After becoming a mom for the second time, I’ve become even more aware of the multitude of opinions out there about what makes a good mom: baby should co-sleep with you, but not for too long, don’t give baby a soother – it won’t be good for her future teeth, get baby on a routine as soon as possible, make sure baby’s solids are all homemade…
When it comes to breastfeeding, there is no exception. Some believe that breastfeeding is the only way to go, others think it’s unsightly. On one hand, breastfeeding is a beautiful time for a mother to bond with their child. At the same time, breastfeeding is time-consuming, it doesn’t always happen easily and sometimes it can be painful. Some even argue that breastfeeding is a tool to keep women unproductive and refined to the home.
As a feminist, I began wondering whether breastfeeding was a traditional, outdated and dis-empowering practice that reinforced toxic gender roles. As an inquisitive journalist, I decided to investigate a little deeper. So, is breastfeeding anti-feminist? In short, my answer is: absolutely not. Here are three long reasons why:
1. Breastfeeding challenges the commercialization of motherhood
I am continuously inundated with new “must have” products that will make me the best mother. From top-of-the-line strollers and designer diaper bags to expensive educational toys – new parents have become an attractive demographic for companies to market to. In fact, studies have shown that the American “mom market” is estimated at $1.7 trillion a year. More than $1.3 billion of that alone comes from products for newborn babies.
At its core, baby formula is a product of this capitalist consumer culture. Until the 19th century, nearly all newborn babies were breastfed, regardless of country, culture or economic status. The first commercial infant formula was invented in 1867 and that’s when things started to get complicated. Initially, over 50% of babies who were fed on this formula did not survive. However, as formula improved and became increasingly seen as a balanced alternative to breastfeeding, the supply and demand increased. As a result, exclusive breastfeeding began to decline.
The upward demand for formula in the Western market was cut short as more women began to enter the workforce and birth rates began to decrease. With an ever-growing supply, formula manufacturers began exporting the product to new markets in developing countries. The product quickly spread across homes in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the early 1970s, research began to appear describing the negative health impact of aggressive formula marketing, particularly in colonized countries like Nigeria.
For women living in low-income and vulnerable communities, breastfeeding is a cost-effective solution that can mean the difference between life and death. If all babies were fed only breast milk for the first six months of life, an estimated 800,000 children would be saved every year.
Unfortunately, Kishinie’s story is an all-too common example of how critical the first 1000 days of a baby’s life truly are. In a small community in rural Ethiopia, Kishinie lost two babies soon after their christenings. Luckily, when her friend and local traditional midwife, Fentahun, received training through the Born on Time program, everything changed. With her most recent pregnancy, Kishinie had regular checkups, ate a healthy diet, and gave birth at the clinic. Her baby is exclusively breastfed and watched over carefully by mom and local health extension workers.
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life helps combat diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. Furthermore, a recent study found that globally, nearly $341 billion each year could be saved if mothers breastfed for longer. Breastfeeding is the ultimate protest of “mommy marketing”. New mothers have enough to worry about without having to budget for unnecessary expenses.
Projects like Born on Time and the 1000 Day Journey empower new mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies by training quality health workers who are equipped to provide accessible and quality lactation support and education.
2. Breastfeeding is an exercise of a human right
A woman’s right to breastfeed her child is a human right. Under the Canadian Human Rights act, pregnancy-related discrimination, such as restricting breastfeeding, is considered a form of sex discrimination. Unfortunately, like many women’s rights throughout history, breastfeeding remains a threatened activity in most parts of the world. In Canada we are fortunate to have legal provisions in place to protect our right to breastfeed. Ontario Public Health for example, has produced guidelines for how employers can create a breastfeeding friendly workplace.
Despite these protections, women in Canada and across the world face continued barriers to breastfeeding in the home, at work and in public. Globally, millions of mothers stop breastfeeding prematurely due to misinformation, stigma, a lack of support or a perceived incompatibility with the many other roles that women occupy.
I am fortunate to have been able to breastfeed both my daughters, but it’s been far from easy. My oldest had issues latching which made the four months breastfeeding very difficult. In the end, somehow, I breastfed her for 18 months. I am so proud of that. But through it all, I was asked by others why I didn’t just give her some formula to “make things a little easier”.
Those subtle and seemingly innocent statements can pile up and make you question your decisions and choices around breastfeeding. Especially when your breastfeeding journey hasn’t been clear cut.
All around the world, women are coming together to demand and negotiate their right to breastfeed. In a rural community in Shinyanga Region, Tanzania, for example, women have formed support groups. As part of the 1000 Day Journey, the women in these groups meet regularly to learn about and discuss how to advocate for their health rights within the household and in their communities.
3. Breastfeeding confirms a woman’s power to control her own body
For too long, breasts have been about everybody except for the woman who carries them. The media has succeeded in objectifying women’s bodies and reducing breasts to sexual objects of desire. The professional workforce has reinforced this idea by regulating how women should cover themselves to remain modest and respectable. The public domain has further stigmatized breasts by restricting where, when or how women can breastfeed. In short, women today exist as a sum of their body parts, not as whole beings with thoughts, dignity, feelings and ultimately, things to do.
Breastfeeding challenges views of the breast as primarily a sex object. Instead, a woman’s breasts can be seen as a female body part with the biological ability to produce milk. Breastfeeding is not a social imperative (something someone feels they should do), it is a biological human instinct. As mammals, women’s breasts feature mammary glands which are activated by hormones during pregnancy and after birth. My body’s normal biological functioning produces nutrient-rich breast milk.
Beyond the immense health benefits for newborns, women can also enjoy breastfeeding for themselves. They can feel empowered, in control, healthier and relaxed by it. And exercising that power is something to celebrate.
Some of the most joy-filled moments I have shared with my babies have been during our breastfeeding sessions. In those quiet moments, when they gaze at me like I am their entire world, nothing else matters at all.
Recognizing breastfeeding as a bodily function of women rather than a lifestyle choice recognizes that women need the autonomy to exercise that power. By acknowledging that breastfeeding impacts women just as much as it impacts their babies, we can begin to uplift the actual women who carry the breasts. Reclaiming bodily ownership can also help address the potential challenges faced by women who struggle to breastfeed of produce sufficient milk.
Breastfeeding is feminism
To know that my body has nourished two people into healthy, strong beings is so satisfying and empowering. I feel like a superhero when I think about what we women are capable of and what our breasts can do. We grow humans and then we feed them nature’s most perfect food: breast milk.
Breastfeeding plays an important role in improving the lives of women around the world, yet mothers across the globe face barriers to breastfeeding. By now, most of us know that health professionals recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a newborn baby’s life. The stakes of deciding to breastfeed in the developing world as opposed to in a North American context may be very different, but breastfeeding poses barriers no matter where you live. In the developing world introducing foods too early brings along a risk of contaminated water from poor sanitation which can be detrimental to a newborn baby’s health.
However, breastfeeding can not only be about the baby, it is also needs to be about the woman who is choosing to intimately share parts of herself with her child. So, is breastfeeding anti-feminist? No! Breastfeeding is an incredibly empowering, loving and fulfilling experience when a woman has the autonomy to prioritize her own needs and rights.
To learn more about the power of exclusive breastfeeding, read our Breastfeeding Blogs .