The Curious Politics of Milk

Sonia Shah


Part One


night, a small American boy slipped into bed with his mother and suckled at her

breast for a few minutes before dropping off to sleep. The next day, he told his

babysitter he wanted to stop doing so, but "Mommy wouldn’t let me."

The child was swiftly removed from his mother into foster care for 6 months.


Toni Morrison’s character Milkman, who suckled at his mother’s breast past

puberty, this small boy was just 5 years old. As one outraged letter writer

noted, "substitute the more prosaic ‘blankie’ for the sadly misunderstood

breast and you would see a child torn between the safety and comfort of his

babyhood and the risk and adventure of being a big boy."


was nearly universal in the United States until about the 1930s, when

bottle-feeding with substitutes became the norm. Since the 1970s, tireless

campaigns by breastfeeding advocates have reversed this trend, and today about

three-quarters of the U.S. educated elite breastfeed their babies. But suckling

is still considered acceptable only for infants. Babies as small as two- and

three-years-old have been whisked away from their mothers, deemed dangerous for

nursing them.


the agency that initially removed the 5-year-old child claimed he was suffering

"sexual abuse" because of the nursing, the judge in the case claimed

the real problem was one of needs. "His needs were being ignored…[his

mother] continued to put her own parental needs first." "Breastfeeding

an older child can fulfill many needs," author Pat Love was quoted as

saying in another article on the case. "The question is: whose needs are

being met?"


other words, if a woman’s needs are being met by nursing her children, she must

be doing something wrong.


humans are probably the only mammals to turn our signature act into a political

circus. According to anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, lactation is the key to

women’s biological destiny, even more than her sex, for it is the only part of

caretaking that is so profoundly sex-related. (Some feminist anthropologists

have claimed that women turn to bottle-feeding so as to even the scales–instead

of women using their bodily resources to feed the young, men use their financial

resources to buy bottles. ) Groups of females with their sisters, grown

daughters and infants are the most common form of mammalian social group–a

grouping necessary for successful lactation–and probably the environment in

which social intelligence itself evolved, Hrdy says.


1970s resurgence of interest in breastfeeding ("breast is best")

spouted a font of research on the healing powers of human milk. As a kind of

fortified sweat, human milk is uniquely adapted to support newborns, especially

in times of local scarcities, for even an undernourished woman can adequately

nourish a newborn with her milk. Breastfeeding is nearly universal in

war-ravaged Rwanda, for instance; breastmilk kept a 6-week-old alive for a full

week buried under the rubble of the Gujurat earthquake.


many advocates speak and write about human milk as if it were an altogether

magical substance. The decision not to breastfeed–taken by about 40 percent of

American mothers today –is deemed "withholding" a "perfect

food" from hungry and helpless babies. In their book on the culture and

politics of breastfeeding, authors Naomi Baumslag and Dia Michels attribute

bottle-feeding to "infatuation with technology and consumerism."


other words, if a woman’s needs are being met by NOT nursing her children, she

must be doing something wrong.




UNICEF and WHO, among others, have been charting a decline in worldwide

breastfeeding rates, the truth is that, like sexual practices, scholars and

advocates really don’t know much about why or how women choose to feed their



to the American Academy of Pediatrics (which recommends breastfeeding for 12

months), "the examples used to illustrate the decrease [in the developing

world] are methodologically flawed; they use nonrepresentative or noncomparable

samples, for example, or make implicit assumptions about past breastfeeding

practices." WHO noted a similar concern. "As interest in the subject

increased, so did the number of reports of the decline of breast-feeding in

different parts of the Third World. Unfortunately many of these tended to be

more anecdotal than scientifically based." For example, one influential

study asserting a decline in breastfeeding in developing countries is based on

trends in Japan and among Indian immigrants to Britain.


developing nations don’t collect nationally representative data on breastfeeding

practices–and even if they did, anthropologists say, their methods

(questionnaires, surveys of women in clinics, etc.) wouldn’t elicit a truthful

picture. The few countries that have been studied by Western scientists are,

according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "in no way representative

of the entire developing world." World Health Organization and World

Fertility Studies carried out in the 1970s found nearly universal (over 90

percent) breastfeeding among all classes in developing countries, except for

urban elites in some countries (and the urban poor in one country.) Still, a

study published in 1984 assessing the available data on breastfeeding trends and

infant health concluded that a "downward trend exists" in the 7

developing countries under consideration. But the study goes on to note that the

decline in breastfeeding per se is among elites; otherwise whatever decline was

discerned was in the duration of breastfeeding.


UNICEF’s 2000 State of the World’s Children report doesn’t provide statistics

segregated by socioeconomic class, it does report that about 2/3 of the infants

in sub-Saharan African and Asian countries, with the world’s leading infant

mortality rates, are breastfed. Medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, director of

the Human Lactation Center and author of a one of a handful of in-depth

anthropological studies of breastfeeding in the developing world , calls

UNICEF’s statistics "awful." "It is one of the great outrages

that these huge organizations all over the world make these statements,"

she said in an interview. "They have no idea" how women are actually

feeding their infants.


is the author of the classic 1976 book on breastfeeding, The Tender Gift, in

which she popularized the term "doula" to refer to the woman who

"mothers the mother" while she is breastfeeding. These doulas, Raphael

found, were crucial to successful breastfeeding. They take on the mother’s

workload in the first few months of the newborn’s life, so women have the time

necessary to recover and nurse their infants. In her anthropological studies of

6 traditional and urban-poor cultures, she found that nursing women often hailed

from breastfeeding cultures, where various rituals and traditions give new

mothers extra time, extra food, and extra help during the first months of her

new baby’s life.


also found, conversely, that when women moved into situations where those

rituals and traditions were not practiced–in economies that are being

transformed by immigration, urbanization, and industrialization–the duration

and occurrence of breastfeeding drops radically. These non-breastfeeders were

not "infatuated with consumerism and technology" as breastfeeding

advocate Naomi Baumslag and others would have it. On the contrary, they were

poor and struggling. They had to work outside the home in order for their

families to survive. They didn’t have family nearby or available to help with

childcare or with their other responsibilities. They lived in places where they

couldn’t strap the baby to their backs and take them to their jobs as maids,

waitresses, or in the factory. For these women, the availability of adequate

alternatives to breastmilk–condensed milk, powdered milk, and milk

formula–meant they were able to keep their babies alive. (Raphael and others

also found that women living under scarcity–in poverty or disaster

conditions–universally breastfed their infants, as no other options were

available, and finally and most significantly, that women have been feeding

infants foods and drinks other than breastmilk, even in the first few weeks of

life, for centuries.)


women who don’t breastfeed, or who wean their infants early to meet their own

needs–surviving in an industrialized, global economy within dislocated,

changing cultures–face an onslaught of moral opprobrium. They will kill their

babies! development officials say.


my next commentary, I’ll look at the campaign against infant formula and how

globalization and industrialization impact the politics of breastfeeding.


Time…Part Three…

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