It takes a village to breastfeed a child, not a lactation consultant

Traditional, tribal hut of Kenyan people

One of the biggest ironies of contemporary breastfeeding promotion is how UNnatural it it.

Sure, breastmilk is promoted as best because its natural, but the elaborate demands and restrictions that characterize the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) are based not on what happens in nature, but on the contemporary philosophy of neoliberalism. Indeed the entire profession of lactation consultant — an expert paid for assistance — is the epitome of capitalism, not nature.

Isolating a new mother in a room by herself with no one else to care for her or her newborn is an unnatural, capitalist concept.

According to We Need to Talk about Family: Essays on Neoliberalism, the Family and Popular Culture:

Neoliberalism is usually defined as the expansion of economic thinking in all spheres of human activity, including the family …

The individualistic conception of selfhood central to neoliberalism accepts that an individual is both an ideal locus of sovereignty and a site of governmental intervention…

We see its impact in the BFHI that is predicated on individual maternal action and disregards the impact of the family and “the village.” As a result, contemporary breastfeeding promotion is UNnatural, harking back to a past that never existed.

For example, consider the BFHI policy of closing well baby nurseries to force women to room-in with their infants 24/7. There are NO human cultures (no historical cultures, no indigenous cultures, no cultures in developing countries) that leave women alone to care for their infants by themselves from the moment of birth.

According to Traditional postpartum practices and rituals: a qualitative systematic review:

Organized support, usually in the form of family members caring for the new mother and her infant for a specified period of time, is almost universally provided in the early postpartum period by the mother, mother-in-law, other female relatives or husband…

Organized support typically corresponds to a prescribed period of rest, during which the mother is prohibited from performing her usual household chores. In most cultures, the rest period spans between 21 days and 5 weeks, and is considered a period of vulnerability for future illness.

Isolating a new mother in a room by herself with no one else to care for her or her newborn is a modern, unnatural concept. It has nothing to do with nature and everything to do with neoliberalism and capitalism.

Consider the BFHI policy of banning formula supplements. The practice of prelacteal feeding spans time and culture. Odds are high that it reflects the fact that up to 15% of new mothers have insufficient or delayed production of breastmilk. Without supplements, those babies would have died of dehydration.

We’ve ignored these insights about supplementation, ascribing them to ignorance, in favor of our preferred belief that women in indigenous cultures breastfeed early and exclusively. Once again we’ve missed the critical difference between our indigenous foremothers and ourselves. Early supplementation of breastfeeding itself is not harmful; it looks harmful when the only available prelacteal feeds are contaminated with bacteria.

How about pacifiers? They, too, are banned by the BFHI despite the fact that they reduce the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Pacifiers have been used for at least the past 12,000 years and probably far longer.

There is evidence that [pacifier] precursors have been used since the Neolithic Period to calm down children. Small balls made of fabric containing food were portrayed in paintings. Other balls made of non-perishable material persisted throughout time…

We’ve ignored the historical evidence of widespread pacifier use because lactation professionals prefer to pretend that women in indigenous cultures used their breasts as pacifiers. That comports with neoliberal fantasies about the mother as an individual actor shorn from her family, her community and the technologies of her time.

What about lactation consultants? There is no such thing as experts for hire in nature. That is an invention of capitalism. Women learned to breastfeed from family members who were invested in the wellbeing of the baby nearly as much as the mother herself. They did not pay money to self-proclaimed experts more concerned with the process of breastfeeding than the outcome of healthy babies.

In truth, supporting breastfeeding does not require banning technology; it requires providing care.

If lactivists really want to increase breastfeeding rates they’d stop trying to recapitulate the absence of technology and concentrate on recapitulating the philosophy of care: it takes a village offering a tremendous amount of help and support — including supplements and pacifiers — to breastfeed a child.

Instead of promoting the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, they’d be banning it.