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The Real Reason Calling Breastfeeding 'Natural' Is a Problem

A new report published in Pediatrics, written by bioethicists Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, claims that public health efforts to improve breastfeeding rates by invoking the word "natural" may actually be steering parents away from immunizations. But is it really?

I came across this report not too long ago and thought that the angle of the story, based on the title alone, would be completely different. However, far from a study, this report cites concerns surrounding the use of the admittedly-loaded term and how that might unintentionally be driving parents towards other "natural" parenting decisions, which includes not vaccinating their children.

The authors write, "Promoting breastfeeding as 'natural' may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that 'natural' approaches are presumptively healthier. This may ultimately challenge public health's aims in other contexts, particularly childhood vaccination."

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I'm not sure if it's just me, but making the connection between portraying breastfeeding as natural and parents not getting shots for their kids is a huge stretch. I'm sure that there are moms who breastfeed and also do not vaccinate, but to make an assumption that it's actually driving parents away from immunizations seems misguided at best.

The real trouble with using the term "natural," in my opinion, is a completely different and separate issue. While breastfeeding proponents label breastfeeding as a "natural act" (which is, after all, technically correct), this conveys an unwanted and pretty unhappy implication—that those who do not or cannot breastfeed their kids are doing something unnatural. And that's kind of icky.

But would it serve moms-to-be better if language was modified to be less alienating to moms who are unable to breastfeed?

Breastfeeding is the subject of much controversy, of course, from whether moms do it or not, to issues over breastfeeding in public, to nursing kids who are over one. And we're coming to realize that breastfeeding promotion has its own set of intricate controversies, including criticism of the "breast is best" campaign and phrases such as "breastfeeding is natural," which can be off-putting to some.

Raising the numbers of moms who breastfeed is an important goal, as research has shown that breastfeeding benefits the health of both mother and Baby, which benefits society as a whole. But would it serve moms-to-be better if language was modified to be less alienating to moms who are unable to breastfeed? Perhaps.

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I'm still of the mindset that stating facts about breastfeeding—researched, scientifically accurate facts—is important when it comes to sharing infant feeding information to moms. These facts aren't meant to make mothers who can't or won't breastfeed their babies feel bad, but instead, it's meant to help bolster the argument that breast milk really is the ideal food for a baby.

However, we should keep in mind that it's also difficult to promote an act that yes, while it is natural, might not feel all that natural when breastfeeding gets off to a rocky start, whether it's the result of a tongue-tied baby, a mother with little to no support or an early return to work that might compromise a milk supply.

Above all, we should work to help moms make the best choices they can for their own families, which is all a good mom wants to do in the first place.

And that's the most natural thing in the world.

Photograph by: Getty Images

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