Lactivist or Feminist: Pick One

We need to stop telling women what to do with their bodies. Period. This includes how they choose to feed their babies. They are experts in their own lives. We do not know more about what’s best for them and their babies than they do. We simply don’t. And it’s not feminist to assume we do.

Lactivists do this all of the time. They are the health care providers, relatives, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers who ask you how you plan to feed your baby from the moment they find out you are pregnant, provide extensive information about the benefits of breastfeeding, and then shame the hell out of you if they find out you plan to formula feed without at least trying to breastfeed first (unless you have a “legitimate” reason and even then, they question whether or not it’s real or you are just making it up or uninformed). Even if you have breastfed in the past and it was a horrible, traumatic experience, didn’t work out, or the last thing you ever want to do again. They are also the people who “support” new moms who are experiencing breastfeeding problems and want to stop, by saying:

Stay the course. 

Don’t give up. 

I’ve been there and know how horrible it is. 

Above all else – don’t quit. 

Think of your baby. 

Don’t you want what’s best for your baby?  

Breast is best.

First, can you please stop saying that? I can think of at least 100 scenarios where breast is definitely not best for either the person being shamed about not breastfeeding or their babies. Like if mom can’t produce enough breast milk, baby can’t latch, mom is a sexual violence survivor, baby has jaundice, mom has a medical condition, baby has an intolerance to breast milk or something mom eats, mom is on a medication that is not compatible with breastfeeding, baby is adopted, mom had breast surgery, baby is in the NICU and needs special food, mom has to go back to work, baby has lost weight, mom has postpartum depression, baby is not thriving on breast milk, or mom does not fucking want to breastfeed. Which, is not last on my list to imply that it is least important.

1936486_121133048357_2744332_nSecond, when we say the phrase, “breast is best,” we imply a hierarchy where breast milk from the tap is on top, followed by pumped/expressed breast milk, followed by donor breastmilk, and in last place – commercial formula, which lactivists like to call “artificial milk,” to make it seem as foreign and unsavory as possible. I like to call it “amazing science milk,” but I digress. On natural parenting sites, this hierarchy is often attributed to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, no one can seem to find the citation (imagine that), and as I have said before, WHO recommendations don’t really apply in the developed world. It’s simply not accurate for all people and all families. But, it is so ingrained in our culture that we see and hear it everywhere – from doctors’ offices to bus stop advertisements, from well-meaning friends to even the most progressive, science-based groups on social media sites. Many times, formula is included in the statement: breast milk is best, but if it’s not available, formula is okay, too. But, breast is not best. Formula is not sub par. Please stop implying that it is.

Last week the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a “controversial” committee opinion about infant feeding, where they recommend supporting “each woman’s informed decision about whether to initiate or continue breastfeeding, recognizing that she is uniquely qualified to decide whether exclusive breastfeeding, mixed feeding, or formula feeding is optimal for her and her infant.” Why is this controversial? Supporting a woman’s choice to make decisions about her family? Especially when those decisions involve what she chooses to do with her body?

I don’t think it is controversial at all. I think it is great. And inclusive. And that it values women, which is exactly what I want my OB/GYN to do. Value me as a person, trust my judgement, provide me with information, and allow me to make my own informed decisions without shame. Fuck yeah.

We also need to acknowledge that breastfeeding challenges are linked with postpartum depression. We have created a culture where women are literally dying because they can’t breastfeed. And babies are starving because moms are afraid that one bottle of formula will hurt their babies’ or their ability to breastfeed. Which is terrible because research shows that early supplementation with formula may actually help breastfeeding. Our support for women cannot be limited to one narrowly defined version of ideal infant feeding. And if it is, we need to stop. Again, if breast is not best for all families, promoting breastfeeding at all costs is not the right thing to do.

The Skeptical OB recently wrote a great piece about judging women who choose to feed their babies formula. A quote resonated with me:

Women’s right to bodily autonomy does not get expelled with the placenta.

She’s right. Just as I am pro-choice as it pertains to a person’s right to choose to become pregnant, terminate, or carry a pregnancy to term, I support people who choose not to breastfeed. Even if they choose not to even try. That’s right. Because those sorts of conditions (e.g. “as long as she tries first,” “only if she has a legitimate medical reason,” etc.) start to sound like the conditions people put on women choosing whether or not to continue a pregnancy (“only during the first trimester,” “only if there’s a legitimate medical reason”…). Where is her right to bodily autonomy considered when you add those conditions?

In the developed world, the differences between breast and formula fed children are negligible. It really does not matter in the long run. I don’t give a fuck if women breastfeed. It’s not my body or my baby. It’s not my choice. And this is coming from a person who spent thousands of dollars and countless hours to breastfeed her babies part-time. When it comes to what other people do with their bodies. It’s not about me.

Why do I think lactivists hang on to the idea that breast is best and formula is sub par? Honestly? Narcissism and/or low self-esteem. If one of the only things you are able to do well is produce and dispense breast milk, you might feel defensive, too, when it turns out that breast milk isn’t magical and that breastfed babies don’t have a real advantage. You sacrificed a lot and worked hard, because you believed it was the right thing for you and your babies. You are proud of yourself. And that’s okay. Because that is what you chose to do. But, when it comes to other women, can you please stop your breast milk evangelism?

Ultimately, we need to get over ourselves. Our own choices don’t matter. They may be right for us, but not for others. If you choose to breastfeed, I support you. If you choose to formula feed, I support you. If you choose to exclusively pump, I support you. If you choose to combo feed or supplement with formula, I support you. If you feed your babies, I support you. Why? It’s the feminist thing to do.

Featured image credit: dailycloudt

Image credit: Steph, all rights reserved.


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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  1. I created an account just so I could say: thank you. A huge reason behind my PPD was my inability to be a magical milk-producing perfect-latch full-time breastfeeding mother. I felt like such a failure. I surrounded myself with lactivists, thinking that if I just followed their advice, if I just did what they said, somehow they would magically transmit their breastfeeding powers to me. It obviously didn’t work. It obviously made things worse.

    It wasn’t until years later that I saw something on Offbeat Mama (RIP) that stuck with me. I’ve repeated it as a mantra every time I start to hear the dark voice in my head saying ‘if only I could have…’ (never mind that my children are no longer babies and I don’t plan on having more):

    Nobody puts ‘breastfed’ on their resumé.

  2. So much this.

    The optimal way to feed a baby is the way that keeps mother and baby healthy and well nourished.

    I remember how I felt when breastfeeding first failed with my baby. Worst person in the world! Thankfully I had supportive midwives (real, not self-declared) who handed me formula. With my second I also had problems but by then I no longer expected perfect bliss, so the problems were simply things with a newborn you need to get under control and not a personal failure

  3. Thank you so much for this. Part of my job is maintaining accurate product information on a retail website, and one of the product categories I’m in charge of is baby items. Just last week, I was hunting down product info for certain infant formulas we sell, and I was appalled to see that EVEN ON THE WEBSITE FOR THIS FORMULA, one of the first statements was that “breast milk is always best for your baby”. On the website that sells formula. I just can’t even.

    My partner and I want to have a baby at some point, but Vancouver is such a granola town, and I’m terrified of all the social pressure from Basically Literally Everyone that will come along with having an infant especially if we don’t go an all-organic, cloth-diapering, baby-wearing route. And frankly, the idea of breast feeding just… kind of freaks me out. I have no desire for that. And I know that a lot of people will be super-judgemental if (when) I choose not to breastfeed. The social pressures surrounding motherhood are honestly so frightening to me that sometimes I wonder if it would just be better not to reproduce.

  4. Amen to this post and the other comments! I always thought breastfeeding would be one of those “no-brainer” things. But then my daughter was born full-term with severe meconium aspiration syndrome, and spent the first 10 days of her life on a ventilator, and the next 3 weeks in the NICU learning to breathe and eat like a normal baby. And when she was 2 weeks old I was re-hospitalized with a serious infection from my emergency C-section.

    Needless to say, my milk never came in. And I was jacked up on so many meds that I didn’t even WANT to try breastfeeding.  A C-section and formula? I had certainly failed as a new feminist mom. It took a long time for me to acknowledge that formula was a godsend, and that it also allowed my wife to more fully participate in feeding our girl. Fast-forward 12 years and that girl is totally thriving.

  5. Like others, I just created an account so I could say that I f**king love this. I felt so many kinds of bad when my baby girl refused to breastfeed at 4 weeks old, having always needed to supplement her with formula. To this day, I still say that was a “bad cow” and that’s why we formula feed her.

    F**k that shit. No more. I feed her. She’s growing, she alert, beautiful and funny. She sleeps. Why do I need to justify the reason why she’s on formula? Aha, the lactivists.

    Being a proud feminist myself, I’m going to today change the way talk about formula feeding and breastfeeding and swear to never again pander to the assumption that I had to have a reason for formula feeding my baby girl. Thank you for helping me realise that and for the empowerment to go out there and do it too!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. As other commenter did, I suffered from severe PPD (and now struggle with Major Depression) because of the lactivism that was constantly shoved at me during my pregnancy and after the birth of my son. I didn’t produce a single drop of milk. None. Plus we discovered that he has a milk protein allergy so he needed Elecare formula. Every sentence you wrote I agree with. If we are supporting all women, then we must support their bodily autonomy and defend our rights to our own bodies!

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