It’s Time for Feminists to Stop Arguing About Breastfeeding and Fight for Better Formula

As Bloomberg cracks down on infant formula, a nursing naysayer wonders: can’t we just make it better?


My girlfriend of four years, Sabrina, and I have been in an ongoing conversation about babies. Should we recruit a gay friend, adopt, or go the sperm bank route?

Those are the tough ones. The question of breastfeeding, luckily, is a subject on which we both agree: It’s not going to happen.

In part, this is simply a practical matter. Sabrina is a children’s therapist who sees an exhausting number of clients throughout the day; I juggle multiple gigs. Since we won’t be equally linked to our children biologically, we don’t dig the idea that one of us will forge a superior bond—and shoulder a disproportionate burden—by doing all of the feeding.

On a more ideological level, we’re eschewing the nipple because of how breastfeeding stymies the progress of feminism, which is why we’re stewing over Mayor Bloomberg’s new initiative, Latch on NYC, which takes effect on September 3. The new campaign will encourage new moms to breastfeed in the interest of babies’ health: breast milk is proven to lower infants’ risk of gastrointestinal and ear infections, along with other benefits.

Under the new rules, about two dozen hospitals will discourage new moms from formula-feeding by educating them on the benefits of breast milk, and will not provide formula unless medically indicated on the infant’s chart or requested by the mother. The rules will also prohibit formula freebies and ads in hospitals.

“Human breast milk is best for babies and mothers,” NYC Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said when the campaign was announced on May 9. He added that receiving free formula at hospital discharge time “can impede the establishment of an adequate milk supply and undermine women’s confidence in breastfeeding.”

Breastfeeding advocates hail the new policy, which takes Mr. Bloomberg’s nanny-state regime to its logical conclusion, but what has gone mostly unexamined is the antifeminist undercurrents of the lactivists’ cause. The notion that “breast is best” simply because it’s natural sounds ringingly similar to the arguments made by pro-lifers and even contraception opponents, all of which begin with the same basic premise: women should be shackled to their corporeal destinies. Your body is designed this way—to get pregnant, to bring an embryo to term, to nurture life—therefore you must submit to its dictates.

Our bodies age and die, too, but that doesn’t stop people from pumping them full of medicine, slathering on skin-care lotion and doing everything else we can think of to overcome “nature.”

Never mind the difficulties of breastfeeding for women who juggle multiple jobs and kids in single-parent homes. It’s a tricky task to pull off for all working mothers, in even the most progressive workplaces. Not everyone has a private office for pumping; nor does every company have a “lactation lounge.” And despite all the supposed good vibes around breastfeeding, ask any woman who has actually pumped every two to three hours at work for months how that went down with her boss and colleagues. (No prob, maybe, if you run a yoga studio; not so easy when you wait tables or teach or even sit on a trading desk.)

How much of that magical oxytocin, the “love hormone,” does it take to counteract the stress of holding down a high-powered job while expressing milk every couple hours?

Aside from being a potential career-killer, breastfeeding operates against all parents in more insidious ways. A bottle positions men and women equally over the care of infants, while breastfeeding cements the notion that women are central to the process of nurturing children. Wasn’t feminism all about de-emphasizing our corporeality by arguing that our bodies should not define or limit our rights and responsibilities?

Cultural critic Hanna Rosin touches on this point in her myth-shattering 2009 must-read for The Atlantic, “The Case Against Breast-Feeding.” The consequence of reinforcing women’s parental centrality—superiority, really—in matters of child care is that it overwhelms mothers and undervalues fathers.

That unequal relationship is at the very crux of pay inequality between men and women, according to Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She says women start taking a financial hit when parenthood begins, “because moms are still the default parent—the ones most likely to adjust their work hours or change or quit jobs to do childcare.” It’s a lot easier to breastfeed when you’re home with the baby, right?

Plus, pumping milk at your desk isn’t even good enough for our most passionate nursing advocates. They insist on direct feeding from the breast itself, even though its supposed emotional benefits over a bottle haven’t been scientifically validated. Two leading breastfeeding experts I interviewed couldn’t point to a single study concluding that nursing emotionally trumps a cuddly bottle feed.

Instead, curiously, they resorted to sexual metaphors.

Dr. Jack Newman, author of The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers, contends that “no close holding of the bottle-fed baby can duplicate the nursing relationship.” We asked whether there are any studies that support his thesis. “Feeding a baby with a bottle is akin to making love with a condom,” replied Dr. Newman, who founded the Newman Breastfeeding Clinic and Institute in Toronto. “Ask the men. They’ll tell you direct contact is different.”

No thanks, we’ll take your word for it!

Katherine Dettwyler is an anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, who co-edited two crucial books on the topic. In an email, she likened breastfeeding to partnered sex and bottle-feeding to masturbation with a vibrator. “Orgasms are lovely, but they only represent the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Breastfeeding is a complex, physically intimate, loving relationship between two people who love, trust, and respect each other.”

Okaaay …

Still, nobody is arguing for the abolition of the vibrator. Or Mayor Bloomberg isn’t, anyway.

Here’s an idea that might preserve women’s choice to parent according to their own preferences, while also supporting the health of babies: advocate for making formula better. Wouldn’t that solve a lot more problems than pushing every new mother to become a milkmaid?

If the supposed health advocates who insist on breastfeeding held children in such high regard, they’d also be rallying for advances in formula to ensure that all kids, including those sad unfortunates who aren’t breastfed, are well-nourished anyway.

There are different kinds of formula bases—cow’s milk, soy, amino acid—and they contain several vital nutrients. The fundamental problem with them is that they are not a live substance with all the antibacterial and immunological benefits of breast milk. For instance, white blood cells, which are contained in breast milk and defend against infectious disease, can’t be replicated in formula. Moreover, breast milk is made to measure for each baby at the moment he or she drinks it, changing all the time (from the beginning to the end of a feeding, for instance) for optimal effect.

That said, whether or not formula could contain some of the key ingredients of breast milk is a question biochemistry should be asking, said Suzanne Barston, author of the forthcoming Bottled Up, a sharp and measured critique of America’s discourse on breastfeeding. “If my iPhone can talk back to me, if we can view photos of Mars in real time, if we can transplant someone’s heart into another body, I think it is entirely possible for us to come up with a formula that doesn’t fall short,” she noted.

But Ms. Barston, the star of a Pampers-sponsored reality web series, A Parent is Born, and author of the provocative and independent blog, believes that part of the reason formulas still don’t measure up is that there’s no financial incentive for manufacturers to improve them. Even if they did make scientific strides, Ms. Barston believes, the psychological appeal of breastfeeding would be so strong that the activists would find other reasons to favor the natural approach.

It’s a vicious cycle, whereby formulas remain subpar and therefore women who resort to them are seen as subpar moms. “Once we as a society can accept that many women cannot or do not want to breastfeed, we can then deal with what their babies will be missing,” she added.

Not that the breast-is-best crew is likely to be satisfied. “Even if there was a formula that could compete with the benefits of breast milk (which there isn’t now, and never will be),” Ms. Dettwyler insisted, “I would still be a passionate proponent of breastfeeding.”

It’s arguments like these that pretty much convince me that underneath all the pro-lactation rhetoric is a nostalgia and conservative orthodoxy that wants to affix every woman’s destiny to her biology. But as the highest-thinking creatures on Earth, isn’t the goal to move beyond the limits of our bodies?

In that spirit, Sabrina and I, two formula-fed babies who grew into hearty, healthy women, will be nursing our infants from bottles. Some people, we know, will disagree with our choice. They can suckle it.

Stephanie Fairyington is co-editor of The Slant: There’s Always More to the Story.

For more on breastfeeding and related issues, check out our parenting column Mothers Superior. It’s Time for Feminists to Stop Arguing About Breastfeeding and Fight for Better Formula