Quick Hit: The Case Against Breast-Feeding

Hanna Rosin takes on breast-feeding in this this month’s Atlantic:

In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework, the endless dusting and shopping and pushing the Hoover around–a vacuum cleaner being the obligatory prop for the “happy housewife heroine,” as Friedan sardonically called her. When I looked at the picture on the cover of Sears’s Breastfeeding Book–a lady lying down, gently smiling at her baby and still in her robe, although the sun is well up–the scales fell from my eyes: it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound


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  • bifemmefatale

    The “weird and uncomfortable” your mom felt I’m willing to bet was largely due to the fact that we are socialized to think of breasts as sex organs when they’re not. It’s a damn shame.

  • bifemmefatale

    Formula is not as good as breastmilk because breastmilk contains antibodies and live white blood cells that strengthen the baby’s immune system. And there are multiple ways fathers and other family members can care for baby, including bathing, changing, playing and feeding pumped milk as many have noted here.

  • MikeT

    Parenting is full of tough, heartbreaking decisions. I think it’s natural when you’ve struggled that much with a decision to give extraordinary weight to the answer you came up with, but the fact is that the people who came to the opposite conclusion probably struggled just as much as you did.
    Which is why nothing gets my dander up quite like a parenting book, article, or blog post that says, in essence, “All right thinking people do X when it comes to this issue, and anyone else is a horrible parent!” Unless, of course, X coincides with what my wife and I decided. Then I’m glad to have the backup.
    Seriously, though, you would think that people who’ve been through it would hesitate before saying/writing things like that, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve read saying that, say, Attachment Parenting is child abuse, or that anything other than Attachment Parenting is child abuse. It’s frustrating.

  • bifemmefatale

    YES, This!!! Breastfeeding is *less* work than formula feeding–nothing to mix or microwave, no bottles to sterilize, less to cart around, less time up with a crying baby while you fix that 2 am bottle, no worries about tainted formula.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    That’s like the woman who was kicked out of a Victoria’s Secret for breastfeeding. What’s really ironic is that, if the baby is latched on properly, you’ll see less of the scary breast-flesh than on a Hooter’s waitress or a Victoria’s Secret model. It’s just not being used for the right thing.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    OK, but even if all of that were true, the fact is that the ingredients in formula are not as well-adapted for a child’s digestive system (thus causing the irritation that leads to digestive conditions and allergies later in life), and formula cannot adapt to the child’s needs and offer the immunity benefits that breastmilk does. It just can’t. Look at the breastmilk that a mother with a newborn or preemie produces compared to that of the mother of a 10-month-old. They’re significantly different. And the antibodies passed from mother to child adjust to the things that both mother and baby have been exposed to in their environment. Formula does not. And do people seriously believe that humans can manufacture something that’s better for babies than the bodies of the babies’ mothers? Really? That claim is so deeply patriarchal and capitalist that it’s amazing to me that anyone would think it remotely plausible.
    I would bet that much of the research and studies that show that there’s no benefit to breastfeeding is funded by Nestle and Johnson & Johnson. Just like studies that are funded by Philip Morris always “debunk” research that shows that smoking is bad for you.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    And the fact that for many women it takes an “extraordinary effort” to breastfeed reveals a huge problem with our culture. Huge.

  • Alex51324

    The dominant culture both pushes *and* punishes breastfeeding. If you feed the baby a bottle in public, people think you’re a bad mother. If you feed the baby from your breast in public, you’re making people uncomfortable with an “obscene” display. The only solution is to never leave the house–in which case, you’re depriving the baby of the opportunity to develop social skills. (You’re also depriving yourself of the opportunity to interact with other adult humans, but that doesn’t matter.) In other words, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and especially damned if you try to have it both ways–just like if you choose to have sex (or not to), to work outside the home (or not to), or anything else. Your crucial mistake was having chosen to be born female, you see. IBTP.

  • Zardoz

    You are not really making an argument against formula v breastfeeding, this is about corn syrup. There are many formulas available without corn syrup.

  • sarah


  • Rachel_in_WY

    Sure there are some, but they’re not available everywhere, and they’re certainly not provided to low-income families. For instance, I supplemented with formula for 2 months when my milk was low due to a thyroid fluctuation. I searched through the formulas and found one that didn’t list corn syrup among the first three ingredients. It was an organic brand that costs $30 a can. How many families are going to cough up that kind of money every week? And the fact remains that the primary source of sugars in formula are refined forms of fructose as opposed to the lactose and glucose in breastmilk. The formula I found had evaporated cane juice in it, which is a little better, but not much.
    Beyond that, I was using corn syrup as one example of how formula is not as good as breastmilk. I mentioned many other benefits of breastfeeding in other comments on this thread.

  • fingercrust

    Breasts are sex organs as well as reproductive organs.

  • Furiousfemale

    I”m only 10 weeks into my first pregnancy, but my husband and I feel strongly about breastfeeding the baby. I know it’s not easy and many women choose to do it or not for a variety of reasons. But I feel the benefits are worth it and I can also pump so my husand can take part in feedings also. Plus I like the idea of not having schlep into the kitchen to make a bottle at 3am. :)

  • Boodle

    Perhaps-but how about child care? The dominant culture believes that women should stay home to raise children, but yet also criticizes women who stay home as “not working.” The DC also criticizes women who work outside the home as neglecting children. I think the DC does enforce breast-feeding as the “right” thing to do–it just doesn’t want it done in public, probably due to the fact that it gets so many “boys” excited to see breasts in action for something other than titillation.

  • Vio

    I think our society needs to stop making moms feel guilt for everything. Yes, breast feeding has benefits, but so does bottle feeding. I was breastfed until I was well past my second birthday, and remember it as being an incrediably soothing experiance in my admitedly very fuzzy memories of it. I also have a friend who had really serious nipple problems, and got very stressed out from the restraints breast feeding forced on her. I have no doubt that stopping breast feeding was better for her. Moms, dads, and doctors need to look at what’s best for a particular baby and family. You can’t control everything, and no one should make women feel guilty for doing the best she can in whatever situation she finds herself in.

  • Jewel

    Of course breastfeeding is a feminist issue. That doesn’t make formula-feeding particularly unfeminist, just as recognizing menstruation as a feminist issue doesn’t make non-menstruating women bad feminists. Likewise, sex is a feminist issue but that doesn’t make celibate women bad feminists.
    Breastfeeding is a lot of work. Formula-feeding is, too. Many of the problems women encounter when they want to breastfeed are cultural in nature — Where to breastfeed, the politics of breastfeeding, the ick factor, the sexual connotations, etc.
    Sure there are women who cannot breastfeed. I, for one, could not formula feed. I’d have been terrible at it, b/c I’m not methodical or precise, not particularly clean, I’m lazy and besides that I really couldn’t afford it.
    Other women cannot afford to breastfeed. It is not “free;” more like priceless. While educated women with high-paying jobs can retreat to a lacation room or close the door to their private office or even telecommute, waitresses and Wal-Mart clerks cannot exactly pump in situ.
    That’s why this is a feminist issue. Think of menstruation…What if the only 2 choices women had were to quit their jobs or get a hysterectomy? Women deserve and demand the right to continue working while menstruating — and while pregnant and while breastfeeding.
    One false dichotomy thrown at women in the breast/formula debate is the question “Who do breasts belong to — men or babies?” Neither, of course. Breasts belong to women. That’s why breastfeeding is a feminist issue.

  • loosepajamas

    Breastfeeding is so beneficial for healthy growth and immunization in infants! The issue is not with breastfeeding itself, which is a very rewarding and intimate experience for many mothers, but with the hyper-sexualization of women’s breasts.
    I remember being told (second-hand) that H&M Clothing was facing a lawsuit after telling a female customer she could not breastfeed her hungry child in the store because she was causing a “disturbance.” This is what we should be getting upset about – a women being prevented from breastfeeding her child is child abuse, and patriarchy in action!
    Men and others need to be able to avert their eyes and shows breastfeeding mothers the respect they deserve!

  • ellid

    Um, there was a recently study that seemed to indicate that there’s been a statistically significant increase in the number of child smothering deaths due to co-sleeping. I’m sure that some of this is parents not doing it correctly, but the link between child death and co-sleeping is hardly “debunked.”

  • ellid

    I don’t see anything to indicate that the bottlefed baby was fat in the OP, only that she was larger and in better general health than the breastfed baby. There may well have been something going on with the mother’s milk, like the mother eating something the baby was allergic to or taking a medication that adversely affected the child.

  • pan

    actually, don’t you think it is disempowering to tell women that their feelings are not valid?
    perhaps it feels strange to have a living being sucking on your breasts for extended periods of time? I haven’t done it, but I am sure it is something one is not necessarily excited about. What if she has sensitive skin or does not like to be touched. I hardly like breast stimulation, so I think that might mean that I would have issues with the feeling that you get from being sucked on.
    Please do not minimize how women might physically feel about breastfeeding by telling them it is not real, but some sort of issue that society gives them. Stimulation is not societal.
    In fact, when many breastfeeding women either get their cycle back, or are pregnant again, they CANNOT STAND THE SENSATION of breastfeeding. This is real and not about the stigma associated with breastfeeding.
    *****if we just listened to how women felt, and stopped interpreting their feeling through whichever lens we personally deem appropriate, I am sure we would not have this problem!!!*****

  • socbaker

    No one is saying that ALL breastfed babies are healthier than ALL formula fed babies, just that ON AVERAGE breastfed babies have fewer health problems (and their moms have less cancer). This is the same problem with saying men are taller than women. Well, you know, I know a woman who is taller than a man, so…
    Also, what’s “bigger and better” than working in a daycare?

  • Rachel_in_WY

    I’m not sure you have to interpret this comment as telling a woman that she doesn’t know how she feels. Pointing out the social source of a feeling you might have doesn’t mean you’re saying the feeling is not real – just that if we changed the cultural attitudes you’re immersed in, you probably wouldn’t have learned to feel that way. I mean, isn’t one of the issues with breastfeeding that mothers who can’t do it are made to feel guilty, and we’re trying to change the environment to remove the guilt? That hardly amounts to telling them that they don’t really feel guilty.

  • socbaker

    Are you honestly comparing breastfeeding to SHAVING? They are not choices on equal footing. Shaving does not have any health benefits for anyone–it only produces corporate profits. Not shaving also has no significant health benefits. So while bottlefeeding could be compared to shaving (no health benefits, corporate profiteering), it’s actually ridiculous because no one NEEDS to shave, while some parents do need to use formula. On the other side, breastfeeding has no relation to not shaving–not shaving is merely a personal choice, while breastfeeding has potential lifetime effects for the baby AND the mother.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    Tell that to the American Academy of Pediatricians, it’s their book that says it. I’m not making this up, but would be interested in the study, if you could link to it. In all the baby books that recommend co-sleeping for nighttime nursing they do say that you have to be careful to clear any loose blankets away from the area where the baby is sleeping and make sure there are no pillows near them. They can smother from blankets and pillows, which is why you don’t put blankets and pillows in the crib or bassinet when they’re really little. But the possibility of an adult rolling over onto the child is thought to be very very slim unless s/he’s heavily medicated or drunk.
    I always slept lighter when my daughter was in the bed nursing, so I usually woke up and moved her back to the bassinet when she was done.

  • baddesignhurts

    i found it limiting as well. i have a back injury, so i couldn’t wear one of those baby sling things that let you walk around and do other tasks, so for every feeding, i was laying down on the couch. (i watched SO MUCH “law & order”, it was incredible). once i went back to work, i pumped so my daughter could drink breastmilk in a bottle when her dad was on feeding duty or when she was at her babysitter’s house.
    i guess the issue that i see is that everyone seems OK with women not breastfeeding if they *can’t* for some reason, but are less OK with a woman who can, but doesn’t want to.
    honestly, after a while, i started to feel like i had no more bodily autonomy; my body was always in service of my daughter. my boobs felt like they were always hanging out. my sex life suffered, because when she wasn’t feeding, i wanted to be left the fuck alone. everything i wore was selected for “easy access”. my boobs leaked and were so big i got leered at, and they no longer fit in my clothes. my nipples felt like i put them in a pencil sharpener.
    it compounded the frustration i was having with early motherhood in general: all of a sudden, i felt like only someone’s mother, and it felt as if, overnight, i no longer had *anything else to talk about*. no one wanted to know what books i was reading, what i thought of the new movie that just came out, nothing.
    at four months, i gave the hell up….switched to formula and never went back. didn’t even need weaning, we both switched cold turkey and didn’t have a single problem with it. that was when i finally felt like a capable, loving mother. i cuddled my daughter without feeling pain. i felt like my body was mine again. i didn’t get pawed at 24/7. i got laid more. i felt sexier. i got more stuff done. she and i both slept through the night. her dad felt more involved. housework evened out in our house. (though i do miss all the “law & order”.) i began to ENJOY parenting.
    to me, these reasons are equally valid for formula feeding. i’m glad the munchkin had the breastmilk for four months, and i’m glad i had the experience. but the amount of shame i’ve gotten for using formula when there was no specific need other than my own happiness is significant.
    if i hear, “well, it’s OK to use formula if you *can’t* breastfeed,” or “why have kids if you aren’t going to feed them the right way? kids aren’t convenient!”, i might punch someone in the face.

  • FLT

    Breastfeeding while doing paperwork? Dear god in heaven, if only I could have.
    You don’t know the personality of the baby until you get the baby. While some women can do paperwork or e mail or whatever, mine could stand no distractions and could hit the book out of my hands as soon as her motor skills allowed. There was nothing, NOTHING I could do but sit there and feed.
    Which brings us back to the stressed out mom bit. My very healthy but needy child was not an isolated example. I continued to breastfeed til she was 14 months old but anyone who wants to pump and/or use formula so that she can feel more like a person and less like an IV has my commendations.

  • pan

    hmmm…maybe i don’t know how to explain myself well, but it irritates me that someone says, I don’t like the way breastfeeding feels, and someone replies, well, that’s just because breasts are sexualized in our culture.
    yes, breasts are seen as sexual objects, but I see these things are two different ideas.
    The answer to the problem is not always to remove the idea that breasts are sexual objects (oh, and they are also sexual objects, not just instruments for feeding babies).
    So, what I am saying is that I wish people would listen to what a woman is saying before they automatically reply with that response, which, in my view, does not match up to the problem she articulates.
    Does that make sense? (you can obviously still disagree with what I am saying, but I just wanted to make my point more clear)

  • Rainey

    I don’t see how you are shackled by breastfeeding anymore than by bottle feeding. A kid has to be fed regardless– if it has to be fed in the middle of the night, it still has to be fed. What you gain in terms of freedoms from breast feeding (partner assisting with feeding, etc.) you lose to increased costs and paying into Gerber or whoever’s bank roll. Not to mention you control what you put in your body and consequently feed to your baby, but you don’t control the contents and production of formula.
    Ultimately, one solution is not going to work for everyone. There are loads of instances in which breastfeeding just doesn’t work for whatever reason, or when formula is cost preventative (if not here, think third world– marketing of formula has had pretty disastrous results when woman dilute it with unclean water to save costs or can’t sterilize bottles, etc.).
    I’m really tired of hearing about how people are shamed for breastfeeding and shamed for bottle feeding or shamed for choosing pain relief during birth or for choosing a homebirth– whatever. It’s your choice, based on your individual circumstances and the needs of your family. If someone gives you crap, tell them to shove it.

  • pan

    Oh, I should add that some women get quite depressed or down during let-down. It would be quite damaging to tell them that their feelings are due to societal expectations about what breasts should be. Acknowledging these instances as physiological issues might actually help women breastfeed longer, more comfortably.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    Yeah, I wasn’t trying to discourage anyone from pumping or suplementing at all. I went back to work after 3 months but continued breastfeeding until 12 months, so obviously I pumped.
    But I get the sense that breastfeeding oponents think there’s something wrong with pumping, which I don’t get. I did it twice a day at work while doing paperwork or grading papers or whatever, and I didn’t feel like it was tyranizing me or tying me down or ruining my life in any way. I realize that this is just my experience, and it could be the case that every other woman in the world who breastfeeds/pumps experiences it as a horribly limiting experience that ends their adult life as they had known it, but I sort of doubt that. I assume that most women are probably smart enough to come up with solutions and work around inconveniences. Totalizing narratives are usually highly suspect.
    And I do realize that some babies are more high-maintenance than others. My daughter is pretty high maintenance in a number of ways, which effects the stress level of both me and her dad. But I always thought that was a feature of parenting – that you can’t predict what personality your child will have or what their demands on you will be. But I still disagree with anyone who claims that every nursing mom is forced to sit and stare at her child or the wall for 45 minutes 8 times a day for the duration of the entire nursing period. Many are not.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    Yeah, it does make sense, and ultimately, I don’t think we’re diagreeing. I think this is an area where women get caught in the middle, and I would advocate for changes to social attitudes to prevent this.
    I think the idea that breasts are exclusively sexual and belong to men is a huge problem for many women if they decide to breastfeed, not only because of the “ewwww yucky!” reaction they get from other adults (and believe me, you get this a lot), but also because they end up undergoing this major shift in how they view their own bodies. As if suddenly you’re not a sexual person anymore because you’re temporarily using your breasts which belong to you, for one of their natural functions. My transition into motherhood and experience with breastfeeding was fairly smooth, but I experienced some of this too. In our culture, you’re either a sexual being or a mother. And never the twain shall meet.
    So I would suggest breaking down these cultural attitudes and reminding everyone that whether you’re a mother or not, whether you’re sexual or not, whether you’re gay or straight, your breasts belong to you, and you are the one who determines what their functions are and what they symbolize.
    A friend of mine told me that she wanted to breastfeed for 6-9 months, but quit after 2 because she “just wanted to feel like a woman again.” I’m not sure what that means. If it means she felt she couldn’t be sexually active with her partner, then that’s a sad reflection of this attitude. I was sexually active again almost immediately after we came home, and we didn’t see my breasts as off limits for my partner or exclusively for breastfeeding or anything like that. But I realize that other women may experience this differently. I’m just saying that this attitude that once breasts become functional in breastfeeding they’re no longer sexual, or you no longer “own” you body, or whatever, sets women up to fail at breastfeeding even as they’re pressured to do it, so they get caught in the middle and made to feel badly about themselves. This is what I object to.

  • texasmama

    Wow, hot button issue.
    I think it’s been well-established here that we have no consensus on whether or not bottle vs breast is inherently a feminist choice/a health issue/better for you, etc. But we’ve all got to feed our kids and goodness knows most mamas are doing the best damn job they can. Personally, I chose to breastfeed my daughter for two years. It was free and perfect nutrition, it was ready 24 hours a day and she and I both loved it.
    It seems as though a lot of commenters wanted to frame the choice as a “sacrifice” one way or the other. But I think there’s a greater wisdom here that goes way beyond politics and conventional opinion. Raising kids and forming families is inherently an act of giving and loving. Rosin’s words are divisive and do an incredible disservice to how much most parents love and give for the well-being of their family.
    I see this issue as an extension of reproductive choice…part of a long list of post-reproductive choices parents make and definitely as a decision women make regarding their own bodies and their own sanity. I’d bet you, armed with knowledge and self-sufficiency, can totally be trusted to make the decision about how to feed your kid without anyone bitching about your choice. I know I can.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    And what struck me about being a new mom was that many of the problems you note are basic problems with the way we construct motherhood independently of breastfeeding. I’m not sure why mothers aren’t supposed to be sexual anymore or have any interests other than the child. It seems to me like moms who don’t have any other interests or hobbies are really unhealthy and probably worse parents because they’re so one-faceted. It’s good for a kid to have a mom who has many interests in her life beyond the kid. And I think one-faceted parents produce self-centered kids.
    My partner and daughter and I were sitting in a booth in a restaurant when my daughter was a couple months old. I was nursing her discreetly under a blanket, I had a cup of decaf and a book that was on a topic other than baby care in front of me, and my partner had his arm around me and was nuzzling into my neck and whispering something into my ear, which was making me laugh. Two women who had been sitting at the booth across from us got up to leave and came over to yell at me on the way out. They told me that drinking coffee (which they simply assumed was caffeinated) and reading and engaging in conversation/cuddling with my partner while nursing showed how irresponsible I was as a mother. I laughed and said that I thought that the fact that I was willing to take her everywhere I went and involve her in my everyday activities and risk the disapproval of others by breastfeeding in public showed how committed I was to her. They said they could only hope to God that we didn’t actually have sex in front of her and walked off in a huff. All this while there was a blanket completely covering my daughter who was deep into her only-semi-conscious nursing haze. I got similar but less severe reactions on other occasions if my partner and I had any body contact at all while I was holding her or nursing, or if I was reading the paper or working on my laptop while she nursed. It really drove home to me how a mother is supposed to lose her identity and sexuality and become completely submerged in mothering. So I think this is a larger social issue that exists independently of breastfeeding.

  • bridget h

    Right on. No one is going to die or be seriously hurt if the vacuuming doesn’t get done.
    For those who choose to have children isn’t it a privilege to be able to feed (whichever way you choose) and care for them? Of course its exhausting and changes your life dramatically and isn’t always sunshine and rainbows but how can it be compared to vacuuming? Have we run out of topics to debate and ways to make our fellow women feel guilty?

  • knitgirl

    It’s a personal choice, but I agree with the commenter above who said that breastfeeding is not necessarily more restrictive than bottle feeding. Either way, the kid has to eat – and that’s a lot of work either way you do it. One of my friends is breastfeeding right now, and she says that she finds it convenient because she doesn’t have to buy, store, and mix formula, or wash and sterilize bottles and nipples. She does pump some, and dad handles the feedings of pumped milk. So, for her, she feels that breastfeeding is the more liberating option as it frees her from other tasks that would come with using formula. No matter how you choose to feed an infant, someone is going to spend a significant portion of their lives on-call for the needs of the baby. What is *feminist* is when women are able to make the choice whether or not to become mothers, and how to nurture those children once they are here.
    A random side note: I was talking about this issue with someone the other day, and he said that he only knows one woman who breastfeeds or has done so recently. I said that I only know one woman who hasn’t. We both know a bunch of young professionals and academics, so I have no idea why the disparity.

  • Gopher

    “…..You just need to be creative and realize that men CAN do everything just as well as women, except the actualy milk-production part. ”
    Heres a guy that can breastfeed. Interesting article but I dont know if its a fluke or possible for every man?

  • Ruby

    I think in some ways, a lot of the stigmas associated breast-feeding come from the over-sexualization of women. I remember reading somewhere that the global average for breast-feeding is until age 4 or 5 or something around there. Essentially, people in other parts of the world (and not always the very poor areas) breast-feed their children for way longer than women in America do. Women in Europe typically breast feed their children for longer, and it’s also not uncommon to see a woman breast feeding in public. Women are over-sexualized in America (and other places too, of course), breasts are seen primarily as sexual objects that are there specifically for men to enjoy. Therefore, people find it “creepy” if a woman breast feeds her child past like, 6 months. Women get pressured into not breast-feeding their children or not breast-feeding past a certain point because they’ve been so inundated with that over-sexualization.

  • nestra

    From a recent study about the effects of breastfeeding for the mother:
    “After a year of breastfeeding, the odds of having high blood pressure dropped by 12%; the odds of diabetes decreased by 20%; the rates of abnormal cholesterol levels went down by 19%; and the overall risk of cardiovascular disease fell by 9%, compared to women who never breastfed, according to the study.”
    The hypothesis is that breastfeeding is a way for the body to reset itself to normal hormonal levels after pregnancy.