Breastfeeding: A Hot News Topic

Parenting, Families, Food and Fitness January 22, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

infant feeding at breast

“The science of lactation is exploding--too bad our cultural, social, economic and political worlds are so far behind.”  

Unlikely as it seems, breastfeeding keeps popping up as a hot news topic. Here’s a recent sample:
●    In August, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) reported that the percentage of U.S. infants who begin life breastfeeding rose from 71 percent to 77 percent from 2000 to 2010, continuing the steady rise since the low in 1972.
●    Recent research from Boston Children’s Hospitals demonstrates strong cognitive benefits from exclusive breastfeeding that gets stronger the longer breastfeeding continues.
●    Burlington International Airport in Vermont is the nation’s first airport to install a dedicated breastfeeding and pumping station for traveling mothers.

But surprisingly, the good news has sparked a strong anti-breastfeeding backlash from women who suggest that breastfeeding hampers gender equity and social justice. For example:
●    Explaining why, next time, I won't breastfeed is an August guest opinion in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
●    Does Breastfeeding Matter? No! Obstetrician gynecologist Amy Tuteur’s blog, The Skeptical OB argues that breastfeeding is dramatically overhyped and that its strong promotion shames women who choose not to, or who can’t, nurse their babies for some reason.

“Great news! More than three-quarters of American women want to breastfeed. That doesn’t surprise me, given what we know about human milk,” says Madeleine Sigman-Grant, Ph.D., maternal and child health specialist and professor of nutrition with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Sigman-Grant, an active member the Nevada Breastfeeding Coalition, lectures on breastfeeding science to medical and nursing students and other health professionals, collaborates with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to coordinate Nevada breastfeeding support, and has published extensively on breastfeeding over a 35-year career.

“These women [in the anti-breastfeeding movement] don’t have the complete picture,” she says. “Stick with the facts. There really cannot be gender equity when it comes to reproduction. The pregnancy-lactation cycle is programmed only into female mammals.

“Because humans stand erect, women cannot physically carry their infants until the baby’s brain is near adult size. Because we give birth too early, we need to nurse our babies for about six months exclusively, when we can begin to give complementary foods. It’s not a matter of choice; it’s how we’ve evolved and survived as a species.

“What’s also being lost in this conversation are the physical advantages breastfeeding gives to moms, not just to their babies. Moms who've breastfed for a about 23 months or more in total have lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, some cancers, and more.”

Beyond nutrition
“As for the baby--it would be unethical for me to state that formula provides the infant with the same exposure to growth factors (including brain and neural growth) and protection from disease as does breast milk,” says Sigman-Grant.

“Breastfeeding goes way beyond nutrition. We can now measure minute quantities of bioactive substances in human milk, and determine their function within the baby. We have recognized over 200 of these. The science of lactation is exploding--too bad our cultural, social, economic and political worlds are so far behind.

“The fight shouldn't [include] recommending bottle feeding as a way of delivering gender equity or social justice,” says Sigman Grant. “The choice ought to be [in the context of] having appropriate support for breastfeeding.”

U.S. ranks last in the world in breastfeeding support
Last May, Save the Children reported that the U.S. ranks dead last in the world in providing the support nursing mothers, especially employed mothers, need for successful breastfeeding.

Beth Olson, Ph.D., an Extension nutrition specialist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, researches new models of supporting breastfeeding for low-income mothers, and for all women in the workplace. In her research, begun at Michigan State and continuing at UW-Madison, she has conducted focus groups and interviews with low-income mothers and managers of working mothers. She has also surveyed hundreds of companies’ human resource professionals, their new-mother employees, and their managers. She says most moms think breastfeeding is best and want to do it.

“...For working moms, what seems most important is their relationship with their immediate manager. We found in focus groups with managers much expression of support, but much ignorance of what’s involved, as well as reluctance to bring up the topic. If mom also doesn't feel comfortable talking to their manager, you can see the stalemate.

“Low income moms have much the same knowledge and desires on breastfeeding as those with higher incomes, but also more a sense that things beyond their control did or will cause them to stop early.

“We've found home visits and peer counseling  extremely successful at encouraging and supporting low-income mothers. Extension works to provide education on the benefits of breastfeeding to new mothers, and refers mothers to WIC for support to breastfeed.

“However, there aren’t enough home-visiting breastfeeding support programs to meet the needs of the mothers who could really benefit from help in what is often the most difficult time for breastfeeding--the first days home from the hospital.

“I'm not a fan of social marketing that uses negative messages, telling moms they should breastfeed, and that they’re hurting their baby if they don’t, but that then sends them out into a world that is does so many things that make breastfeeding the difficult, not the easy choice. That seems cruel,” Olson says.

“I'd rather that more of our [promotional] effort went into providing support,” says Olson. “Breastfeeding needs a strong social movement to make it the norm. We need to say as a society, "This is how it’s gonna be.”


Released September 9, 2013

Madeleine Sigman-Grant, Ph.D., University of Nevada Cooperative Extension,
Beth Olson, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin Extension,

Writer: Peg Boyles, eXtension,



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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.