Milky Way: The Long, Strange History Of Breastfeeding


A great piece in the new New Yorker explores the history of breastfeeding: the fads and crazes that have controlled centuries of women, and the forces that still have us feeling bad about ourselves.

The long and varied history of breastfeeding – perhaps one of the most natural and organic of processes – is, writer Jill Lepore argues, inextricably linked to social change and economic issues. Long seen as a mark of social humility, breastfeeding was, amongst the upper-classes of prior centuries, generally farmed out to a paid wet nurse. But in the 18th Century, Rousseau (himself apparently a crap father) encouraged a romanticized view of back-to-nature mothering, one backed up by Linnaueus’ studies of mammalian nature. An alleged “milk shortage” in 19th Century America started a fad of feeding babies cow’s milk – often with fatal consequences – and started a decline in breastfeeding. Modern science – and the new practice of giving birth in hospitals – then ushered in an era of sterility. And, as Lepore points out, “perversely, Freud’s insistence that infants experience suckling as sexual pleasure proved a boon to stork-style repression, too: mothers, eager to keep infantile incestuous desire at arm’s length, propped their babies up in high chairs and handed them bottles.”

Milk-banks and early wet-nurse directories gave birth to a new formula industry. “Once milk banks replaced wet nurses, human milk came to be treated, more and more, as a medicine, something to be prescribed and researched, tested and measured in flasks and beakers.” Breast-feeding was regarded as old-fashioned and unsanitary…a trend that La Leche League intended to curb when they established in 1956. Read their pamphlet: “With his small head pillowed against your breast and your milk warming his insides, your baby knows a special closeness to you, he is gaining a firm foundation in an important area of life-he is learning about love.” And, unsurprisingly, this ethic appealed to many upper-class women of the 1960s.

In more recent years, breast milk’s superiority has been touted by medical professionals as a deterrant to various health and immune problems. However, American breast-feeding is at a low, something hospitals and government have been at pains to address. Measures have ranged from workplace breast-pumping stations, tax exemptions, and amendment of indecency legislation that gets in the way of public breastfeeding. (The fact that a woman was just arrested in a Connecticut bar for drinking while nursing shows there’s still some issues to figure out.) A 2007 case against an airline that confiscated breast milk led to its reclassification as “liquid medication” – significant in more ways than one. This, Lepore concludes, is the age of the breast pump. And that’s not a great thing.

Non-bathroom lactation rooms are such a paltry substitute for maternity leave, you might think that the craze for pumps-especially pressing them on poor women while giving tax breaks to big businesses-would be met with skepticism in some quarters. Not so. The National Organization for Women wants more pumps at work: NOW’s president, Kim Gandy, complains that “only one-third of mega-corporations provide a safe and private location for women to pump breast milk for their babies.” (When did “women’s rights” turn into “the right to work”?) The stark difference between employer-sponsored lactation programs and flesh-and-blood family life is difficult to overstate. Pumps put milk into bottles, even though many of breast-feeding’s benefits to the baby, and all of its social and emotional benefits, come not from the liquid itself but from the smiling and cuddling (stuff that people who aren’t breast-feeding can give babies, too). Breast-feeding involves cradling your baby; pumping involves cupping plastic shields on your breasts and watching your nipples squirt milk down a tube. But this truth isn’t just rarely overstated; it’s rarely stated at all…No one seems especially worried about women whose risk assessment looks like this: “Should I take three twenty-minute pumping ‘breaks’ during my workday, or use formula and get home to my baby an hour earlier?”

In Lepore’s view, the current mentality is essentially another round in the breast milk carousel: the only difference is, this one’s a convenient synthesis of a few views: the same sterile packaging as 1950s “science,” with the benefits of alternative research – minus, of course, the romanticism. Meanwhile, the issue is as starkly class-based as ever: any “good,” progressive mother knows breast milk’s benefits – but breast pumps and the accompanying paraphernalia of conscientious working motherhood are shockingly expensive. Another failure of “having it all” – or progress, of a sort?

Baby Food [New Yorker]

Related: Woman Arrested For Breast Feeding At A Bar [Babble]

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