Lactivists, Chill Out!

Rosa Brooks is an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Pity Barbara Walters, who got herself on the wrong side of the breast-feeding police by remarking that she felt uncomfortable sitting next to a breast-feeding woman on a plane. On Monday, the “lactivists” (that’s “lactation activists” to those of you who can’t tell the La Leche League from the Little League) gave Walters her comeuppance, staging a “nurse-in” in front of her New York office.

As the mother of two small children, both of whom I breast-fed for their first six months, it seems natural for me to take the lactivists’ side in this battle. So Walters felt uncomfortable on the plane? Not nearly as uncomfortable as she would have felt listening to a screaming, famished infant rejecting the unfamiliar bottle for five or six hours.

For decades, the (male) medical establishment told women to get those embarrassing breasts out of sight and feed their babies formula in nice hygienic bottles. Only after the first generation of feminists cited studies showing that breast milk is healthier for infants did doctors belatedly adopt the “breast is best” slogan.


The outcry over Walters’ insensitive remarks reflects an important feminist victory: Female and low-tech though it is, breast milk is superior to anything the boys could come up with, and today’s mothers rightly insist on the freedom to breast-feed anywhere they please.

But I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Walters too. She learned the hard way that the lactivists take no prisoners, a lesson many new mothers also learn. Breast-feeding is the party line. If you deviate from it, you’re a bad mother. Tell a lactivist that you can’t or don’t want to breast-feed, and she’ll insist that you’re condemning your child to a lifetime of poor health.

But there’s a complication here. Young babies nurse up to 12 times a day. When you’re breast-feeding, you can’t wait on tables, or take a deposition, or finish your astronaut training. If you need a half-hour break every few hours to cozy up to your baby (or worse, a breast pump), it’s mighty hard to do that other important thing the early feminists fought for: hold down a job.

Back before there were lactivists, feminists fought for two things. They wanted childrearing and other “women’s work” to be taken seriously, but they also wanted to make sure future generations of women wouldn’t be condemned to an endless round of diaper changing, while their husbands piloted planes or ran for Congress.

There are countless factors that influence an infant’s health and development. How ironic that the main issue seized by today’s medical establishment -- breast-feeding -- should be the one that constitutes a substantial barrier to combining motherhood with work outside the home. What kind of feminist victory is that?

I can hear the lactivists baying angrily: Are you suggesting that women should sacrifice their babies’ health and well-being just to grab an extra couple of years in the workforce?

For many women, there’s just no choice: Either they let their infants drink formula in day care while they go earn money or they bring up their children in poverty, which also isn’t optimal for infant development.

Anyway, let’s keep things in perspective, ladies. The health benefits of breast-feeding are unquestionably real, but except for infants in high-risk categories, they’re not earth-shattering, and they taper off substantially after four to six months.

Of course (the clincher for many a high-achieving mom), breast-fed babies do seem to do better on IQ tests than formula-fed babies. Breast-feeding your baby may net the little prodigy an extra three to eight points on a future IQ test.

Just think, this could translate into a 30- to 60-point edge on the SATs. On the other hand, Princeton Review, a leading SAT prep course provider, guarantees your child a 200-point SAT score boost for a mere $999. Compared with the cost of not working for several months, that’s a bargain.

Breast-feed if you can; the health benefits are real. But if your health or job makes it too difficult, there are countless other ways to help your child thrive. Hand-washing, limiting sweets, exercising and skipping the fries are all great for health. Lots of love, lots of books and lots of conversation will also boost IQ.

And if you really want to give your child a head start in life?

Research shows that children with highly involved fathers are healthier and do better in school. So consider handing Dad a bottle (formula or breast milk, whichever you can manage) and heading off to work while he stays home with the baby.

Now that would be a real feminist achievement.