A Feminist Scientist’s take on Breastfeeding Practices

 (TFC) – Hope Lima started her career at West Virginia Wesleyan College where she earned a Bachelors of Science in Biology. In 2012 she was accepted to North Carolina State University and moved to Raleigh, NC, to pursue her dual Masters of Science degree in Nutrition and Animal Science. In 2013, she enrolled on the side to finish her Bachelors of Science in Food and Nutrition Science, enabling her to complete her dietetic internship in the future. After completing both of her master’s degrees in December 2014, she matriculated into the Ph.D. Program at North Carolina State University and is focusing in maternal and infant nutrition science. 

Throughout your studies over the years, what’s one major feminist issue that’s been brought to your attention? 

My doctoral research is focused on breastfeeding awareness and safety as well as donor milk bank support and improvement. I would say that for the field I am focused in, breastfeeding education and support is one of the primary feminist issues. More specifically, issues surrounding a mothers access to support when learning how to breastfeed, ability to breastfeed on demand whether or not they are in public, and ridiculous societal pressures to censor what is the most natural and magical act of life.

What kind of information are women not receiving about breastfeeding?

I wouldn’t say that they aren’t receiving it, I would say that what information they receive depends on the views of their pediatrician and how strongly they advocate for breastfeeding. There are many pediatricians that believe that formula feeding is adequate and won’t provide the proper scientific education to the mother. With the proper education about breastfeeding, many mothers would be more inclined to prioritize breastfeeding their child or would be able to support other women who are making the decision to breastfeed.

It is evident in current scientific literature that breastfeeding is the gold standard of care for a newborn infant, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and complementary breastfeeding up to and beyond 2 years of age. These recommendations are based on scientific evidence that breastfeeding a child reduces the incidence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, asthma/allergies, respiratory illness, ear infections, and diarrhea (diarrhea being one of the most likely causes of death in children under five in developing countries).

Many pediatricians have a personal belief that it is easier to track an infant health when feeding formula because you instantly know the physical amount of formula the baby is ingesting. When you breastfeed this is not the case, rather the infant has to be more in tune to their satiety (fullness) cues and simply stops eating when they are no longer hungry. As an aspiring maternal/infant dietitian, I believe that the latter is a more effective means of feeding for the infant because the baby’s internal cues will be developed and regulated from an early age.

So is it fair to say that these practices dissuade women from trusting their bodies, instead of teaching them how their bodies naturally promote health?

I would say that humans have a natural egotistic tendency to believe that what they create is better than what evolved in nature. Thus, when a human-made replacement for breastfeeding was invented it was assumed to be superior (and in some cases marketed as superior) than the natural method.

I also believe that staying up-to-date with current research is a full-time job for any field, and that breastfeeding education and support should be defaulted to International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) to ensure complete coverage – but they are currently not included in insurance policies.

Do you think that women shouldn’t use formula?

I wouldn’t say though that baby formula is inherently bad. There are extreme circumstances where feeding an infant formula made with clean filtered water is the only option. This is very rarely the case though, and mother’s need to be properly informed of the risks of using infant formula so they can make an educated decision on how they want to feed their children.

The reason I believe so wholeheartedly in the cause of breastfeeding though, is that it eliminates the nutritional discrepancy that infants face due to race, socio-economic status, or other factors. When a child is breastfed, the mother’s body prioritizes the composition of the breastmilk, even at the expense of her own personal nutritional stores. Other than composition of lipids, it is very difficult to change the makeup of breastmilk. If every child is fed this complete source of macro- and micro-nutrients exclusively from birth, it can help to minimize the food security gap, decrease the environmental impacts on ability to learn and retain information, and allow each child a healthier beginning to life.

So what would the outcome be if all women knew this information about breastfeeding, and had the support to put this information into practice?

The outcome would be a complete overhaul of male-centered societal norms. If women were able to have the support to put breastfeeding into practice for 100% of infants, every public facility would boast an ADVERTISED breastfeeding-friendly policy that protected women’s rights to breastfeed in public. This policy would allow women to take breaks from work if they needed to pump, protect their rights to breastfeed in an uncensored manner in public, give private areas for women to pump/breastfeed if they were not comfortable breastfeeding in public, and ensure that individuals were required to be tolerant to mother’s feeding their children in these spaces.

It would change the way that men are required to view breasts, rather than sexualizing them, they would be forced to accept the reality that a woman’s body is magical, able to provide the SOLE source of nourishment for a growing child.

We would also be able to provide food security to all newborns, because producing milk does not cost the mother any money. The public support of breastfeeding would ensure that a mother’s production is not altered when she is away from her child, her health is protected because she is not forced to walk around with full milk ducts due to lack of ability to pump or breastfeed, and women would be able to function as members of society despite providing this constant source of nourishment for her child.

So there are deep socio-economic implications for changing breastfeeding practices? Could you expand on this?

Yes, of course there are. A woman’s body will produce very close to the same, high quality breastmilk regardless if they are eating all fast-food or all organic foods. Giving an infant access to this high quality nutrition from day one regardless of the socio-economic status of the mother would help to equalize one portion of the playing field to children born into poverty – and that is their health (arguably the most important factor).

Are there charictaristics of raw breastmilk that will never be able to replicate?

Yes. Breastmilk is packed full of bioactive factors, molecules that function in real time to promote growth and development, such as lactoferrin (a protein with bactericidal and iron-binding capabilities), immunoglobulins, cytokines, chemokines, oligosaccharides, growth factors, and mucins. The mother-infant connection is so in-tune that a mother’s skin can detect a baby’s fever on contact and increase the production of immunoglobulins to protect the baby from the infection (since the infant’s immune system is not fully developed until 2 years of age).

Charles Rae writes female-centered news for TFC’s The Fem Column

Image Source: Aurimas Mikalauskas, Flickr, Creative Commons Piknikas

Image Source: Aurimas Mikalauskas, Flickr, Creative Commons