“Lactivism” and breastfeeding backlash: A second look
It’s become routine: a big anti-breastfeeding piece comes out in a major publication like the New York Times, or The Atlantic or Time. A mom complains how the benefits of breastfeeding are overrated, how breastfeeding is being forced on people, how moms are feeling shamed into breastfeeding or risk being bad mothers.
Let’s listen to these moms for a minute. Regardless of what we breastfeeding people are actually saying, this is what moms are hearing. We need to ask ourselves, why do they hear this message?
Here’s why: Moms experience the “lactivist.” To the uninitiated, the term “lactivist” equals zealot. Someone who believes that breastfeeding is the answer for every mom in every situation, someone who is inflexible, incapable of listening to a mom’s individual needs and desires.
Any woman who’s just had a baby would probably see a “lactivist” as The Enemy. Imaging yourself as that new mom. You are not thinking the “lactivist” is a savior in a white cape who’s going to defend you from evil hospitals who want to give your baby formula. She’s someone who’s going to push everyone out of the way and make you breastfeed, regardless of your own trials and tribulations, your pain, your exhaustion. She’d not there to help you. She’s there to advance her own agenda of world breastfeeding hegemony.
And, if a mom doesn’t actually encounter a self-described lactivist, she might see the effects. All it takes is a journalist-mom who hears one resentful nurse say “we’re not allowed to teach formula feeding,” and you’ve generated enough anger for a full page New York Times op-ed. This journalist then misrepresents the scientific evidence for the entire world to prove her point that the so-called “Breastfeeding Nazis” are out to get you, and it’s just not worth it, because breastfeeding’s not even all that good for your baby anyway.
We must be careful with our rhetoric, and treat every single mom with compassion and understanding. We must take care in how we train our staff and how that staff communicates to patients. Breastfeeding people all know that it’s required to teach moms how to formula feed, and staff must feel inside that this is valuable information for many moms.
It only takes one “lactivist” to piss off a journalist. You never know who might turn around and write that next full page op-ed for the New York Times.
So please, let’s stop using the word “lactivist.” Better yet, let’s replace zealotry with compassion and understanding, and meet every mom where she is. And if we see zealotry in our colleagues, let’s gently remind them that this may be how we got to that Time magazine cover and New York Times op-ed. That is the only way we will stop this negative press.
Melissa Bartick, MD, MSc is an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
Posts on this blog reflect the opinions of individual ABM members, not the organization as a whole.