The Curious Politics of Milk
night, a small American boy slipped into bed with his mother and suckled at her
breast for a few minutes before dropping off to sleep. The next day, he told his
babysitter he wanted to stop doing so, but "Mommy wouldn't let me."
The child was swiftly removed from his mother into foster care for 6 months.
Toni Morrison's character Milkman, who suckled at his mother's breast past
puberty, this small boy was just 5 years old. As one outraged letter writer
noted, "substitute the more prosaic 'blankie' for the sadly misunderstood
breast and you would see a child torn between the safety and comfort of his
babyhood and the risk and adventure of being a big boy."
was nearly universal in the United States until about the 1930s, when
bottle-feeding with substitutes became the norm. Since the 1970s, tireless
campaigns by breastfeeding advocates have reversed this trend, and today about
three-quarters of the U.S. educated elite breastfeed their babies. But suckling
is still considered acceptable only for infants. Babies as small as two- and
three-years-old have been whisked away from their mothers, deemed dangerous for
the agency that initially removed the 5-year-old child claimed he was suffering
"sexual abuse" because of the nursing, the judge in the case claimed
the real problem was one of needs. "His needs were being ignored…[his
mother] continued to put her own parental needs first." "Breastfeeding
an older child can fulfill many needs," author Pat Love was quoted as
saying in another article on the case. "The question is: whose needs are
other words, if a woman's needs are being met by nursing her children, she must
be doing something wrong.
humans are probably the only mammals to turn our signature act into a political
circus. According to anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, lactation is the key to
women's biological destiny, even more than her sex, for it is the only part of
caretaking that is so profoundly sex-related. (Some feminist anthropologists
have claimed that women turn to bottle-feeding so as to even the scales--instead
of women using their bodily resources to feed the young, men use their financial
resources to buy bottles. ) Groups of females with their sisters, grown
daughters and infants are the most common form of mammalian social group--a
grouping necessary for successful lactation--and probably the environment in
which social intelligence itself evolved, Hrdy says.
1970s resurgence of interest in breastfeeding ("breast is best")
spouted a font of research on the healing powers of human milk. As a kind of
fortified sweat, human milk is uniquely adapted to support newborns, especially
in times of local scarcities, for even an undernourished woman can adequately
nourish a newborn with her milk. Breastfeeding is nearly universal in
war-ravaged Rwanda, for instance; breastmilk kept a 6-week-old alive for a full
week buried under the rubble of the Gujurat earthquake.
many advocates speak and write about human milk as if it were an altogether
magical substance. The decision not to breastfeed--taken by about 40 percent of
American mothers today --is deemed "withholding" a "perfect
food" from hungry and helpless babies. In their book on the culture and
politics of breastfeeding, authors Naomi Baumslag and Dia Michels attribute
bottle-feeding to "infatuation with technology and consumerism."
other words, if a woman's needs are being met by NOT nursing her children, she
must be doing something wrong.
UNICEF and WHO, among others, have been charting a decline in worldwide
breastfeeding rates, the truth is that, like sexual practices, scholars and
advocates really don't know much about why or how women choose to feed their
to the American Academy of Pediatrics (which recommends breastfeeding for 12
months), "the examples used to illustrate the decrease [in the developing
world] are methodologically flawed; they use nonrepresentative or noncomparable
samples, for example, or make implicit assumptions about past breastfeeding
practices." WHO noted a similar concern. "As interest in the subject
increased, so did the number of reports of the decline of breast-feeding in
different parts of the Third World. Unfortunately many of these tended to be
more anecdotal than scientifically based." For example, one influential
study asserting a decline in breastfeeding in developing countries is based on
trends in Japan and among Indian immigrants to Britain.
developing nations don't collect nationally representative data on breastfeeding
practices--and even if they did, anthropologists say, their methods
(questionnaires, surveys of women in clinics, etc.) wouldn't elicit a truthful
picture. The few countries that have been studied by Western scientists are,
according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "in no way representative
of the entire developing world." World Health Organization and World
Fertility Studies carried out in the 1970s found nearly universal (over 90
percent) breastfeeding among all classes in developing countries, except for
urban elites in some countries (and the urban poor in one country.) Still, a
study published in 1984 assessing the available data on breastfeeding trends and
infant health concluded that a "downward trend exists" in the 7
developing countries under consideration. But the study goes on to note that the
decline in breastfeeding per se is among elites; otherwise whatever decline was
discerned was in the duration of breastfeeding.
UNICEF's 2000 State of the World's Children report doesn't provide statistics
segregated by socioeconomic class, it does report that about 2/3 of the infants
in sub-Saharan African and Asian countries, with the world's leading infant
mortality rates, are breastfed. Medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, director of
the Human Lactation Center and author of a one of a handful of in-depth
anthropological studies of breastfeeding in the developing world , calls
UNICEF's statistics "awful." "It is one of the great outrages
that these huge organizations all over the world make these statements,"
she said in an interview. "They have no idea" how women are actually
feeding their infants.
is the author of the classic 1976 book on breastfeeding, The Tender Gift, in
which she popularized the term "doula" to refer to the woman who
"mothers the mother" while she is breastfeeding. These doulas, Raphael
found, were crucial to successful breastfeeding. They take on the mother's
workload in the first few months of the newborn's life, so women have the time
necessary to recover and nurse their infants. In her anthropological studies of
6 traditional and urban-poor cultures, she found that nursing women often hailed
from breastfeeding cultures, where various rituals and traditions give new
mothers extra time, extra food, and extra help during the first months of her
new baby's life.
also found, conversely, that when women moved into situations where those
rituals and traditions were not practiced--in economies that are being
transformed by immigration, urbanization, and industrialization--the duration
and occurrence of breastfeeding drops radically. These non-breastfeeders were
not "infatuated with consumerism and technology" as breastfeeding
advocate Naomi Baumslag and others would have it. On the contrary, they were
poor and struggling. They had to work outside the home in order for their
families to survive. They didn't have family nearby or available to help with
childcare or with their other responsibilities. They lived in places where they
couldn't strap the baby to their backs and take them to their jobs as maids,
waitresses, or in the factory. For these women, the availability of adequate
alternatives to breastmilk--condensed milk, powdered milk, and milk
formula--meant they were able to keep their babies alive. (Raphael and others
also found that women living under scarcity--in poverty or disaster
conditions--universally breastfed their infants, as no other options were
available, and finally and most significantly, that women have been feeding
infants foods and drinks other than breastmilk, even in the first few weeks of
life, for centuries.)
women who don't breastfeed, or who wean their infants early to meet their own
needs--surviving in an industrialized, global economy within dislocated,
changing cultures--face an onslaught of moral opprobrium. They will kill their
babies! development officials say.
my next commentary, I'll look at the campaign against infant formula and how
globalization and industrialization impact the politics of breastfeeding.
Next Time…Part Three…