Promotion without Support: A Reply to Editorials that Attack Breastfeeding Advocacy
I would like to reply to Courtney Jung’s op-ed, and many other similar editorials that attack breastfeeding advocacy as bad for women. This argument posits a false dichotomy, supported by formula advertising, that the true battleground for breastfeeding exists between “lactivists” and mothers who choose to, or must, formula feed their infants. Rather, breastfeeding advocacy today focuses on the social conditions that prevent women around the world from being able to make choices that support their health and empowerment, and the futures of their babies.
It is unclear why discourse on the “minimal” or “moderate” effects of breastfeeding continues; it is likely related to influence from both personal experiences of writers and influence from formula marketing. I will not engage this discourse here, as it is clear from every medical expert panel in every country in the world that the benefits of breastfeeding for health of mother and baby, decreasing economic and health inequities, and supporting a healthy environment, are well established. As breastfeeding is the physiologic norm, high rates of infant formula feeding negatively impacts all of these factors. Also, if what we are discussing is an over-emphasis on the social critique of women’s work, this is beside the point.
I am therefore saddened that media discourse on breastfeeding continues to undermine women by putting forth articles supporting the notion that a battleground exists between mothers. This classic patriarchal technique, of pitting women against each other, keeps the focus away from the systematic factors that undermine women around the world, including unequal access to paid maternity leave, evidence-based birthing practices, postpartum lactation support, breast milk banking, employer support of breastfeeding, and misleading advertising from infant formula companies. It is also the result of insufficient funding for public health infrastructures that therefore focus on breastfeeding promotion, without addressing breastfeeding support.
I urge us to notice that breastfeeding advocacy has moved on. The conflation of negative social experiences of mothers and breastfeeding advocacy is overstated. Advocacy has moved the dialogue, and we are saving our justified anger for the development of much-needed policies, medical practices and community movements that support women to have the real possibility of making choices that support the health and well-being of their families. The social and media conversation needs to move on as well. Editorials like Jung’s in the ‘Times’ only serve to continue the false conflation of advocacy and social blaming, and the false battleground between mothers.
ADDENDUM 10-19-2015 / 3 pm
Let me be clear: No one is saying this isn’t happening to moms. No one is saying that promotion without support is a good idea. Rather, I am criticizing the New York Times for continuing a conversation that pits women against each other and keeps our focus away from the ongoing structural inequities that women face. On both sides of this false battle, we are all agreeing that the battle shouldn’t be between each other, feeling critical or criticized for breastfeeding (or not). We should be joining together to force a conversation about how to create social conditions that actually support women in making choices that support their health and well-being. After all, what kind of choice is it if only one option is possible? As Gandalf would say: “YOU HAVE ONLY ONE CHOICE!” That is just improper diction…
(Also, FYI: research is being done on this, it’s just not getting published in the New York Times… exactly to my point. They are too busy with articles that radicalize breastfeeding advocates and dispute the value of breastfeeding.)
Casey Rosen-Carole, MD, MPH is an Academic General Pediatrics Fellow and Breastfeeding Medicine Fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center
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