OPINION: The benefits of breastfeeding are oversold

Promoters of breastfeeding claim the practice can prevent everything from Crohn’s disease to cancer. But political scientist Courtney Jung says "lactivists" are overselling the benefits of breastfeeding and putting too much pressure on mothers to follow their lead.
Courtney Jung argues breastfeeding doesn't provide as many health benefits as "lactivists" would have you believe.

Promoters of breastfeeding claim the practice comes with a huge range of health benefits: from short-term defence against viruses and bacteria to reduced risks of diabetes and protection against some forms of cancer. 

Health Canada's website states that "breastfeeding is the normal and unequalled method of feeding infants."

But political scientist Courtney Jung is challenging the pedestal placement the majority has given to breastfeeding. She's a professor at the University of Toronto and the author of "Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy."

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

What made you question all of the messages you were seeing and hearing about the benefits of breastfeeding?

Well, when I had my children, I never thought twice about the benefits of breastfeeding. I believed that breastfeeding was crucially important for the health and development of infants. But from the beginning, I was sceptical of the moral fervour surrounding breastfeeding: the consensus around it and how strongly people felt about breastfeeding. These types of consensus aren't always driven by the evidence, so it's that disjuncture between what science tells us and what people believe that was what was really interesting to me.

So you started to look more deeply into it. What did you find?

I found that a lot of the research on breastfeeding is identified by scientists themselves as weak and inconclusive because it's all observational... and they also have to control for what they call confounding factors. Women who breastfeed, for example, are also in higher socio-economic brackets, they are less likely to work, they are more likely to have access to good health care and they also tend not to smoke. Any one of those factors could be what is producing the better health outcome... I think that people need to make their own decisions about this, but my worry is that a lot of women can not breastfeed... When breastfeeding is so hard -- and there are many women breastfeeding at tremendous personal cost -- I feel like it's important that they are able to make decisions about whether breastfeeding works for them, based on an accurate understanding of what the benefits of breastfeeding really are and what they aren't.

What kind of pressure to breastfeed does the average mother face?

The average mother faces overwhelming pressure to breastfeed. The pressure comes from everywhere... If you're on the front line -- the people who are on the front line are women who are pregnant or women who have little babies -- it is as if you are being evangelized, pretty much constantly.
To what extent is that pressure coming from people who want to share facts, who want to really help, and to what extent is it crossing the line into shaming?

Both are going on. I think that a lot of people do want to share facts but one of the problems is that the facts they're sharing are inaccurate. And that's part of my concern: there is a lot of misinformation out there around this topic. So they're sharing inaccurate facts and then they do, almost immediately, cross the line into shaming because if breast is so much better for your child than feeding your child formula, then how could you possibly make a decision to feed your baby formula?

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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