The five hungers at the heart of lactivism

top view of word hungry made from cookie dough with flour

Why is a public health campaign that has lasted for more than 25 years and produced ZERO return on investment still being promoted aggressively? I’m referring, of course, to the campaign to increase breastfeeding rates.

There are many reasons including institutional inertia and the fact that an entire group of ancillary health professionals — lactation consultants — arose to facilitate the campaign and they aren’t about to put themselves out of business.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactivism is not about the hunger of babies. Each year we let 1-2% of breastfed babies starve to the point that they must be hospitalized to save them.[/pullquote]

But the real reason, in my view, is that lactivism satiates a variety of different hungers. Ironically the hunger of babies isn’t one of them.

Lactivism — in its contemporary incarnation — is about satiating five hungers of women.

1. The hunger of traditionalists for women to return to the home

The foundation of La Leche League, the bulwark of the contemporary lactivist movement, lies in the effort to keep mothers of young children out of the workforce.

But even as their previously quixotic cause became mainstream, the founding mothers fell out of step with a new development. In large numbers, women with young children were going to work. Yet La Leche philosophy called for mothers to be available constantly to their nursing babies. The 1981 edition of “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” summed up the group’s opposition to working motherhood: “Our plea to any mother who is thinking about taking an outside job is, ‘if at all possible, don’t.’ ”

In 1956, before the advent of the breast pump, breastfeeding was not compatible with working outside the home. Convincing women to breastfeeding was the first step in convincing women to retreat from jobs and careers.

2. The hunger to punish formula manufacturers

The most powerful impetus for contemporary breastfeeding promotion turned out to be the hunger to punish large multi-national corporations like Nestle. In the 1970’s Nestle and other formula companies engaged in the brutally unethical promotion of infant formula powder to women in Africa. These corporations were aware that many African women had access to only contaminated water with which to prepare it. Tens of thousands of infants died as a result. Even now, 40 years later, the hunger for punishing formula companies remains front and center in lactivist consciousness.

The hunger for a return to the traditional family and the hunger to punish Nestle explain the motivations of those who promote breastfeeding, but it is other hungers that explain why breastfeeding has been embraced so avidly in certain circles.

3. The hunger for reassurance

You love your children beyond reason and want them to grow into happy, healthy, achieving adults. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a recipe that guaranteed you were raising children you would be able to brag about? Natural mothering — of which breastfeeding is an integral part — offers that recipe. Breastfeed your children and you are guaranteed they will be smarter, healthier and thinner than they otherwise would be.

4. The hunger for achievement

It’s not a coincidence that lactivists promote awards and badges for themselves based on how long they breastfeed. Mothering is an anomaly in a society like ours that fetishizes competition. There are no medals for good mothering and while you are doing it, there is often precious little positive feedback. Not many toddlers are thanking their mothers for putting them in time out.

How satisfying then that women anxious to notch achievements can award themselves and each other “silver boobs with diamond nipples” because they breastfed for 11 months.

5. The hunger for recognition

There are some women who have strong enough egos that they don’t need constant rewards to do what they think is right. Other women need to form communities for support. Sadly, all too often these communities “support” their members by encouraging them to believe they — and only they — are good mothers. Is there a lactivist community on social media that doesn’t disparage formula and mothers who choose it? I haven’t found one.

In the real world, if your only achievement were breastfeeding, no one would think very much of you. In contrast, you can become a minor celebrity in the the social media lactosphere for trumpeting your devotion to breastfeeding, normalizing maternal exhaustion and infant starvation and metaphorically spitting on anyone who doesn’t mirror your own choices back to you.

The bottom line is that contemporary lactivism has never been about soothing the hunger of babies. If it were, breastfeeding would not have become the leading risk factor for newborn hospital readmission. Each year we let 1-2% of breastfed babies starve to the point that they must be hospitalized to save them.

Lactivism satisfies the hungers of lactivists. No one seems to care about the hunger of babies.