How lactivists use language to marginalize women who can’t or don’t breastfeed

shut up girl

A political pollster once said, “If you frame the problem, you own it.”

He meant that if you could convince others to refer to the problem in your terms, you are almost assured of having control over an issue. For example, consider the way people frame abortion. Those who think women should be allowed to control their own reproductive organs refer to themselves as “pro-choice.” Abortion opponents recognized early on that “anti-choice” would not make a good moniker, so they refer to themselves as “pro-life,” despite the fact that restricting abortion leads to maternal deaths. Language can be used to signal views and to attempt to persuade others to those views.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Breast Is Best frames women who can’t or don’t breastfeed as inferior, abnormal, lazy liars; Fed Is Best frames them as loving mothers.[/pullquote]

Lactivists have attempted to use language in this way and not merely to signal their views or to persuade others to those views. They also use language to marginalize any woman who does not share their views. That is both anti-feminist and unethical.


Lactivists frame breastfeeding as “best” despite the fact that for many babies and mothers it isn’t best at all. “Breast is Best” is arguably the most powerful frame that lactivists have employed. While it is theoretically meant to refer to the relative merits of breastmilk and infant formula, its secondary purpose is to marginalize women who can’t or don’t breastfeed. What kind of mother gives her infant “second best”? Only a bad mother. In three simple words, lactivists have labeled women who use formula as bad mothers.

Never mind that breastmilk is NOT best for all babies. Never mind that many women cannot make enough breastmilk to fully nourish an infant. Lactivists have language to erase those facts.

For many years, lactivists have framed insufficient breastmilk as rare. That’s not what the scientific evidence shows, but lactivists have told that falsehood so many times that many of them now believe it themselves. It’s a falsehood with a specific purpose; it is meant to characterize women who report low supply as liars. It’s hard to think of a more effective way to silence women who can’t breastfeed then to imply that they are liars who are only trying to justify the fact that they are bad mothers.

Lactivists frame all breastfeeding problems as due to “lack of support.” This serves two purposes. One: to marginalize and silence women who don’t want to use their breasts to nourish their babies. It is basically an accusation of false consciousness. The second purpose is economic. If successful breastfeeding is simply a matter of support, the reasoning goes, we should just hire more breastfeeding support people.

Lactivists have framed promoting breastfeeding as “normalizing” breastfeeding. The implication is not subtle: women who can’t or don’t breastfeed are abnormal.

Social media have become an important components in an all out effort to marginalize and silence women who can’t or don’t breastfeed. They intensively mediate breastfeeding discourse, allowing only that discourse that supports the preferred frames.

Lactivists frame breastfeeding supportive websites and Facebook pages as islands within a culture that is not supportive of breastfeeding. That’s a convenient fiction; fiction because it’s hard to imagine a society that has ever been more supportive of breastfeeding than this one and convenient because it allows for the literal silencing of women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed by deleting their posts and comments. There’s no better way to promote the frame that breastfeeding problems are rare than by literally erasing women’s attempts to share those problems.

Lactivist allow the mention of breastfeeding difficulties if they can frame them as surmountable. Women are allowed to present their problems on social media if they are asking for the guidance of the group, blame themselves, acknowledge that with enough effort they can fix the problem, and continue breastfeeding regardless of whether their babies are dehydrated, jaundiced and starving to death.

Lactivists frame pediatricians and any other providers who are not explicitly commmitted to the agreed upon frames as “uneducated.” This serves a variety of purposes. It frames lactation professionals as having knowledge that others do not have (even though many pediatricians and obstetricians are women who have breastfed). It allows breastfeeding professionals to advise women to ignore pediatricians when they dare to value the health of the baby above the act of breastfeeding and it allows lactivists to silence women who fear for their baby’s health as gullible for believing other providers.

Lactivists frame breastfeeding as both natural (implying ease and an absence of problems) and hypermedicalized: requiring books, classes, coaches, mechanical breast pumps, herbs and pharmaceutical galactologues to increase supply, elimination diets, surgery on babies tongues to correct latch and a raft of expensive consumer goods like breastfeeding pillows, clothing, salves and foods. This double framing means that though breastfeeding is touted as natural, women who aren’t successful at breastfeeding can be portrayed as unwilling to do the hard work and spend the money to succeed.

Lactivists frames are anti-feminist. The frames are deliberately intended to deprive women of choice in infant feeding. The frames are deliberately intended to marginalize women who can’t or don’t breastfeed as inferior, abnormal, lazy and victims of false consciousness.

Lactivists frames are unethical because they put the brains and lives of infants at risk. A substantial proportion of mothers (as many as 1 in 7) cannnot produce enough milk to fully nourish an infant; those babies brains and lives are at risk from hypoglycemia, dehydration, and severe jaundice. The frame that insufficient breastmilk is “rare” is nothing more than a bald-faced lie. The frame that formula supplementation is harmful ignores the science that show judicious formula supplementation increases the odds of extended breastfeeding. The frame that pacifiers interfere with breastfeeding ignores the science that shows that they save infant lives. When lactivists lie, babies die.

The intensive lactivist efforts at framing explain the rabid hatred directed at the Fed Is Best Foundation. With three little words, “Fed Is Best,” Christie del Castillo Hegyi, MD and Jody Segrave Daly RN, IBCLC have blown apart lactivst frames with a more accurate frame, one that doesn’t marginalize and silence women who can’t or don’t breastfeed.

Instead of framing these mothers as inferior, abnormal, lazy liars, Fed Is Best frames them as loving.

Instead of framing them as women who are avoiding their most important responsibility, they frame them as bucking a tide of hostility and abuse to protect their babies above all.

Most importantly, instead of protecting breastfeeding, they protect babies from brain damage and death.

That’s why lactivists save a special frame just for them; Christie and Jody (both of whom breastfed) are framed as anti-breastfeeding when they are really pro babies and mothers.

39 Responses to “How lactivists use language to marginalize women who can’t or don’t breastfeed”

  1. BeatriceC
    November 10, 2017 at 11:47 pm #

    OT: Charlotte the Macaw passed away tonight. We don’t know what happened, but whatever it was, it happened fast. She was totally fine, swinging from the top of her cage, singing the song of her people when I said goodbye to her when I left to go shopping at 5pm. At 6:15, MrC called and told me to get home fast, that she was very sick. I raced home and we raced her to the vet. We got there about 6:45 (which is impressive, because at normal speeds it’s about a `15 minute drive home from where I was and a 25 minute drive from home to the emergency vet). They did everything they could. A little after 7, they brought her to the room so she could die in our arms. We brought her home so we can take her to our regular vet in the morning for a necropsy to find out what happened. It’s possible she was much, much older than we thought she was. But at least this last year and a half she was loved, and learned to love, which was something that she hasn’t had in a very long time, if ever. At least we were able to give her that.

    • Nick Sanders
      November 11, 2017 at 12:22 am #

      I’m sorry, it always hurts to lose a beloved pet. They may not be human, but they are still family.

    • PeggySue
      November 11, 2017 at 12:33 am #

      Oh, no. I am so sorry. You’re right, though–what you gave her was the best.

    • Tigger_the_Wing
      November 11, 2017 at 9:11 am #

      I’m so very sorry. The loss of a pet really hurts, no matter the species. They give so much to us. I am glad that you managed to give her all the love and attention she deserved in her time with you, even if it was preciously little.

      That is one of the scariest things about birds – how fast they can go from perfectly well to mortally sick.

    • StephanieJR
      November 11, 2017 at 10:14 am #

      I’m so sorry. You gave her as good a life as possible, filled with love and care, in her final years.

    • Empress of the Iguana People
      November 12, 2017 at 7:37 pm #


    • Lilly de Lure
      November 13, 2017 at 6:26 am #

      So sorry to hear this – have hugs from me!

    • MI Dawn
      November 14, 2017 at 8:37 am #

      So sorry to read this! Sending internet hugs. You gave her a good remaining life.

  2. Russell Jones
    November 10, 2017 at 4:04 pm #

    It certainly doesn’t help that so many doing the framing on the lactivist side are bros. Since coverture is a thing of the past, reducing women to the sum total of their body parts in the interest of “normalcy” and what’s “best” is what these bros have nowadays.

    And it’s all too easy for this sort of thing to fly under the radar here in 2017. This very day a major political party is running a pervy old lily-white child molester bro for a U.S. Senate seat, and elected officials are full-throatedly defending the dude with actual rape and child molestation apologetics. Lactivism looks downright tame by comparison, but the harm is all too real.

  3. LaMont
    November 10, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

    I still can’t forget a “let women breastfeed in public” video that started out so reasonable (because, yeah, women should be able to breastfeed anywhere it would be appropriate to feed a child, and so-called “decency” advocates get super dumb about this b/c they legit want women stuck in the home all day) and then devolved into “shaming breastfeeders publicly is a conspiracy to sell formula, which is as bad for a baby as giving them cocaine”.

    • Heidi
      November 10, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

      Cocaine? Is that why it’s kinda pricey? Heck, for cocaine it’s still pretty cheap! All this time I didn’t know I could have been coked up. Would have come in handy with the whole 4 hours or less of sleep a night the first year of my child’s life.

    • AnnaPDE
      November 11, 2017 at 10:10 pm #

      Yes, there is the legitimate need to normalise breastfeeding in the sense of it being seen as an everyday activity that’s neither glorified nor shamed. A substantial number of people talk about (and sometimes to) breastfeeding mums in horrible ways because they think that a baby eating from a boob in public is indecent, disgusting, and really akin to someone taking a dump in the middle of a restaurant. They’ll also explain how mothers shouldn’t leave the house so unprepared that they’ll need to BF on the go (showing a complete lack of understanding how babies and milk production work), and anyone who can’t do that is too unqualified to have babies.
      A good bunch of them are men who identify as rational and progressive, but somehow missed the memo that women can also use their boobs for purposes other than their entertainment. But there are also some formula feeding mums who claim that breastfeeding borders on sexually abusing the baby, especially from 1 year and up.

      TL;DR: If lactivists were really about “normalising” breastfeeding in a supportive sense, there’s a lot of actual work they could do, instead of making formula feeding parents feel bad.

      • Allie
        November 12, 2017 at 12:42 pm #

        “They’ll also explain how mothers shouldn’t leave the house so unprepared that they’ll need to BF on the go”

        Before I had my daughter, I thought this was a thing, that I could pump enough milk to take with us so I wouldn’t need to feed on the go. Ha! Yeah, it most definitely doesn’t work that way, and telling moms they can’t breastfeed in public is virtually putting them under house arrest. How does that accord with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I ask?

        • Tigger_the_Wing
          November 12, 2017 at 4:16 pm #

          I actually found breastfeeding on the go much easier than bottle feeding. I could breastfeed a baby in a carrier and still have my hands free – but bottle feeding took both arms. No baby could suck a bottle whilst facing my chest in a carrier; there wasn’t room, and I wasn’t going to make them attempt to drink with their head turned sideways!

          • Justanrph
            November 12, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

            I bottle feed in the carrier and find it convenient. Nursing doesn’t work for us in a carrier, Mine had enough trouble without adding in a bouncing boob and carrier straps.
            Facing out is a bit tricky as I can’t see the mouth well. Mine drinks a bottle facing sideways half the time at baseline (to be able to see everything), so it isn’t odd to her to drink that way in a carrier. It is almost as if everyone is different and one size doesn’t fit all!

          • Tigger_the_Wing
            November 12, 2017 at 6:16 pm #

            I was lucky, then; my boobs were far too small to bounce. Sounds as if carriers might have been re-designed to make things easier, too, over the decades since mine were infants.

        • Dr Kitty
          November 12, 2017 at 6:02 pm #

          F that noise.
          It is perfectly possible to breastfeed in public without making a spectacle of yourself.

          Neither of mine would tolerate slings, not BF under a cover.
          I just sat down, took them out of their buggy and fed them when they needed feeding.

          Someone may have caught an occasional flash of nipple of theyvstared for long enough, but it wasn’t like I was topless.

          Even where I live, where fewer than 2% of women BF to a year, and public BF is still rare, I got absolutely no push back that I can recall, beyond possibly a pointed look or two, which I ignored.

          BF in public should be as normal as chewing gum in public- perhaps not something you’d choose to do yourself, or that you enjoy watching, but not something you give any thought to and something which you can easily ignore if it does come to your attention.

          • AnnaPDE
            November 12, 2017 at 9:03 pm #

            I’m not sure how many peddlers of the extremely rude and vitriolic stuff online would say it to a breastfeeding mother’s face. But given how much of it I see online, not a large percentage needs to translate to offline interaction to give at least some mums nasty experiences.
            And I’m appalled and surprised about where I come across this type of sentiment — for example, in comments on explicitly atheist/progressive facebook pages, and even in a German Fed-is-Best type group.

        • AnnaPDE
          November 12, 2017 at 8:52 pm #

          And in addition to my “I can’t produce a double portion in the morning to have the lunchtime feed covered” supply-related obstacle, transporting breastmilk hygienically at a safe temperature isn’t exactly convenient and simple either.
          As you’ve pointed out, the whole spiel against BF in public boils down to putting mothers under house arrest — not always accidentally. Misogyny is a thing.

  4. CSN0116
    November 10, 2017 at 2:50 pm #

    I don’t love it because it insinuates that there is always “choice” involved, but it gets to the heart of the current issue. Just a quick little sketch of what I see in my head 😉

    • Roadstergal
      November 10, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

      “I don’t love it because it insinuates that there is always “choice” involved”

      To be fair, so does the abortion side of ‘pro-choice,’ but I think the sentiment is generally applicable. I like the graphic!

    • Zornorph
      November 10, 2017 at 10:24 pm #

      What is the third thing supposed to represent? It looks like she’s got two lit candles to her breasts.

  5. CSN0116
    November 10, 2017 at 2:48 pm #

    I don’t love it because it insinuates that there is always “choice” involved, but it gets to the heart of the current issue. Just a quick little sketch of what I see in my head 😉

  6. Heidi
    November 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm #

    I found the one that affected me most was only allowing women who could surmount their breastfeeding issues to speak. Deep-down I think I knew I couldn’t produce enough no matter what “galactogue” I took or what pumping schedule I did or how often I attempted to get the baby to nurse, but I read this story on LLL site where a woman successfully got her older baby to breastfeed and went on to successfully EBF. It took months for her to do this. What stuck out to me is she says she wasn’t going to have another baby so this was the only chance she’d have to breastfeed. I hadn’t thought of breastfeeding in those terms before and not knowing whether or not I will have another child, I panicked. What happened is I got angry at my baby and myself for refusing to latch at 4 or 5 months and went through a bit of a depression because I kept on thinking how I might never get to breastfeed again. Between that, and my first post-delivery nurse telling me breastfeeding only worked with baby and not pumps and it was all about supply and demand, I felt so guilty. Looking back, I quit nursing because my baby quit nursing because I didn’t make enough for him to even be full after 45 minute sessions. At seven months, I came to my senses and threw away my pump, thankfully. However, I really think if I’d read stories from LLL and kelly mom about breastfeeding that just didn’t work, I’d have accepted my reality.

  7. anh
    November 10, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    And the “support” they offer is bullshit. As far as I can tell their support is basically just telling you that you should breastfeed and maybe to tell you that you’re doing it wrong

    • The Bofa on the Sofa
      November 10, 2017 at 12:48 pm #

      Their support is nothing more than cheerleading. “Push it in! Push it in! Push your boob WAAAAAY in!”

    • Roadstergal
      November 10, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

      A lot of it is ‘sleep less and do it more frequently,’ isn’t it?

      I don’t know about you, but there is not a single thing I do that I get better at with less sleep. (Other than bite my husband’s head off, I guess.)

      • Sarah
        November 10, 2017 at 1:50 pm #


        • Roadstergal
          November 10, 2017 at 1:53 pm #

          Oh, yes! That and dropping things. I get really good at that.

          • BeatriceC
            November 10, 2017 at 3:07 pm #

            I get really good at tripping and falling.

          • Empress of the Iguana People
            November 10, 2017 at 4:37 pm #

            That’s how I came to break Kid1’s leg

          • Dr Kitty
            November 10, 2017 at 6:09 pm #

            You absolutely did nothing wrong.
            I know that it is something you still beat yourself up about, but your shouldn’t.

      • Lilly de Lure
        November 10, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

        In my case seizures – they are so much more impressive when I don’t get enough sleep.

      • crazy mama, PhD
        November 10, 2017 at 4:38 pm #

        A lot of it is ‘sleep less and do it more frequently,’ isn’t it?

        Breastfeeding problems? Just lie in bed all day doing skin-to-skin with your baby!

        When my older son was about 15 months old and starting to wean, I got a really painful clogged duct. A solid 50% of the advice I found for treating clogged ducts was some variation of “take your baby with you to bed and nurse constantly.” It was irritating but also hilarious, because there was no way my boisterous toddler would’ve allowed me to do that even if I wanted to.

      • Resident
        November 11, 2017 at 8:17 am #

        Sleep is for lazy moms

      • Daleth
        November 12, 2017 at 7:49 am #

        A lot of it is ‘sleep less and do it more frequently,’ isn’t it?

        I actually had a lactation consultant — a reputable one, a registered nurse I think, who worked at a hospital-sponsored lactation center — tell me that if I wanted to find out whether it was possible for me to reach a point where I was making enough milk to feed both my twins, I should hire a postpartum doula for two weeks to enable me to pump, using a rented hospital-grade pump, around the clock.

        Note that as human beings, doulas work eight-hour shifts, so she was actually suggesting I hire three doulas, 24/7, for two weeks. The one doula we’d already hired charged $20/hour to help with newborn twins.

        So she was suggesting I spend $6500+ to hire three other women to take care of my babies 24/7 for two weeks, so that instead of taking care of and bonding with my babies, I could go on a breast-pumping/eating/napping marathon. Because then I MIGHT be able to exclusively breastfeed my twins. Or maybe I might not — she acknowledged that my supply issue might not be correctable — but at least I would’ve tried my hardest to make it work.

        WTF?!? It was at that point, when I realized how much money she was suggesting I spend in order to have a chance of (ahem) not having to spend money on formula, that I started to think maybe these people were not right in the head.

        • Tigger_the_Wing
          November 12, 2017 at 4:09 pm #

          Good grief, they are really after your money, aren’t they? I’m lucky, I never had a problem providing enough milk for two (for the singletons, drowning them was more of a possibility) but I put one of my twins on the bottle as soon as it was apparent that his eczema was caused by breast milk; it cleared up on a lactose-free formula, and he still can’t tolerate lactose (he’s an adult).

          The culture certainly has changed in the last quarter of a century. I can’t imagine spending money on hiring other people to do the mothering whilst being hooked up to a machine like a dairy cow. I didn’t have the time (or the money). It was much easier to do short jobs between feeds (I was running my own rural taxi business at the time, plus I had three older children) and then longer ones as the feeds spaced themselves out.

          • Daleth
            November 13, 2017 at 9:36 am #

            I can’t imagine spending money on hiring other people to do the mothering whilst being hooked up to a machine like a dairy cow.

            EXACTLY. I felt bad enough sitting there pumping and watching my husband and mother-in-law take care of the babies–I wanted to hold them myself!

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