It’s not the end of the breastfeeding wars, but it’s the end of the beginning

baby milk bottle


According to The Independent, Midwives told they must respect mothers who decide not to breastfeed:

Mothers who decide not to breastfeed their child must be respected for their choice, midwives are being told.

New advice from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) stresses new mothers should be given appropriate support if they make an informed decision to bottle feed…

[T]he RCM acknowledges some mothers struggle to start or carry on breastfeeding, breastfeeding, and says the decision is a woman’s right.

Think about that for a minute:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The RCM has just publicly acknowledged what Joan Wolf, Courtney Jung, Suzanne Barston, Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, Jody Segrave Daly, and I have been writing for the past decade.[/pullquote]

• The physiology of breastfeeding has not changed. A significant proportion of women have ALWAYS struggled to breastfeed.

• Women’s right to control their own bodies has not changed. Bottle feeding has ALWAYS been a women’s right.

• Midwives’ ethical obligations have not changed. Midwives were ALWAYS ethically required to respect women’s feeding choices.

This is an admission that they and the rest of the breastfeeding lobby — La Leche League, the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, professional lactivists in the World Health Organization — have spent the past decade IGNORING and DENYING women’s struggles and babies’ suffering, IGNORING and DENYING women’s rights, IGNORING and DENYING their ethical obligation to respect women’s choices.

Gill Walton, new head of the RCM essentially acknowledges their woeful behavior:

“…[S]ome women cannot or do not wish to breastfeed”.

“They must be given all the advice and support they need on safe preparation of bottles and responsive feeding to develop a close and loving bond with their baby,” Ms Walton added.

We know that every woman wants the best for her baby, and we want to be able to empower our members to support women to be the best they can be and enable them to make decisions that are right for themselves and their babies.”

This is EXACTLY what Joan Wolf, Courtney Jung, Suzanne Barston, Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, Jody Segrave Daly, and I have been writing for the past decade.

Why is the RCM suddenly acknowleding what everyone has known for years? I suspect it’s because the power of the breastfeeding lobby has come up against the tremendous suffering and massive amount of healthcare spending their unethical behavior has caused. Babies are injured and dying from dehydration, jaundice and falling from or being smothered in their mothers’ hospital beds. Breastfed babies are being admitted to the hospital at twice the rate of their formula fed peers, costing hundreds of millions of healthcare dollars per year. Moreover, women are vocally opposing both the scientific claims and the unethical tactics of the breastfeeding lobby.

As I have noted in the past, the unethical behavior of the breastfeeding lobby can be traced to a seminal 1996 paper by lactation consultant Diane Weissinger who set out a roadmap of lactivist behavior. She proposed the use of shaming language to pressure women into breastfeeding.


She couldn’t have made it clearer:

All of us within the profession want breastfeeding to be our biological reference point. We want it to be the cultural norm; we want human milk to be made available to all human babies, REGARDLESS OF OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES. (my emphasis)

Regardless of the fact that up to 15% of first time mothers cannot produce enough breastmilk; regardless of the fact that many women don’t want to breastfeed; regardless of women’s right to control their own bodies and midwives’ ethical obligation to support women’s choices.

The breastfeeding lobby — despite endlessly whining of victimhood — has controlled the infant feeding discourse with an iron fist for the past decade and more.

Sociologists Sunna Símonardóttir and Ingólfur V. Gíslason explain that women have been challenging the power of the breastfeeding lobby.


Mothers pointed out that formula fed children are healthy.

The most uncontested and culturally accepted type of medical discourse on breastfeeding is the long list of the assumed benefits on the health and wellbeing of children…

Even though the women do not directly challenge this overall assumption, or make claims that breastmilk has no health benefits over formula, some of them do contest certain aspects of the hegemony of the medical breastfeeding discourse. The women who challenge the medical discourse on breastfeeding do so from a personal standpoint, contrasting their own happy and healthy children with the image of formula fed children as deprived and less healthy.

Their formula fed children are smart:

For some of the women, the worst aspect of this medical discourse on the benefits of breastfeeding is the notion that breastfeeding has a positive effect on a child’s intelligence. The women stress the academic achievements of their children and how in fact their formula fed child is ‘top of the class’.

They and their children have bonded fiercely to each other:

Breastfeeding … has been constructed as a vital aspect of mother–child bonding, reflecting the ideology of intensive mothering and ‘the need for mothers to manage risk by heeding expert warnings and advice.’ A number of women reject this idea that bonding takes place through breastfeeding by discussing the effects that breastfeeding (or trying to breastfeed) had on their mental and psychological wellbeing. Those women had usually been trying to establish breastfeeding with a lot of difficulty and severe pain, and they describe trying to breastfeed as an ‘emotional roller-coaster’ that has had serious consequences and often made them feel depressed and anxious. Breastfeeding is therefore not constructed as helpful when it comes to bonding, but directly harmful to the bonding process.

Women found that most of the ostensibly scientific claims made about breastfeeding were not true in their circumstances. That’s hardly surprising since, as I and others have detailed repeatedly, most of the scientific claims made about breastfeeding were made as part of the Panglossian paradigm beloved of both lactivists and anti-vaxxers that nature is perfect and technology cannot improve upon it.

The scientific evidence about breastfeeding has always been weak, conflicting and riddled with confounding variables. Early claims about the benefits of breastfeeding have not been borne out by later, larger studies. Most importantly, none of the predicted public health benefits of breastfeeding (based on mathematical modeling) have occurred; there have been no measurable changes in the mortality and morbidity rates of term infants and no healthcare dollars saved. To the contrary, the results of the power of the lactivist lobby are best measured in infant deaths and disabilities, maternal anguish, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year treating breastfeeding complications.

What the findings of this study do is to make visible certain discursive constructions and power relations that have remained hidden or simply taken for granted. Once they have been identified, we are much better equipped to disrupt and untangle these constructions and power relations and critically engage with the normalizing discourses on infant feeding …

Is this, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams asks, the end of the breastfeeding wars?

I doubt it for the reason that Williams herself details: privilege.

The underlying issue was class-based: breastfeeding, the middle-class choice, gave middle-class parenting a superior status that would otherwise have been difficult to assert… [T]he First Three Years became a key policy area, with improbable and unpleasant assertions about what non-U parents were like. They fed their babies formula, then they left them all day strapped into a buggy, pointed at a wall; they didn’t give them the right vocabulary because they weren’t interested in talking to them. Bottles became a key signifier of parental neglect …

It’s was never about babies, but always about mothers:

This has been a culture war, and quite an exhausting one, where nothing meant exactly what it said: the pro-breastfeeding line originated with second-wave feminism, asserting a woman’s choice to feed with her baby as she saw fit, without medical or corporate interference. That liberation became an oppression; if it’s the only thing you’re allowed to choose, that’s not a choice. It fed into a set of ideas that located the source of childhood disadvantage not in hardship but in their parents’ sub-optimal behaviour, so that poverty would indicate, literally, that if you weren’t a bad person then probably your mother was. And this political notion was mediated not just through women’s bodies but through our actual tits. It was faintly chilling for all women, mothers or not. It would be wonderful if the RCM’s humane, good sense intervention marked the end of it.

It would be wonderful, but I predict that the breastfeeding lobby is not going down without a fight. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth: about Nestle, about victimhood and about “The Science.” There will be no mention of the fact that breastfeeding is a big business, bringing in billions of dollars of revenue in breastfeeding products, and probably much more in lactation consultant fees and salaries.

Winston Churchill’s words about actual war may apply to the breastfeeding wars.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.