Can We Stop Trying to “Normalize” Breastfeeding?

It probably seems weird for me, a breastfeeding mom, to ask people to stop trying to “normalize breastfeeding”. If you scroll through my Instagram feed, or even my Facebook for that matter, you’ll probably find places where I’ve actually used that very hashtag.

You see, I’ve never really thought critically about what I’m saying when I hashtag: normalizebreastfeeding. It’s just something you do when you post a picture of you nursing your baby, right?

But the more I think about the concept of “normalizing” breastfeeding, the more utterly absurd it becomes to me. Because here’s the deal: breastfeeding is perfectly normal.

For thousands of years, all women have done is breastfeed their babies. Breastfeeding was the only means by which babies could survive to become adults who have babies and breastfeed them to help them survive to become adults…

It’s only in recent decades that breastfeeding has even come under scrutiny. And I think that the scrutiny and perceived shaming is largely overblown, thanks to what we read and interact with online.

I’ll admit: it wasn’t until recently that I even began to think critically of the modern breastfeeding movement.

Publicly Defending Public Breastfeeding

As moms, I think it’s natural to seek validation and approval for the decisions we make. In today’s world, we bring our ideas and practices to social media. We like to broadcast the discoveries we’ve made, things that work and don’t work, advice that we’ve acquired along the way.

I don’t think this is necessarily bad. (Though I do wonder at how healthy it is for us to be plugged into our phones 24/7 while remaining oblivious to the number of fellow moms who live on our blocks or shop at our Targets.)

Social media is particularly helpful for those of us who want to champion things: like our right to publicly breastfeed our babies.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in stories we see on social media of moms being treated unjustly for pulling out a breast in some place and having to go feed a baby in the bathroom.

We get defensive, thinking this might happen to us and our own precious babies. We get outraged that any mom anywhere might not have the perceived freedom to feed her baby wherever she needs to when her baby is hungry. (Legally, she DOES have that freedom, though some moms are unaware of their rights.)

Somehow, we think we’re the only generation of moms who have ever tried to do the right thing by nourishing our babies with milk from our own bodies. We are rabid about maintaining and promoting our right to do so, wherever and whenever our babies demand it.

We lash out with phrases like “you wouldn’t eat your lunch in a bathroom; why should my baby have to?” and develop catchy hashtags or make silly memes to mock those who would oppose public breastfeeding.

I understand the inclination to be on the defensive. Mothering is damn hard. It’s hard to stand up for decisions you’ve made when you’re in a vulnerable place – especially when that place is shirtless with a screaming baby who won’t latch.




But, I’m telling you, these stories are NOT the everyday scenario for most breastfeeding moms.

Breastfeeding in the Real World

I’ll offer my own breastfeeding journey as an example. I have three children, all of whom have breastfed for the first years of their lives (well, we’re assuming that Baby 3 nurses until he’s a year old – he’s only six months old at the time of this writing). If you’re keeping track, that’s two and a half years (and counting) of continuous breastfeeding.

None of my children have had a drop of formula. And it’s not for my lack of trying (hey, Mama wants a break, okay!). They just don’t like bottles or the flavor of formula. Believe me, this was real fun when I worked outside of the home while my first two kids were infants.

To make things more interesting, my oldest absolutely refused to let me cover her with even the lightest nursing cover or scarf by the time she was three months old. This was a crash course for me as a new mom, because all of the sudden I couldn’t hide behind a cover whenever she wanted to eat in public.

And eat in public she did. So have/do my boys. Generally, if I’m hungry, my baby is hungry. We’ve nursed in restaurants. We’ve nursed while walking down the street, with a baby tucked into a baby carrier. We’ve nursed pretty much everywhere you can imagine.

I don’t worry about what other people are going to think of me feeding my babies, although I do try to be sensitive if I’m in a place where people aren’t accustomed to babies being openly breastfed. I try to respect the needs of others around me, as well as those of my baby and my own comfort level.

Pro tip: sometimes babies don’t like to be nursed in loud places with tons of distractions. Our babies’ comfort is more important than our right to make a statement about public breastfeeding.

I have to say, in my entire time of breastfeeding babies without covers, and in public, I’ve NEVER had someone question me or tell me to feed my baby elsewhere. We don’t even live in a particularly “crunchy” part of the country. The birth rates here are lower than the national average, so it’s not like there are babies in every place we go.

I don’t even think I’ve dealt with any dirty looks, or at least any that I’ve noticed – and I’m very sensitive to this kind of thing. I’ve seen people do a double take, but that’s about it.

I have a feeling that many more breastfeeding moms have a journey similar to mine, rather than those of moms who have been shamed and called out on social media.

So why the fuss?

The Paradox of “Normalizing” Breastfeeding in 2018

Many of the women who I see defending breastfeeding and popularizing related hashtags or “nurse ins” (events where women gather to simultaneously breastfeed their babies/toddlers) also claim to be feminists. What I fail to understand is that the women who most loudly broadcast their rights to breastfeed their children wherever they please inadvertently shackle themselves to the babies, the bedrooms, the very homes that they moved mountains to free themselves from mere decades ago.

Breastfeeding is sacrifice. I’d argue that breastfeeding is a hundred times more challenging than pregnancy and blows the struggle of birth out of the water.

It’s a beautiful thing. But it’s not something that lends itself well to moms waltzing out of their homes every morning and off to a bread-winning career.

And it you want to talk about how breastfeeding imprisons a mom to her dependent baby, you should try pumping. For every aching ounce expelled to a suckling baby, every ounce pumped is even more difficult.

Ironically, I don’t see many non-feminist moms jumping on the normalize breastfeeding bandwagon. We breastfeed our babies. Sure, we even Instagram about it, because really, what else are you going to do while you sit for hours a day with a baby balanced on your chest?

It’s not a big deal because breastfeeding has always been normal.

I think, if anything, modern moms are unaccustomed to the immense burden of breastfeeding a child. After all, the burden of many of the things that our foremothers did for their families have been greatly reduced or eliminated by technological advances. But there’s no way to outsource breastfeeding to technology. At least none without some even greater sacrifice (time, guilt, reduced baby health, etc.).

Breastfeeding is utterly grueling. And it doesn’t stop being hard. That doesn’t make it bad. But it makes it different from a lot of the other things we experience in our everyday lives.

Religion Isn’t the Problem

I think that at some level, the average mom assumes that overly modest cultural Christianity or some type of religiosity has contributed to the culture of breastfeeding shaming. But in reality, it’s not religion that’s putting moms into bathroom stalls to feed their babies.

It’s not uber-conservative Christians who are hating on the practice. I think we like to blame patriarchal traditional Christianity (NOT to be confused with misogynistic American evangelicalism) for the cultural attitude toward women breastfeeding their babies in public. However, we traditional Christians have whole paintings (icons) and statues dedicated to our Holy Mother breastfeeding the Christ child. I don’t think it’s possible to honor the practice any more reverently…

In fact, most religions support and encourage breastfeeding mothers. Even Islam, which is often understood to be the least pro-woman religion of the modern day, has holy writ regarding women’s rights to breastfeed their babies. It even explicitly spells out husbands’ responsibility to allow wives to do so – up until the child is TWO years old, should the mother and baby desire. (cf. Qur’an 2:233)

Throughout history, the only nourishment a mother could impart to her baby was breastmilk. Every baby breastfed. Every mom nursed her baby (except in rare circumstances). Most major religions not only accept this fact but celebrate it as a part of its female adherents’ femininity.

Men dealt with the fact that women used their breasts for feeding the offspring that they helped to bring into the world. And, unless I’ve missed something critical in my historical studies, women weren’t routinely shamed for bearing their breasts to feed a hungry baby.

Yes, Formula Saves Lives

To be clear, I’m not making a broad sweeping statement that every woman who’s ever fed her baby a bottle of formula undermines the decision of moms who breastfeed their babies. It’s abundantly clear that formula is a modern scientific advancement that’s allowed us to dramatically decrease infant mortality rates.

Fact is, formula can, and does, save lives. This should be celebrated!

BUT, it’s also abundantly evident that many moms rely on the convenience of formula to get back to whatever they’d rather do than feed their babies. I don’t say this to shame anyone. Heck, I’ve even bought formula to try and give myself a break during overnight feeds!

However, moms who never even bother to feed their babies breastmilk (NOT to be confused with mothers who can’t, for any reason, feed their babies breastmilk) are largely responsible – even if inadvertently – for cultivating a culture of breastfeeding shaming.

When feminists of the 1900s fed their babies formula and shamed breastfeeding mothers for being too “common” and “low class”, they created a culture that can’t stand the sight of a lactating breast nourishing a child. Thanks to feminism and its quest to unshackle mothers from their responsibilities to their children, our culture has been conditioned to reject the breast that feeds.

Children who haven’t been exposed to breasts as baby food sources, absorb the cultural message of sexualized breasts as the chief narrative regarding female anatomy. Ultimately, they grow up to be adults who shame women publicly for nourishing their children naturally.

The Feminism Factor

I’ll be honest. I am a staunch critic of feminism. I find it responsible for MANY of the challenges that modern moms face, from mommy wars to a backlash against natural birth and breastfeeding.

Before the feminist movement, moms gave birth at home and breastfed their babies.

Before feminism, families typically had many children, and kids were used to breasts being bared to nourish the family’s youngest member.

Before feminism, husbands shared their wives’ breasts with their offspring. They didn’t pounce on women publicly exposing their breasts because exposed breasts for the purpose of breastfeeding were just a fact of life.

Before feminism, wives and children kept husbands way too occupied to sexualize every pair of breasts that came before them. Yes, breasts have always been sexual, but not to the extent that they are in our current, sexually crazed culture. It was also harder for men to justify lewd ogling, as they are freely allowed in our modern culture.

Sure, feminism can’t be wholly blamed for the sexual issues in our culture today. Every culture has battled sexual problems to some degree or another.

However, contraceptive use, abortions, and decreasing family sizes can all thank feminism for their modern acceptance and proliferation. These factors have certainly amped up the acceptance and practice of hookup culture.

Without them you have, well… More births and breastfeeding moms.

The Corporate Formula “Solution”

Corporate overreach also plays a part in the formula vs. breast debate we encounter today. Baby formula, which was originally developed to protect vulnerable newborns from starvation began to come into use after World War II.

But when a growing feminist movement wanted women to be a bigger part of the workforce after the war, they needed a creative way to outsource the feeding of these women’s babies. Of course, in a capitalistic economy, corporations developing baby formula rose to the challenge.

Astute businesspeople picked up on this growing market, and in the 1950s, more baby formulas came to the market. These safe feeding alternatives made it easy for mothers to return to work after having babies, or to begin new careers with young children at home.

The problem with corporate baby formula is that it never stops with simply filling a need. Sure, there were (and are) some mothers who require formula to literally save their babies’ lives. This is a necessary blessing for families who might otherwise lose their very children to starvation or malnourishment.

However, corporations who are intent on growing their bottom lines want everyone to use the products they sell. Groups like the Nestle, Enfamil and Gerber marketing teams explicitly target new moms with marketing campaigns, including free samples delivered to expectant mothers’ doorsteps and trial packets in hospital “goodie bags” that moms receive after giving birth.

In my opinion, this is predatory marketing. Every mom KNOWS that a product called baby formula exists on the market. We all know how to go to the store and pick up a can. Heck, it’s so easy, even a new dad could do it. (No offense to dads.)

The type of marketing that formula brands employ plants seeds of doubt in mothers’ minds. “What if I’m not able to do the breastfeeding thing? No worries! I’ve got a can of formula in the pantry.”

Formula marketers also target OB-GYNs and pediatricians. I can’t even begin to tell you how many stories I’ve heard about mothers taking their babies to the pediatrician and the pediatrician advising the mother to supplement with formula for a slow-gaining baby.

This practice completely undermines the breastfeeding relationship, and can cause a mother’s meager supply to drop out completely. In the end, many moms who receive this advice never have the opportunity to keep breastfeeding their babies beyond the first weeks or months.

Corporate overreach and poor information among doctors (who are, by the way, not typically trained in the field of nutrition), confuse new mothers. I’m not saying that new mothers are sitting here dumbly to be tossed and turned by clever advertising.

But the postpartum period is a weird time. There’s a lot of doubt and there’s so much more that we don’t know about how to raise our children. We don’t need authority figures – especially our babies’ doctors – misinforming us on how to feed our children.

The Porn Problem

Men, as well as women, are partially responsible for promoting a modern public breastfeeding stigma. Many men in our society were raised by mothers who fed them (and their siblings, if applicable) with formula. They’re not used to seeing breasts for any purpose other than sexuality.

In a free sex culture, there comes a significant challenge when sexuality and every type of sexual expression is encouraged: you have to actually have someone who wants to engage in this sexual expression with you.

When you fail to find a partner, you can either repress your desires, or find some other way to engage in the fantasy and expression that your body is begging for. In our culture, porn is the panacea for the partner-less sex-starved masses.

Men who are used to endless streams of porn boobs aren’t going to be the most likely advocates for public breastfeeding (unless for the purpose of fueling a debased fetish). They don’t view women as life bearers and breasts as organs designed for the purpose of nourishing babies.

And if they don’t have wives and children of their own, they certainly don’t understand the very non-sexual aspect of breasts when it comes to feeding a baby. So why wouldn’t they make lewd comments?

There are also men who don’t want to have to share their wives or girlfriends with their offspring, because they view their women’s bodies as their own property. This isn’t a natural way for men to treat the mothers of their children. Moreover, this viewpoint is harmful to moms and babies.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Women aren’t property, and neither are our breasts. But it’s important to critically evaluate where the challenges to our maternal rights come from. It’s essential that we address the issues that complicate our ability to mother the way that we feel is best for our own children.

We like to throw around the idea that some patriarchy is oppressing us and keeping us from using our bodies in the ways that our children’s biological needs necessitate. But in reality, it’s overwhelmingly an issue of women challenging women.

Breastfeeding mothers wouldn’t have the challenges to public breastfeeding that they do now if feminists hadn’t championed formula use for their own selfish purposes. (Again, not to be confused with mothers who genuinely need to feed their babies formula.)

We wouldn’t have to face misinformation and confused feeding questions if we didn’t have bottom line-minded corporations shoving formula at us as we’re leaving the hospital with our new babies.

It wouldn’t be an issue to bare our breasts to feed our babies if breasts were culturally valued as nourishment sources for our offspring. And if the sexuality of breasts were confined to the exclusivity of a marriage relationship.

We need to spend less time dropping hashtags, and more time questioning how the idea behind the movements we support even got to our minds in the first place. Are we inadvertently being hypocritical because we use a popular hashtag so that someone can see our cute breastfeeding picture, even though we support organizations that have historically been pro-formula?

And most importantly, we need to be a whole lot more graceful when it comes to sharing our breastfeeding journeys with one another. Sure, we can post very boob-ish or nipple-y pictures of ourselves feeding our babies.

But to what end? So we can make a statement to the nameless masses behind other screens? Would our babies be embarrassed to see those pictures of themselves, say, ten years from now?

We also need to be more graceful in the ways that we handle criticism, should it arise when we feed our babies publicly. It does no good to mock someone or turn an offhand remark into a public scene.

In my experience, it’s best to simply talk to people about the fact that you’re breastfeeding, especially if you’re going to do something like feed your baby at a dinner table with friends in a public restaurant. Sure, you might need to feed your baby there anyway, but at least mention it before whipping a breast out in front of your BFF’s husband or your own grandmother.

Being offensive or crass with our breastfeeding isn’t conducive to a logical, adult conversation about breastfeeding. It’s a childish way to handle a nuanced aspect of the mothering journey.

And while I don’t think that we really need to normalize breastfeeding, because it’s already been done by generations of mothers breastfeeding their babies since the beginning of time, I think there’s always a place for discussions about breastfeeding in our culture today. We live in a time that presents certain challenges for the breastfeeding mom, and we should talk about the issues that we face.

But we could all use a little less social media sensationalism as we navigate these waters. Or… milks?

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Gabrielle Rystedt
Gabrielle Rystedt
Gabrielle Rystedt is a writer by day and a writer by night (because writers never sleep), who spends time balancing client orders, a couple of books and her blog at Raising Rystedts. She’s a business school grad who’s dabbled in management, both at the project and company level. She loves coffee and crafting, and enjoys settling down with a good book. Though as mom to three kiddos in three years, she realistically spends most of her time reheating her coffee and typing away like a crazy person on a laptop keyboard while surrounded by (clean) cloth diapers and cheddar bunnies.

What are your thoughts?