infant health will be improved if more women breastfeed exclusively, though there is no evidence of this; that women stop breastfeeding because of lack of support, though women report that they stop because of low supply, pain and inconvenience; and that society doesn’t promote breastfeeding, even though tens of millions of dollars are spent each year doing just that.

It’s time to stop the madness!

Yes, breastfeeding is a good thing, but it produces milk, not magic, no matter how much lactivists pretend otherwise. And like any bodily process (think fertility or pregnancy), it has a significant failure rate, not a low rate. The decision to breastfeed instead of use formula is like the decision to sweat instead of using air conditioning. It doesn’t make people superior; those who choose not to do it aren’t lazy or selfish; and, most importantly, it’s a personal choice, not the appropriate purview of activists or governments.