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Why Breastfeeding May Not Be All It’s Milked Up to Be

Photograph by Twenty20

In October 2015 Courtney Jung, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, published a much talked-about New York Times editorial titled "Overselling Breast-Feeding," in conjunction with her December book "Lactivism." Both the editorial and the book discuss how and why breastfeeding advocacy crosses the line from supporting a woman in her decision to breastfeed into compelling a woman to breastfeed—even to the point where the United States government provides better WIC services to poor mothers who breastfeed than to those who don't.

I had the chance to chat with Jung about why she's so passionate about this controversial issue and why the stats aren't all they're made out to be.

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You're a political science professor. What inspired you to write this book?

After my kids (ten and four) were born, I breastfed both. It was fine for me. It wasn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it was easy for the kids. So it wasn't that I had a bad experience with breastfeeding personally, but still there was this sanctimony and zealotry. Sometimes people would congratulate me for breastfeeding and I was like "What the…?" It was like they were saying, "Congratulations, you're feeding your baby."

How is supporting formula-feeding moms a feminist issue?
David Meyer, the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, explains how crucial and important breastfeeding is. But his example is that six women have to exclusively breastfeed for six months in order to prevent one ear infection. He believes that's a good cost-benefit analysis. That's 5,400 woman-hours. That's the way I try to bring home that point: this guy might be making different calculations than many moms might make.

It's not just a way to feed a baby—it is a sign that you are an environmentalist, a symbol you're a member of the white upper middle class.

So why does the government punish poor women who formula-feed?
It's a consensus issue. For politicians and policy makers, it's a no-brainer—it's a feel-good issue. On the other hand, why are public health people doing this? Dr. David Meyer is looking at a population level. He's thinking, "5,400 hours of breastfeeding for one ear infection, that's a pretty good intervention." It's cost-less, to recommend this. But it really can cost people a great deal.

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Why is this such a hot button issue, how mothers feed their children?
It's become bound up with people's identities. It's not just a way to feed a baby—it is a sign that you are an environmentalist, a symbol you're a member of the white upper middle class. If you're bottle-feeding your baby, it's like parking an RV in the driveway. You might as well be screaming that you're white trash in the US. It's an environmental issue, it's a feminist issue, it's a Christian Right issue, and for all those reasons, breastfeeding is not just a way to feed a baby. It stands for so much.

Also, breastfeeding was, at one point, a counter-cultural taking-back-women's-rights kind of issue and so for people of a particular generation, it will always be that. But for a certain demographic, it's hard to see that the tide has turned and that now those people are the ones who are in power. They're no longer leading the righteous revolution.

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