The Cult of Breastfeeding

Dawn Davenport


I’m all for breastfeeding. Breast milk rocks for babies, and breastfeeding can be a divinely feminine experience for moms. But lately I’ve begun to wonder if maybe, just maybe, we’ve gone a smidgen too far with the breastfeeding cheerleading. Maybe when we’ve come to the point of coining a term for radical breastfeeding activist–lactivist–we’ve tipped the balance and wandered into dangerous territory.299627189_f94a9c254a

I don’t so much care whether a group of woman want to pound their collective nursing chests and proclaim the power of breast feeding. Heck, I might even join them. But I do care when this cult of breastfeeding makes adoptive parents say:


I tried [breastfeeding], but it didn’t work for me. For those of us who have had a bodies fail us so many times, this was just another disappointment for me. I know others who have had it work, and I think that’s great, but I just don’t want others to think they are the only ones whose bodies have failed them yet again. [Posted in response to a link to Creating a Family’s Top Ten Tips for Breastfeeding Your Adopted Child]


Or makes moms of premature IVF twins say:


My twins were born 14 weeks premature and spent 1.5 and 2 months in the NICU and one has many more surgeries to go in her life. I tried to pump enough to supply the girls with milk, but eventually had to give up. I was so mad at my body for failing to get pregnant without IVF, failing to be able to carry the twins closer to term, and then for failing to make milk. I feel like a complete failure.


Yeah, I care very much.

It is possible that I’m feeling a wee bit guilty. Creating a Family has the largest collection of resources for those who want to try to breastfeed an adopted child or a child born through surrogacy.  By providing these resources it is entirely possible that we are adding to the pressure to breastfeed. That wasn’t our intent, but that might still be the effect, at least for some people.

So, here’s the truth. Yes, it is possible to breast feed your adopted baby, but few women, especially those who have not breast fed in the past, are able to supply enough milk to fully support their child, and end up supplementing with formula or donated breast milk. And that is just fine. It’s also just fine to focus on parenting, and not try to force your body through drugs to produce milk without a pregnancy. It is just fine if you can’t pump enough milk for your premature twins and give them formula. It’s just fine if you stop breastfeeding when you go back to work because you can’t or don’t want to pump at work. It is just fine to want a full night’s sleep and let dad give an occasional bottle of formula. The truth is plenty of children have thrived on formula and yours will too.

While it makes inherent good sense that human breast milk is best for human babies, medical research has not consistently been able to support the advantages.

[T]he medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that [Dr. William] Sears describes. More like tiny, unsure baby steps: two forward, two back, with much meandering and bumping into walls. A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design. [from The Atlantic article “The Case Against Breast Feeding

Although I find this somewhat interesting, for me the lack of research is beside the point. I believe that breastfeeding is best if possible, but if not possible, then don’t sweat it. Formula fed babies aren’t doomed for a life of poor health and subpar intelligence. I may be defensive because I was bottle fed, but almost everyone in my generation was bottle fed, and we seem relatively fine, and we should have the longest life expectancy of any generation of Americans in history.

It is interesting that the emphasis, and perhaps over-emphasis, on breastfeeding is in no way universal and breaks out along racial and socio-economic lines. (OK, you know me, as I started to write this I just had to do a tiny bit of research, which I know you want me to share.)  College educated, older, wealthier, white and Latina moms are more likely to breastfeed and more likely to continue breastfeeding for the first 12 months.  As luck would have it, this is the same demographics that are more likely to go through infertility treatment and adoption, and the same demographics that are more likely to feel guilty for not being able to breastfeed. I feel torn; I want moms to breastfeed, but I don’t think it is necessary or healthy to beat yourself up if you can’t or don’t.

I am a mom of four through birth and adoption. With my birth children I breast fed for a year and loved it; when I adopted I bottle fed, and truthfully, I loved that too. My husband especially loved bottle feeding. With our children by birth, he always felt second best when it came to feeding, but with adoption, he was on even footing. I loved that he and the grandparents could be more involved as well.

I know you all really really want me to share more of the research on breastfeeding rates in the US. So, as cherry on top of the sundae I present breastfeeding rates in the US. I find it fascinating to see the regional differences. (Honestly, I can’t help myself.)



 Image credit: Jean et Melo

14/09/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 15 Comments

15 Responses to The Cult of Breastfeeding

  1. Shawna Smith Shawna Smith says:

    I loved this blog! I often say things like. . . don’t talk about politics, religion or breastfeeding. People get so up in arms and judgmental about something that is such a personal decision. I don’t get it. My sister was in a moms support group for a year after her first kiddo and the group actually split up because of breastfeeding vs formula feeding debates. how sad that moms can’t just support each other and the real challenges we face everyday. As an adoptive mom of foster kids, when I am in the middle of fighting for an IEP for my FAS child and you see people get all up in arms over a mom breastfeeding a four year old. . . who the hell cares. her choice, her decision and if it makes her kid a weirdo then it will be her problem to fix, if it makes the kid a genius. . . that will also be her problem to deal with 🙂

  2. Avatar Megan says:

    So I agree and disagree. During the month I was in the Nicu w my adopted daughter over and over I heard nurses tell young minority girls that it was “ok” if they couldn’t breast feed. Not once did I hear the nurses explain how milk comes in and how they could attempt to increase their supply. No one showed them kangaroo care. It was frustrating because I wanted nothing more then to breast feed. I was able to get a supply but she never latched on after a month feeding from a bottle in the hospital. The lactation consultant I worked with was amazing and really helped me identify realistic goals. For me it was to give her as much breast milk I could. It was ok that she used the breast shield. Breast feeding was a big part of my bonding w my daughter and I’m glad I gave it my all.

    As society goes… I only had one person chastise me for bottle feeding- some random lady at the gym. Right after I regretted not telling her to mind her own business. I decided that if someone else ever had the gull to say anything was going to get an education. I think women feel they can tell each other what they think on breast feeding. Strangers don’t know that I’m bottle feeding because I have no other choice but to be honest it really doesn’t matter- each women needs to determine what is best for her family and define her own success.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Megan, in many ways I agree completely. The blog was written because of the desire of some breast feeding advocates to judge those who aren’t breastfeeding without knowing the facts. On the other hand, I do think that the dismal breastfeeding rates in the US are appalling.

  3. Lindsay Bragdon Lindsay Bragdon says:

    Dawn I just want to thank you for posting this. I am all for b/f and did it myself for 7 months. I was so proud of myself for making it as long as i did and over the last few months the amount of social information and rara-sis-boom-ba ppl out there for b/f is just crazy, it started to make me feel guilty for not doing it longer, and feeling sad for those mothers who tried their hardest to b/f and couldn’t. Again, nothing against anyone, but I was just thinking everything you were saying in your post to myself less than 24 hours ago. All in all, i couldn’t agree more with your post, you never cease to amaze me with all your wonderful information. loyal supporter of your info-LB-

  4. Jennifer Michalik Olson Jennifer Michalik Olson says:

    Christi I’m sorry you had that experience. I didn’t meet more than a handful of people that weren’t shocked that I could bf a baby I had adopted.

  5. Christi Tipton Christi Tipton says:

    Jennifer, sad as it is (and as much as I had support) it’s amazing the number of people, including women, who think that lactation is a simple product of holding a baby that is now yours in your arms – regardless of how it got there. You know, like we should just be able to turn the milk tap on and off. Thank goodness not everyone’s like that, but yeah – the ignorance, and judgmental power of anyone who firmly believes what they ‘know’ to be true is amazing!

  6. Jennifer Michalik Olson Jennifer Michalik Olson says:

    I really don’t know how anyone could make adoptive moms feel bad. I don’t think anyone expects them to bf. Most people don’t even know it is possible. I would never think less of an adoptive mom that doesn’t try this because it is so hard. I just think it is great to give some encouragement, because it can work and does give some really great benefits.

  7. Jennifer Michalik Olson Jennifer Michalik Olson says:

    I’m with Tipper. I am far from a lactavist, but I think our culture discourages women from breastfeeding. The statistics you cited show it. How sad that less than 40% bf at least 3 months and less than 20% at least 6 months. I think lactavists are just pushing back because there is so much pressure to give up bf if it gets a little hard. BF is hard, but so worthwhile. And women don’t realize the hard part only lasts a short time (most of the time). Adoptive bf is even harder. I was successful twice, but it was so much work. I was so glad I had support from my husband and family. I would never push someone to adoptive bf, but I think it is great that your site gives them the information to pursue it if they want. Many women don’t even know this is an option.

  8. Jamie Reviere Gilmore Jamie Reviere Gilmore says:

    Great blog!

  9. Christi Tipton Christi Tipton says:

    It’s funny because I had maybe two people ask me if I intended to breastfeed when I adopted my oldest daughter. I kindly said no, thanks and moved on (as far as they knew) but felt so bad that I couldn’t, especially at night when I’d have to wait for my husband to get a bottle and bring it to me and the baby because I had a broken foot. When I had my youngest three years later, I looked forward to, and enjoyed b/f but my husband really felt left out too. He couldn’t participate in feeding her like he did our oldest. Emotionally it was both tough and rewarding regardless of how our daughters were fed. I would have to say too both of my daughters are bright and have no problems with learning and have no health issues (other than both, oddly, being allergic to the same antibiotic).

  10. Shawna, I’m giving you a standing ovation right now. There are so many huge issues that we face as parents, and so many reasons to have a divergent of opinions. We don’t need to look for more. We can, and should, do all we can to encourage breastfeeding by supporting moms who want to breastfeed and educating pregnant women on the importance of breast milk. BUT we can, and should, draw the line at judging woman once they’ve made the decision not to breastfeed. There are many reasons why someone might not breastfeed and chances are good those that judge are clueless as to these reasons.

  11. I think it is true that most people have never thought about breastfeeding an adopted child. And yes, I’m glad our resources are helping to educate about this possibility.

  12. Jennifer, I see your point. The statistics are interesting and are an average. If you look at less educated woman, or black woman, or younger woman, the percentage is significantly less. My objection is when it goes from support and encouragement to making woman feel bad, especially adoptive moms.

  13. Avatar Anon says:

    Thanks for posting, I totally agree. In my experience, I got the most pressure to breastfeed from the same ‘hands off’ socials issues, pro-choice segment of this country. Cult of breastfeeding indeed! I feel guilty every time I mention to someone I didn’t particularly like it. It is socially isolating, hard on my body, and not easy to do while working (even with an extremely accommodating employer).I’m glad nursing mothers are supported, but I wish the lactivists would give us all some slack.

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