The Current

Breastfeeding 'lactivists' may be doing more harm than good, says author

It's a message you hear again and again: Breastfeeding is best. But some moms who struggle with breastfeeding say the pressure to do it can be too much to bear. The Current looks into the burden some mothers face and the pushback against "Lactivists."
Breasfeeding is big business and bad policy, says Courtney Jung, author of 'Lactivism.' (Reuters)

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Florence Leung, was a new mother struggling with postpartum depression when she went missing from her home in New Westminster, BC. Her body was found in November. Police don't suspect foul play.

In a moving Facebook message, Leung's husband Kim Chen tells new moms everywhere:

"You are not alone. You are Not a bad mother. Do not EVER feel bad or guilty about not being able to 'exclusively breastfeed,' even though you may feel the pressure to do so."

There's no way to know how Leung may have felt, or whether those pressures played a part in her postpartum depression, but many women have echoed similar sentiments around the pressure to breastfeed.

Courtney Jung, author of Lactivism, is critical of how the "breast is best" ideology is being pushed by breastfeeding advocates, or "lactivists." 

"It's moving from the idea that, you know, breastfeeding is good, I should breastfeed my own children ... to everybody should breastfeed their own their children, to finally, mothers who don't breastfeed are irresponsible, or bad mothers and are not doing the best by their children," she tells The Current's guest host Connie Walker.

The idea that breast is crucially important for infant well-being and development is a vastly overblown idea.- Courtney Jung

Jung breastfed her own children and sees breastfeeding as a good way to feed babies but says beyond some women not being physically able to breastfeed, the ability for mothers and families to make their own decision is reduced when an ideology becomes a "moral marker."

Jung says the medical benefits associated with breastfeeding, from stymying the effects cancer, obesity, Crohn's disease and infections, have weak research in which study results are mostly inconclusive.

We see women... who feel like they're failing at their very first task of motherhood.- Dr.  Ariel   Dalfen

"So the idea that breast is crucially important for infant well-being and development is a vastly overblown idea."

Psychiatrist Dr. Ariel Dalfen and postpartum depression expert has seen firsthand how the message of "breast is best" can put pressures on new moms. 
Have you experienced pressure to breastfeed? (Nicky Loh/Reuters)

"We see women who are having challenges with feeding … who feel like they're failing at their very first task of motherhood … and this is a significant contributor I'd say to their mental state."  

While there's a lot of controversy on the scientific evidence available, Dr. Dalfen says "challenges with breastfeeding and the intense pressure, and the stress with that, can certainly be a significant factor that leads to postpartum depression and anxiety."

Dr. Jan Christilaw, vice-president for Provincial Women's and Newborn Health at B.C. Women's Hospital and Health Centre, argues Dr. Dalfen's patients have already been diagnosed with postpartum depression and for the vast majority of women, breastfeeding is a positive experience.

"It really is important that we separate postpartum depression from breastfeeding on the scale where most women are experiencing that."

I think that there are people who feel so strongly about breastfeeding that that choice .... becomes secondary.- Dr. Jan Christilaw

While Dr. Christilaw is aware that many women may not be able to breastfeed, "for most women, and for most babies breastfeeding is the natural thing to do."

Activists from all sides, according to Dr. Christilaw need to respect women and their choices.

"And yes I think that there are people who feel so strongly about breastfeeding that that choice ... becomes secondary," says Dr. Christilaw.

"On the other hand it's such an important time, right after the baby's born you have a very short period of time to get it established, and we do do everything we do to support women if they make that choice."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Ines Colabrese.