A linguist analyzes competing claims of Breast Is Best vs. Fed Is Best

‘Breast is Best’ or ‘Fed is Best’? A Study of Concessive Relations in the Debate on Methods of Infant Feeding is a fascinating new paper about the rival claims of the Breast Is Best vs. Fed Is Best movements. The paper was written by linguistics professor, Giorgia Riboni.

As a linguist, she analyzes the claims for content, not scientific validity. What does each movement say about itself and its challenger?

She finds:

1. The key difference is that Breast Is Best starts with a conclusion and never questions it.
2. There is NO evidence that the formula industry is behind the Fed Is Best Foundation.
3. Contrary to lactivists’ claims, there is NO evidence that Fed Is Best promotes bottle feeding.

The author explains what she is attempting to accomplish:

The ongoing ‘Breast is best’ vs. ‘Fed is best’ dispute represents an interesting object of study: it lies at the crossroads of multiple topical discourses and provides the opportunity to explore the ways in which contrasting constructions of reality interact and compete…

…[A] dataset consisting of approximately 450 texts published in the last thirty-five years was gathered and examined through the use of automated interrogation routines (Sketch Engine). The approach adopted in the research is therefore corpus-based and enables the identification of recurrent patterns … this last step is instrumental in uncovering tacit beliefs about motherhood and breastfeeding characterizing the ‘Breast is best’ and ‘Fed is best’ approach.

The author starts by establishing that Breast Is Best is a hegemonic discourse despite weak scientific evidence:

Whereas public policies are aligned with the ‘Breast is best’ approach, the scientific community is more divided on the topic. While acknowledging that maternal milk is species-specific and therefore good and safe for babies, research on the possible health advantages associated with it has (yet?) to produce conclusive scientific evidence …

She describes the origin of the Fed Is Best movement, started in an effort to protect babies from the potentially deadly consequences of insufficient breastmilk. Contrary to the claims of lactivists there is ZERO evidence that the Fed Is Best Foundation is associated in any way with the formula industry.

Detractors of the ‘Fed is best’ approach claim that companies producing formula are behind it; while this may seem a realistic possibility, (currently) no evidence can be found to back it up. … [T]he ‘Breast is best’ approach benefits professional figures such as lactation consultants and breastfeeding counselors as well as businesses specialized in breastfeeding gear, supplies, publications etc.

The article is filled with jargon but the findings are easy to describe.

…[W]hereas the FED subcorpus focuses on the discussion of whether breast is ‘really best,’ and … is mainly aimed at debunking this belief, the BREAST subcorpus starts from this theory and never problematizes it… The ‘Fed is best’ position is instead an instance of counter-discourse, not because it promotes formula over maternal milk, but because it frames infant feeding as an open question and raises the possibility that breastfeeding may not necessarily be the optimal solution for everyone.

The key difference between the two competing claims is that Breast Is Best starts with a conclusion and never questions it, Fed Is Best considers the purported benefits of breastfeeding (and it drawbacks) to be an open question.

Both movements look at the difference between the numbers of women who start breastfeeding and the number of women who are exclusively breastfeeding weeks or months later.

The Breast Is Best movement is preoccupied with the discrepancy between what “should” be and what is. Lactivists blame the formula industry, hospitals, providers, workplaces and even women themselves, but they never consider that breast might NOT be best for some babies and their mothers.

In contrast:

… [T]he predominant topic of the FED subcorpus is the debunking of the theory that breast is always best. The analysis of the texts revealed no attempt to encourage bottle-feeding over breastfeeding, unlike what used to happen in pro-bottle-feeding topics in the historical periods prior to that considered in the study.

The bottom line is this: linguistic analysis reveals that while Breast Is Best is pro-breastfeeding, Fed Is Best is NEITHER pro-formula NOR anti-breastfeeding.