Baby Feeding, a Feminist Issue Filled With Fraught

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shutterstock_238702912First of all, by "fraught" I mean some thing, situation or decision attended by worry or stress. And why should baby feeding be so considered? After all, as mammals we humans typically have the ability to breastfeed our offspring. And as inhabitants of a technologically advanced, developed country, we have the opportunity to choose one of a number of nutritionally complete formulas designed for the same purpose. So what's the issue (or issues)? And what do feminists think about it?

The answer is — it depends.

The basic feminist stance is that women should be able, and society should support, whatever baby-feeding strategy mothers choose. But this has become complicated by the position of many that breastfeeding is the only means of infant nourishing a woman should choose.

And some go so far as to accuse women who don't breastfeed as being irresponsible, selfish and callous about the welfare of their babies.

Still, there is also the position that while the culture supposedly supports women who breastfeed, in reality it can be difficult to do so. Few employers make allowances for mothers to interrupt work to pump milk, and overtly nursing a baby in a public place is discouraged — sometimes rudely (although in New York State she has the right to do so).

The zeitgeist is that breast milk confers health benefits on the baby and child, such as: fewer allergies; reduced chance of obesity; lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders and middle ear infections, as well as providing better overall immunity.

Also, benefits might accrue to mom since she's putting out on the order of 500 calories pre day. Given these benefits, it seems obvious to many that "breast is best" under pretty much any circumstances.

However, the veracity of the data that support the above has been seriously questioned — because the studies reporting such benefits have been subject to confounding by economic and demographic characteristics. If indeed these supposed benefits are really not strongly supported by the data, then about the only argument that can be made is that breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed a baby.

So the most common position is that breastfeeding is the best and should be the only way to feed baby. Which position bangs up against the feminist ideal of freeing women's choices — even to formula feed if that's what they want to do.

Anti-formula voices claim variously that big companies (e.g. Nestle, Gerber and the like) push their clearly second- or third-rate feeding options on weary moms. Some hook in anti-GMO and anti-genetically engineered growth hormone (for cows, not kids) in their anti-formula screeds.

But there are other voices being raised — those that participate in a backlash against the "only breast is best" scenario. And perhaps this is a much-needed rebalancing of the feminist position, now that breastfeeding is much more widely accepted. Next, we have to agree that neither breastfeeding advocates, nor those who opt to feed formulas, should be excoriated for their choices. After all, both feeding methods can result in healthy, well-nourished offspring.