Criticizing breastmilk pumping is the latest front in the effort to re-domesticate women


If the mind of the mother be withdrawn from her child to other pleasures, her milk will be less nutritious and less in quantity. — Dr. Richard Kissam, The Nurse’s Manual and Young Mother’s Guide(1834)

…[P]umping … is not equivalent to direct nursing … The microbiome of expressed breast milk is different, for one. — Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic (2019)

A new piece in the Atlantic, Pumping Milk and Nursing Are Not the Same, by Annie Lowrey inadvertently gets to the heart of contemporary efforts at breastfeeding promotion. It has never been about what’s good for babies; the purpose has always been to re-domesticate women.

Central to that task is convincing mothers that having a job, a career or even interests apart from caring from children is harmful to their babies.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Good mothers” provide breastmilk straight from the tap.

Although La Leche League has carefully scrubbed their website of the fact, it was a religion inflected organization originally founded in 1956 by seven traditionalist Catholic women. The goal was keeping mothers out of the workforce by convincing them to breastfeed.

In the book La Leche League: At the Crossroads of Medicine, Feminism, and Religion, Jule DeJager Ward explains:

[A] central characteristic of La Leche League’s ideology is that it was born of Catholic moral discourse on family life … The League has very strong convictions about the needs of families. These convictions are the normative heart of its narrative… The League’s presentations and literature carry a strong suggestion that breast feeding is obligatory. Their message is simple: Nature intended mothers to nurse their babies; therefore, mothers ought to nurse …

Breastfeeding professionals and researchers have fully embraced the task of re-domesticating women, creating new “benefits” of breastfeeding as fast as the old “benefits” are debunked. They’ve demonized formula, ignoring the fact that it was created for a variety of important reasons: insufficient breastmilk is common and many women want to utilize their minds in fulfilling work instead of being tied to the home by the need to breastfeed. And, of course, advocates claim that anything other than exclusive breastfeeding “interferes” with maternal-infant bonding.

Though natural mothering advocates decry medicalization of childbirth, they adore medicalization of breastfeeding — from pumps, to breastmilk banks, to the off-label use of powerful medications with the goal of boosting milk supply. While they initially sought to make breastfeeding compatible with work outside the home, the Atlantic article about pumping represents the newest front in re-domesticating women: convincing them that they must stay home because “good mothers” provide breastmilk straight from the tap.

Lowrey writes:

The number seems small, but gets larger and larger as you contemplate it: 6 percent. That is the estimated share of breastfeeding mothers who exclusively pump and bottle their milk for their infants, never directly nursing. It is a number that was functionally zero less than a generation ago. And it is a subset of a much larger figure, the 85 percent of breastfeeding mothers who use a pump at least some of the time…

Maybe this is a good thing, if pumping helps babies receive more breast milk, or if it enables mother and child to sustain a desired, direct breastfeeding relationship for longer. Maybe pumping helps women have it all—a full-time career and a breastfed baby.

But breastfeeding promotion is NOT about women having it all; it’s about convincing mothers that babies need breastmilk breastfeeding more than women need … anything.

The “research” such as it is, is surprisingly weak. No one knows what the normal infant gut microbiome is supposed to contain. No one knows whether deviations represent problems or merely individual variations. No one knows whether the infant gut microbiome has any impact on infant health or anything else. No one cares. It is a convenient cudgel with which to discipline women who dare to work.

If that were your goal, could you possibly do better than scaring women with this?

But while pumping might support direct nursing, it is not equivalent to direct nursing, researchers have found. The microbiome of expressed breast milk is different, for one. “Indirect breastfeeding” is associated with a greater prevalence of pathogens, which “could pose a risk of respiratory infection in the infant, potentially explaining why infants fed pumped milk are at increased risk for pediatric asthma,” according to Shirin Moossavi of the University of Manitoba. Plus, breast milk degrades when it is cooled, as it often is when stored for bottle-feeding. There is also the risk of contamination, given that dangerous bacteria flourish on pump parts.

“is associated,” “could,” “potentially” — weasel words all, but perfect for manipulating women.

And why stop there? Just tell women that their babies won’t love them as much if they bottlefeed, even when breastmilk is in the bottle.

Researchers also sense that the experience of breastfeeding—the eye-gazing, the cuddling—is a big part of the benefit of breastfeeding for the baby, and a big part of the joy of breastfeeding for the mother. How does bottle-feeding change the equation?

That — to use a technical term — is bullshit!

No matter. In the effort to re-domesticate women through breastfeeding, no tactic is too cruel. It is imperative to convince women that any time they spend away from their babies will harm those babies.

Lowrey concludes:

But however they pump, for whatever reason, they do it in a vacuum: with a thin body of knowledge and little social support. Alas, it sucks.

There is precisely ZERO clinical evidence (as opposed to laboratory experiments) that formula feeding harms term babies. There is even LESS evidence that feeding expressed breastmilk harms babies. But the truth doesn’t matter when you are trying to re-immure women back into the home.

That’s what sucks!