Breast is best!

How language undermines breastfeeding




Ask anyone in the breastfeeding community and they'll tell you, with great enthusiasm, about the tremendous benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfed babies are healthier, smarter and even smell better than formula fed babies. In this comparative paradigm it's natural to say, "Breast is Best." Unfortunately, in doing so we actually open the door to establishing formula feeding as the norm.


Breast isn't best - it's the normal way feed babies. As Diane Wiessenger wrote in her essay, Watch Your Language, "Because breastfeeding is the biological norm, breastfed babies are not "healthier"; artificially-fed babies are ill more often and more seriously. Breastfed babies do not "smell better"; artificial feeding results in abnormal and unpleasant odor that reflects problems in an infant's gut."


She continues, "When we fail to describe the hazards of artificial feeding, we deprive mothers of crucial decision-making information." And that's a key point. Rather than promoting the benefits of breastfeeding, we need to shift the emphasis to the dangers of formula feeding.


A good example of this is the consumer health warnings on cigarette packaging. Consumers are not advised that non-smokers have lower rates of heart disease and lung cancer and that non-smokers give birth to healthier,  heavier full-term babies. The warnings on cigarette labels are very clear:


"Cigarettes cause cancer."

"Cigarettes cause strokes."

"Cigarettes hurt babies.

Tobacco use during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm birth. Babies born preterm

are at an increased risk of infant death, illness and disability."


Similarly, formula manufacturers should be required to place warnings on their products that reflect the proven health risks:


"Formula fed babies are at a higher risk for asthma."

"Formula fed babies are at a higher risk for cancer,

diabetes and cardiovascular disease."

"Formula fed babies have lower I.Q.s."


As Wiessenger points out,  "We cannot expect to create a breastfeeding culture if we do not insist on a breastfeeding model of health in both our language and our literature."


"All of us within the profession want breastfeeding to be our biological reference point. We want it to be the cultural norm; we want human milk to be made available to all human babies, regardless of other circumstances," wrote Wiessinger. "A vital first step toward achieving those goals is within immediate reach of every one of us. All we have to do is…watch our language." * Wiessinger D. Watch Your Language! J of Human Lact 12: 1-4, 1996


Inverting Reality

Presenting the benefits of breastfeeding as value-added not only reinforces the idea that formula feeding is the norm; it also skews any risk analysis. According to Wiessenger,

"Inverting reality becomes even more misleading when we use percentages, because the numbers change depending on what we choose as our standard. If B is 3/4 of A, then A is 4/3 of B. Choose A as the standard, and B is 25% less. Choose B as the standard, and A is 33 1/3% more. Thus, if an item costing 100 units is put on sale for "25% less" the price becomes 75 units. When the sale is over, and the item is marked back up, it must be marked up 33 1/3% to get the price up to 100. Those same figures appear in a recent study which found a "25% decrease" in breast cancer rates among women who were breastfed as infants. Restated using breastfed health as the norm, there was a 33-1/3% increase in breast cancer rates among women who were artificially fed. Imagine the different impact those two statements would have on the public."

Spring 2003 Newsletters Contents