What If Everything You Knew About Breastfeeding Was Wrong?

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24612267How does one react to seeing a book cover that claims breast feeding is “big business and bad policy”?

If you’re me, you request a review copy of that book, fully intending to expose how wrong it is.

As a medical student, one of the important things I was taught again and again is this: BREAST IS BEST. We were given a nearly 100-page document to study about infant feeding during second year. We were expected to know the constituents of human milk and be able to compare it to cow’s milk and formula. We had to memorise tables of the various formulas on offer and their indications. In fourth year, an entire oral OSCE station was dedicated to breastfeeding.

Breast was best and formula-feeding was undesirable, and it all made perfect sense to me; and of course I never read up the literature because our professors had surely done that FOR us.

So I really expected to expose Lactivism by Courtney Jung as a sham, and I humbly admit that I cannot do that.

To begin with, the subtitle sounded so very defiant and angry, but from the beginning, Jung states that she is “not against breastfeeding” but “against lactivism.” Lactivism she defines as, “compulsory breastfeeding, breastfeeding as a moral crusade, and breastfeeding as a means of distinguishing good from bad parents.”

At this point I said, “YES BUT WE CRUSADE AGAINST PARENTS WHO WON’T VACCINATE BECAUSE IT’S BEST FOR BABY AND SOCIETY, SO WHY SHOULD BREASTFEEDING BE EXEMPT?” – but it was early in the book yet and I had much to learn.

What I love about Lactivism is that it is actually so calm. It is not biased. Every once in a while I asked myself where Jung STOOD, but the only place she STANDS is for freedom of choice.

This expose is not filled with emotion. Oh no: it is filled with painstaking research, and I can only imagine quite how much time that took. It is amazing how many of the facts that we are taught in medical school are either from small and obscure studies, or have been discredited, or were statistically insignificant.

It is also a little embarrassing how much what the medical field believes has been influenced by organisations like the La Leche League and not by evidence-based practice.

Jung does not only research extensively, she also interviews some of the most respected voices in the field of infant nutrition. Step by step she shows how human milk does not have ALL the benefits it is touted to have – and that while it does have some benefits, those are hardly enough to shame mothers who do not breastfeed.

She also gives a very compelling argument about how employment conditions for women affect breastfeeding rates and other aspects of parenting.

Although Lactivism does have an overarching American point of view, it remains fascinating and completely relevant to me as a healthcare worker. I would hope that many more healthcare workers will peruse it with an open mind.

I can’t convince you that the author is correct, but reading Lactivism was an invaluable learning experience for me: not only in the field of infant feeding, but in understanding medical research and the subtle biases of, and influences upon, the medical community, too.

I received an eARC of this book via NetGalley and Basic Books Group in exchange for an honest review. 

10 thoughts on “What If Everything You Knew About Breastfeeding Was Wrong?

  1. Thank you for this post. I breastfeed and am grateful I can but deeply resent the dogma against formula feeding and the mommy-shaming of moms who can’t or choose for other reasons that capacity not to feed breastmilk. Good to hear that this book reads well from a critical medical perspective.

  2. Your review makes me want to read this book even more. I can’t wait. Hopefully you won’t get any backlash from lactivist just for giving this book a favorable review.

  3. What a great review (seriously- you’re a beautiful and succinct writer!). I really want to read this now, even if I only get a chance to skim it. We’re taught to encourage breast-feeding, too, but it wasn’t the be-all-end-all at the place where I learned OBGYN. I think this was partially because our patients were generally of lower socioeconomic statuses, so breastfeeding wasn’t feasible for many who had to work crazy hours in retail, the food service, etc..

    • I hope you get the chance to read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! The author does have some informed critics too, which I’m still trying to read up on. Yes: a large portion of the book is dedicated to mothers who work hectic hours and so can’t breastfeed; and it provides a research bias too: because who is to say that babies who are breastfeed are more intelligent because of the breastmilk, or not maybe because of the fact that they tend to belong to a socioeconomic group with more resources and whose parents can spend more one-on-one time with them.

  4. Great review. I think its opened my mind to view more of how medicine is taught and practiced to be fact & the only way forward. Like someone commented about socioeconomic status of mothers, who wouldn’t be able to breastfeed because they have a job or a woman who only breast feeds ‘cos that’s what they can afford. It also got me thinking about South Africa and other challenges were face, like you mentioned vaccinations? If a mother in a rural village can’t take her child to get vaccinated because nearest clinic is miles away?

    • Yes: if I could do med school again, I would question our lecturers a lot more. I think we tend to forget that our seniors in medicine are fallible humans, too. In terms of vaccinations, I think that if a mom hasn’t had the opportunity to vaccinate her child, it is the system and the government that is to blame, and certainly not the mom.

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