Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Breastfeeding and Feminism

The 7th Annual Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium in North Carolina was AWESOME!

I thoroughly enjoyed the conference last year, and this year was also incredible. It is such a great forum for dialogue with like-minded people on an engaging topic. It is also wonderfully transdisciplinary!

I'm sharing here some of the things I wrote down in my notes throughout the 2-day symposium.But before I do that, I want to introduce why breastfeeding is a feminist issue.

Is Breastfeeding a Feminist issue?

Read these great posts for more information on why breastfeeding is a feminist issue. I've included some quotes below, but I encourage you to click over!

Breastfeeding Medicine blog:
"Breastfeeding is not a “choice.”  Breastfeeding is a reproductive right. This is a simple, but remarkably radical, concept. Here’s why: When we frame infant feeding as a choice made by an individual women, we place the entire responsibility for carrying out that choice on the individual woman. "
"Feminists abhor cultural norms use guilt and coercion to label a woman’s behavior as “good” or “bad.” And breastfeeding advocates who focus on individual mothers, rather than systemic barriers, leave many women “booby trapped” between what they are told they should do and what is possible in the context of their lives. A choice that is not also a right is not really a choice — it’s a privilege." - Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc

From an editorial in International Breastfeeding Journal:

"Although research on breastfeeding has established that it is a maternal and child health imperative, yielding optimal short and long term health outcomes for both mother and child, breastfeeding is not fully recognized as a feminist, women's rights or women's reproductive health concern. Most second wave feminist scholarship and activism has presented breastfeeding as an "option" or a "choice" that is generally presented as not very different from formula feeding. A limited number within the feminist community has recognized breastfeeding as a women's health issue or a reproductive right. In fact, global support for women's rights generally ignores the rights and importance associated with all of women's roles as mothers, opting instead to concentrate primarily on other important issues such as employment and reproductive freedom." - Miriam H Labbok, Paige Hall Smith, Emily C Taylor
• Breastfeeding is a social and biological process wherein women must have the right of self-determination;
• Breastfeeding is a maternal and child health imperative and reproductive right;
• It is important to re-orient the paradigm from the current view that breastfeeding is a "lifestyle choice," to a paradigm that views breastfeeding as a reproductive health, rights and social justice issue so as to ensure the social, economic and political conditions necessary to promote success;
• Women's decisions to breastfeed should not result in the loss of their economic security or any rights or privileges to which they are otherwise entitled. 

From a World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action sheet:
"Breastfeeding is an important women's issue, human rights issue, and feminist issue, since breastfeeding empowers women and contributes to gender equality. Women who wish to breasted their babies but cannot - because of inadequate support from family or health workers, constraints in the workplace, or misinformation from the infant food industry - are oppressed and exploited. Groups and individuals interested in fighting for women's rights and human rights should take action to change this situation, and recognise breastfeeding as a woman's right" - Penny van Esterik

From Motherwear Breastfeeding blog:
"There are, however, several different feminist views on breastfeeding.  I'll summarize them here:
Liberal feminism:  In this view, breastfeeding is a social arrangement.  Lactation - making milk - is a distinctly female biological function which only women can perform, but feeding the baby is a form of social labor which can be negotiated.  Proponents of this view question claims of superiority of breastmilk over formula.  McCarter -Spaulding says that in this view, "Breastfeeding is seen as a gender difference that stands in the way of liberating women.  Bottle-feeding in this perspective would be seen as liberating."
Cultural feminism:  In this view, breastfeeding is seen as a special female role which should be protected.  In this view, complete gender equality may threaten those things that are uniquely female and male.  McCarter-Spaulding states, "Cultural feminism strives to reconfigure social and economic structures to accommodate this gender difference without resorting to biological determinism."
Feminist health activism:  In this view, breastfeeding is part of a political agenda which is aimed at helping women take control back over their bodies with information and support (think Our Bodies, Ourselves, but also La Leche League).  Viewed as a unifying perspective, this approach focuses on removing barriers which constrain women's choices, such as lack of paid maternity leave, the absence of break time or facilities to pump at work, and the particular challenges faced by disadvantaged women." - Tanya

Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium - My notes:
They are going to be a little disjointed, but they are things I want to remember.
  • Paid maternity leave is a feminist issue
  • "Doctors are fountains of misinformation when it comes to breastfeeding" - train doctors and residents!
  • Why are practical solutions re: bedsharing not being taken up, as in other countries where they provide safety guidelines for c-sleeping?
  • The Ad Council "Babies were born to breastfeed" ad was so controversial it only ran for 2 years (most Ad Council ads run for at least 2 decades - Smokey the Bear, Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk, etc)
  • I loved an anti-cows milk for infant feeding campaign from the early 1900's that shows why babies die. There is a tube coming from a cow's udder to the bottling location to the train station to the train to the town to the milk truck to sitting on your front porch to being fed to baby, all with no closed containers or refrigeration. There was also an ad showing home pasteurization method (this is historian Jacqueline Wolf's presentation, by the way). 
  • "y'all breastfeed, ya hear?" - country music radio station ad for breastfeeding - hilarious 
  • Industrialization - people began to look at clocks and schedule feedings instead if relying on the rhythms of life
  • Carbon footprint of breastfeeding
  • The words we use to describe breastfeeding (this is Miriam Labbok's presentation) - used to be "nursing" or "mothers feeding" and now its breast feeding. why "breast" milk? We say "cows milk" not "udder milk." 
  • Only in 1 in 5 breastfeeding papers published in peer review include any definition of breastfeeding. Focus is generally on the milk, not the feeding process. very different physiologically. women as breasts, not as whole humans. Women should be recognized as opposed to just a piece of the body or organ system.
  • Do women envision their feeding their child as an action by their breast, or by themselves? How do the words we use inform women and what do they mean to them? "pumping oneself" as opposed to "expressing milk"
  • Feminist emphasis on "choice" - breastfeeding, c-sections, but NOT car seats and other things that benefit moms and babies health! Choice - informed and based on un-biased info. It's a choice to exercise, but recommendation exists to do so, because its what's optimal. 
  • Rights framework - baby has the right to feed, mom has the responsibility to feed. BUT she doesn't have the responsibility if her rights are not supported!
  • Prevalence of maternally reported breastfeeding problems and/or concerns were reported most at day 3. Mom's reporting support are less likely to report concern prenatally and postpartum with bfing. If we could eliminate anyone reporting difficulties at day 3 we could get rid of 25% of stopping by day 60 (statistically significant relationship)
  • Moms can overcome lack of support, but they shouldn't have to
  • If Step 6 of the Breastfeeding Friendly Hospital Initiative is not followed (formula supplementation and formula samples) there is a 10.5 week reduction in breastfeeding duration. If mom got formula she breastfeed for about 10.5 weeks less than if she hadn't (hospital followed step 6). Combinations for 2 steps - If not provided Steps 4 & 9 together (not able to BF in first hour and provided a pacifier) 11.8 decrease in BF duration. If not provided 8 & 9 together (not fed according to hunger cues and provided pacifier) 6.3 week decrease in BF duration. If not provided 7 & 8 (did not room-in and not fed according to hunger cues) 5.7 week decrease in BF duration. Step 6 is the most challenging for hospitals - $$$. Maybe other step combos could serve as attainable step if formula stop is not. 
  • First few days are KEY! 
  • Kenya - mother's that exclusively breastfeed must be HIV positive - stigma
  • Mothers who breastfed and who formula fed and who were pregnant all viewed formula ads. Quotes - "is my breast milk doing all that formula does?" formula is a panacea, solves all problems like fussiness. "can't change my milk but I can change my formula" best science, technology. Message is you can't manage on your own. High failure rate assumed "we're gonna try" - disempowering. "Doc wouldn't give it to me if it was wrong" Docs say breastfeed but give formula - contradictory. Women from exclusive BF group more likely to question the validity of studies cited to support claims made in advertisements - what is it about these women? high self efficacy? where does this come from?
  • Men in the work force is decreasing, moms in the the workforce is increasing
  • Breastfeeding at the breast and pumping are not the same - baby is not necessarily present at pumping, breastfeeding is a public or private activity while pumping is a private activity - can be easily hidden. Research doesn't distinguish between. (Paige Hall Smith's presentation - Does feeding method matter at work?) Really interesting emergent ethical analysis - unfair or discriminatory comparison, comparison with other biological needs, employment status, etc related to breaks to pump or feed. Body as functional (peeing, smokers, diabetics) - fewer restrictions. Body as sexual - more restrictions. Feminism: biology-based discrimination. woman's body is a greater issue than having baby on-site. Avoid policies that regulate women's bodies!
  • A spanish "unnecessarean" site! 
  • Gendered profession of lactation consulting - depersonalization of biomedical male (male OB is ok but not IBCLC). 
  • Sympathy for the baby initiated change in OB practices, not the mother.
  • NICU peer breastfeeding counselor program - shared experience was more important than shared demographics
  • Haiti - belief that colostrum is poisonous, BF can cause intestinal parasites and diarrhea and is stopped if this occurs. Changing view of colostrum as a natural "lok" - something to help pass the meconium
  • Realize that it is a slow and steady process to change cultural norms
  • Women want to stay productive while pumping at work. Support from colleagues vary from very supportive to actively malicious "I don't want to even see your black pump bag because I know what you're doing" Staff made moo-ing noises in front of pumping employee


  1. this is an amazing post. i am going to have to do some reading of your blog. i happen to stumble on it looking for a picture on-line.


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