Breastfeeding Medicine

Physicians blogging about breastfeeding

Conservative rhetoric masquerading as breastfeeding advocacy

with 10 comments

A recent commentary in the National Review titled, “Fire the government wet nurse,” reads, at first blush, like breastfeeding advocacy. Author Julie Gunlock starts out by saying, “Breast milk is magic,” citing benefits for fighting infection and improving maternal health.

But then Gunlock takes aim at the WIC program, arguing that this safety net for poor families “encourages poor women to skip breastfeeding altogether and instead turn to formula for their children’s nutrition needs.” Gunlock notes that only one third of WIC mothers breastfeed for 6 months, and the program accounts for more than half of formula sales in the US. WIC, she argues, is yet another entitlement program that is hurting the very people it is supposed to help.

It’s a tidy argument – that safety net programs cause poverty, rather than help those who are most in need. The only problem is that it’s not true.

First, consider that WIC is the largest public breastfeeding support program in the United States. All WIC participants are encouraged to breastfeed, unless medically contraindicated, and WIC breastfeeding peer counselors work tirelessly to provide around-the-clock support. WIC recently revised its food package to provide extra food for nursing mothers to meet the caloric needs of breastfeeding. A growing number of local WIC offices provide free pumps for mothers returning to work.

Notably, Gunlock makes no mention of these programs in her commentary. Instead, she proposes a quick fix – “fire the government wet nurse” – in a not-so-subtle reference to “suckling at the teat of big government.” It’s rhetorically effective, but it has nothing to do with enabling mothers and infants to breastfeed.

Ideally, breastfeeding would be the cultural norm, and our society would provide paid maternity leave, affordable child care for older siblings, and adequate support to establish and sustain lactation. Instead, we live in a culture saturated with formula promotion by an industry that spends millions selling the idea that formula is just as good as breast milk.

Other nations have solved this problem by implementing the WHO Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which bans advertising of infant formula. In the US, we not only allow formula promotion – we struggle to convince health care providers not to participate in formula marketing campaigns.

Paid maternity leave is rare, and public assistance programs require mothers to return to work or lose benefits. Indeed, one analysis found without welfare reform in the 1990s, breastfeeding rates at 6 months would be 5.5% higher.

Gunlock doesn’t advocate for regulation of formula marketing, paid leave or maternity benefits for families receiving public assistance – instead, she implies that poor women formula-feed because they are lazy. She writes, “Because these WIC mothers know that they have access to free formula, there’s an obvious incentive for them to go ahead and use it rather than bothering to breastfeeding — which can be more time-consuming that bottle feeding. “

Gunlock contrasts these mothers with her personal experience: “I breastfed all three of my children, and while it wasn’t always easy, it was free and I knew my kids were getting the best food possible — the food I was designed to provide them.”

By framing the discussion in terms of “Good mothers breastfeed, bad mothers don’t,” Gunlock is fueling the mommy wars, instead of support strategies that enable mothers and infants to make an informed decision and achieve their own feeding goals. And the worst part is that, by touting breastfeeding as “magic,” she’s masquerading as a breastfeeding advocate.

I look forward to the day that WIC spends the overwhelming majority of its infant nutrition budget on breastfeeding protection and support, using formula for the rare-but-real cases where mothers are unable to produce enough milk to feed their babies. But “firing the government wet nurse” is not the way to get there. Cutting nutrition funding for the 22% of American children who live in poverty will instead send more women and children to bed hungry, while depriving at-risk mothers of critically important breastfeeding education and peer support.

Alison Stuebe is an ABM member and a maternal-fetal medicine physician at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Posts on this blog reflect the opinions of individual ABM members, not the organization as a whole.

Written by astuebe

November 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Posted in ethics, In the news, policy

10 Responses

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  1. Hear hear! Another BINGO post by Dr. Stuebe. Thanks for saying so well what IBCLCs, WIC peer counselors, and other breastfeeding helpers throughout the USA know so well about how WIC operates. ALL mothers need support and accurate information about how to feed their babies … not insinuated put-downs.

    Liz Brooks

    November 14, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    • Excellent post! Gunlock’s hijacking of breastfeeding support to serve her political agenda reminds me of the formula companies hijacking the language of feminism to discourage breastfeeding.

      Jessica Lang Kosa

      November 15, 2011 at 9:12 am

  2. Yes, just another argument to protect capitalism and big business. Blame the victims. The poor, obviously want to be poor. I honestly don’t know how these people live with themselves making these arguments. Infant formula companies made breastfeeding undesirable and unsupported. WIC was necessary to provide said infant formula to families who couldn’t afford it and did not breastfeed due to the unsupportive culture created by the formula industry. It’s time to stop pointing the fingers at “lazy” moms and take the formula companies to task for their unethical practices and for the detrimental effect their product has had on the health of our country and for creating generations of individuals who are dependent on their product. I’m thinking tobacco lawsuit…

    Cerise Bouchard

    November 14, 2011 at 7:50 pm

  3. Breastfeeding is the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I know it’s the best thing for my daughter. It doesn’t surprise me that we spend tax dollars providing formula when breastmilk is free. Formula shouldn’t be part of the handout. The issue is bigger than that. It starts with continuing to provide assistance for people to have children they can’t afford to raise them.


    November 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm

  4. good article! it’s a shame that some people see WIC in that light. I for one and THANKFUL for WIC, and I exclusively breastfed my first and i’m currently doing the same with #2. WIC tries really hard to reach moms and empower them to make the decision to breastfeed, but you can’t force them to make that decision. There are social standards and ideas that a lot of mothers think they have to adhere to; like holding thier baby will spoil them, breastfeeding will spoil them and make them a “titty baby”. Their very own families and doctors are telling them that formula feeding is the best option because it’s what they did. Poor or not you have to look at the BIG picture… and the BIG picture is this: If a mother chooses not to breastfeed, it is her choice. If she needs help buying that formula to feed her hungry baby, then she needs help… it wouldn’t be right to deny her hungry baby his most basic need, whether its breastmilk or formula. Thats where WIC comes in. Families who need it most get either the breastfeeding support & encouragement they need or the assistance buying their babies milk.. Getting rid of WIC would just leave us with a lot of hungry babies, maybe higher initiation rates but I honestly believe duration rates would stay the same. The people who want to breastfeed will breastfeed. The people who don’t, wont.


    November 16, 2011 at 3:34 pm

  5. This is a bunch of BS! If it wasn’t for WIC, I wouldn’t be providing my son with mama milk today! I started out BFing, but he wasn’t gaining enough weight according to an idiot nurse practitioner (he gained 4oz. in 3 days- nothing wrong with that), so she made me feed him formula before allowing us to leave the office the day he was 2 weeks old. She totally destroyed my ability to trust my body, and instead of continuing to BF as much as possible throughout his 2 week growth spurt, I found myself resorting to the formula this NP gave us. This of course affected my milk supply. Thanks to WIC, I was able to get a medical grade breast pump and meet with a professional Lactation Consultant for free. By the way- they told me they don’t even provide formula for the 1st month unless there’s a medical reason for it because they want mamas to BF. My son is now 8 weeks old, and he is finally getting the hang of BFing again and we are phasing out the formula, which I’ve been paying for myself thankyouverymuch. If it wasn’t for the pump from WIC, I never would have been able to keep my supply up!

    And this mama is not lazy! I work 32 hours a week for a non-profit. I was only able to afford to take 2 weeks off for my so-called maternity leave, and my fiance works full time, yet we can barely make ends meet and neither of our employers provide benefits. If it wasn’t for WIC and ACCESS, our son’s needs would not be met and I’d be probably be stuck completely formula feeding by now without WIC’s amazing BFing support, and as expensive as that crap is, we’d be going without food ourselves to be able to provide. I am sick and tired of those freakin’ republicans calling people like us lazy drug addicts! We work so hard to provide a better life for our son! We hope that in another year or two, we won’t need any assistance, but for right now, it is a major blessing in our life! The ladies at WIC have been incredibly supportive and caring, and I am eternally grateful that they are there for us!

    Kristi Campbell

    November 20, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    • Thank you for sharing your story with us Kristi. It is not easy to tell of our hardships, but you are typical of the hardworking families who need help to survive in these times despite how hard you work. And WIC, which was once a “formula feeding culture” IS now a “breastfeeding culture” and you have shown that! There will always be a need for something else when moms cannot provide all the milk for their babies. In our past, if there was no one else to nurse those babies, they died. So either donor milk or formula will always be needed. But WIC’s main purpose is to support mothers and babies and children, and they are 100% behind supporting breastfeeding. You are proof of that! Congratulations for sticking to what you knew was best, for seeking out the help you needed, and best luck with your wonderful family!


      November 29, 2011 at 9:08 pm

  6. […] Conservative rhetoric masquerading as breastfeeding advocacy, Breastfeeding Medicine — “ “firing the government wet nurse” is not the way to get there. Cutting nutrition funding for the 22% of American children who live in poverty will instead send more women and children to bed hungry, while depriving at-risk mothers of critically important breastfeeding education and peer support.” […]

    Saturday Surfing — Au Coeur

    November 26, 2011 at 7:22 am

  7. But WIC is a Big Ag subsidy program. The conservative lady is right that it sucks. It’s just a giveaway to corporate interests. If you supposedly give a damn about that, you wouldn’t blindly support WIC.

    A Lady

    April 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm

  8. I think Gunlock does have a point to some extent. WIC is doing an amaziong job with breastfeeding promotion and support, but frankly there are lazy mothers that don’t breastfeed because they know they can get free formula at WIC. It is so many mothers, that sometimes I feel so discouraged by the time I go home. Excuses like, “I’ll breastfeed when I get home” Questions like “Why won’t you give me formula to go home, I’m gonna get it anyway when I go to WIC….my taxes pay for this formula” There is a sense of entitlement to these types of programs and it is sad because that is what makes people take on views like Gunlock’s. Sometimes, I wonder if there was no free formula would we see a huge increase breastfeeding? But then I worry about starved babies….it is all so complicated!

    Frustrated LC

    August 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm

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