Is Breastfeeding Natural?

(This is me breastfeeding (it isn’t))

Of course it is but the whole question of what is natural can cause a lot of damage when discussing breastfeeding. I recently had a bit of a ‘debate’ on FB with a friend of a friend about breastfeeding. A modern phenomenon and not the best place for reasoned discussion, I succumbed nonetheless. The friend used the word ‘breastapo’ to describe breastfeeding advocates, which I took umbridge with but after stewing for the best part of a day I decided to look at things through an anthropologist’s eyes and discovered an ethnographic study by Charlotte Faircloth titled ‘Militant Lactivism, Attachment Parenting and Intensive Motherhood in the UK and France’.

This is an ethnography of breastfeeding mothers of older children in London and Paris who regularly attended La Leche League meetings. La Leche League have done a lot of wonderful work promoting and supporting women to breastfeed however, some of the reasoning for recommending extended breastfeeding is rather dubious and I started to understand why this woman had used the insult. LLL state ‘‘Human beings’ ideas about when and how to wean are often determined by culture, not necessarily by what is best or natural for babies and mothers.’

Conjuring the notion of ‘natural’ to new mothers is manipulative and at a rational level deeply flawed.

The obsession in Western thought and science with distinguishing between what is natural and what is cultural is exactly that, something that belongs to our history of ideas and is in itself a cultural product. Having the categories of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are particular to us so we can’t come to a scientific conclusion about what is ‘natural’ when we can’t entirely agree on what ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are. Wading into this philosophical and anthropological discussion is not going to be LLL’s forte and they are in no position to state what is ‘natural’ for babies and mothers.

Faircloth quotes Bernice Hausman who’s written at length on the cultural study of breastfeeding: ‘Humans have discovered how to manipulate infant feeding (although the jury is still out on some of the biological and social effects of not nursing at all) through thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years of trial and error with a variety of substances and care arrangements’

Feeding babies other than at the breast, is therefore also ‘natural’. As I outlined in my previous post the pressure on women to recreate the more ‘natural’ state of hunter gatherers without taking on the rest of those societies’ structures nor their physical circumstances requires some self-reflection at least. LLL mothers are often well educated women who find themselves taking on the majority of the childcare in order to meet the demands that would amongst hunter gatherers be shared by many. It can have a negative impact on their relationships as partners are often squeezed out of the shared bed to make way for their breastfeeding child. Putting the child first at all times is considered a requirement of a natural and good mother but often at the cost of many other relationships and their own wellbeing.

Bottle feeding is natural too.

So what am I trying to say? That breastfeeding isn’t that great? No, it really is as great as they all say, it is an amazing substance and a source of great nourishment and comfort for babies and young children but at the end of the day it is only milk. And only one part of how we bring up our children. I don’t think women are helped enough to breastfeed and I think a lot more would do it and for longer if they felt they could but if we look at what’s ‘natural’ then let’s look at the hunter gatherers that breastfeed for years, who are often (falsely) considered closer to nature. Do they have great, plentiful, appropriate weaning foods for young children? Often not, so breastfeeding makes sense in this circumstance. Do they all wean gently? No. Even the gentle !Kung put bitter herbs on their breasts to repel hungry little mouths which I doubt LLL would recommend. There is no ‘natural’ human state outside of culture, humans have been giving cereals to tiny babies for thousands of years and infant feeding bottles have been made out of ceramic and bone and have been found all over the world. If you want to breastfeed but are finding it hard physically, emotionally, socially then do look for help because it is a great thing to do, especially at the start but if you have ended up bottle feeding your baby then you are a ‘natural’ mother too and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

I based this post on a chapter in Charlotte Faircloth’s book, Militant Lactivism: Attachment Parenting and Intensive Motherhood in the UK and France


6 thoughts on “Is Breastfeeding Natural?

  1. Great post – thank you. And I loved the idea that ‘The obsession in Western thought and science with distinguishing between what is natural and what is cultural is exactly that, something that belongs to our history of ideas and is in itself a cultural product.’ Is there somewhere I can follow this up and learn more? How can I reference it? Have you written about it more fully?


    1. Thanks for letting me know! In the paper by Charlotte Faircloth she references Marilyn Strathern on this particular topic. I’ll look it up and get you more info.


      1. If you can find any references that would be really brilliant… I’m trying to bring a more evolutionary perspective into aspects of psychotheapy, particularly in relam of early (attachment) trauma, but people get so hung up on nature vs nurture. Would be incredibly helpful if I could argue this is a cultural construct!


      2. the quote in Faircloth’s book is the following: ‘Nature and culture tend to acquire certain meanings as categories of analysis when those working mainly in an empiricist tradition turn to the exegesis of cognitive systems … nature and culture are under- stood in an essentialist sense: that is, peoples apparently entertaining notions of this order may be thought of as wrestling with the same problems of control and definition as form the content of these terms for ourselves.’ (Strathern 1982: 177)
        So follow up on Strathern and she should elaborate further.

        Liked by 1 person

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