Breastfeeding and Justice

Last week, the popular Christian blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans drew her readers’ attention to mothers living in poverty in places like Bolivia. These women, whom Evans met in person, daily face crucial decisions–educate this child or that one? can we afford books or can we afford food? Evans contrasted these decisions with North American “mommy wars”–debates like breast or bottle (feeding), cloth or disposable (diapers), and Sears or Ezzo (gurus). Such choices, in light of the life and death decisions of mothers in the developing world, may seem unimportant. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter–they do, and maybe even on a global scale.

nursing Graeme just after his birth

Of course, our ability to make choices about parenting styles is a direct result of our relative economic security and privilege. But that doesn’t mean that this ability is trivial or unimportant in light of extreme suffering. In fact, I think that how we choose to live–including how we spend our money and our time (and eating’s a big part of that)–is organically connected to suffering and justice both here and elsewhere. It’s also connected to how we view ourselves in relationship to the Creator and the rest of creation.

Graeme, 1 week old, in cloth diapers. (& missing a sock. It's so hard to keep socks on babies.)

I am fully aware that there are many women for whom formula feeding is the right choice. I have had a number of friends who were (for various reasons) unable to breastfeed their children, either wholly or in part. These women bottle-fed, or supplemented with bottles, and they deserved exactly NONE of the criticism and judgment that all of them faced from breastfeeding advocates who made them to feel that they were inferior mothers for using formula.


1. everyone (even the formula companies) know that ‘breast is best.’

This isn’t debated! It’s even on the formula labels! The composition of  breastmilk is incredibly complex; it contains all kinds of things that science can’t even UNDERSTAND, let alone replicate. It is a wonder of God’s creation.

ALSO? It’s kind to creation. There’s no transporting, no trash, no waste. It’s the original ‘local food’ choice. (Not to mention the choice of those too cheap  thrifty to spend $ on formula if they don’t have to…)

2. NEVERTHELESS, formula companies worm their way into women’s minds…

Used to be, in the ‘progress’-loving Eisenhower years, that people thought of breastmilk as “backward and old-fashioned” and formula as “scientific and progressive.” While that’s faded away, the reach of the formula companies’ ads is still long. I have known many women who, thanks to the long reach of formula marketing, seriously doubted their bodies’ ability to produce enough milk for their babies. 

While this is a ‘lifestyle choice’ for most of us in the West, for women in developing nations, “breast or bottle” is a life-or-death choice. Years ago, Nestle (along with other companies) came under fire from breastfeeding advocates for giving free samples of formula to poor women. But formula must be mixed properly WITH CLEAN WATER, and this was not always available to Nestle’s target consumers. Plus, bottle feeding meant that the mothers’ milk would dry up. And THEN what happened, when the money to by formula dried up?

(I can’t seem to find an owner; I discovered it here–the mother in the picture is reported to have said, “use this picture if you think it will help [raise awareness].”)

Creating dependence on formula among at-risk populations without reliable sources of both clean water and cash is unethical, if not criminal.

designed by Rebecca Clark,

And so…

3. Supporting breastfeeding IS an ethical act.

It’s a responsible way to live as a member of the community of God’s creation. It’s a way of living lightly on the planet while choosing solidarity with the members of our global community who do not have the luxury of choice.

{And if you’re thinking, “hmn, does breastfeeding really even need advocates?”, read this recent piece-on how U.S. hospitals do a “bad job” of encouraging breastfeeding–and think again!}

Some of our ‘mommy choices’ in the West seem trivial in light of the extreme suffering and struggle of mothers elsewhere. But I don’t think they necessarily are trivial–they can have impacts going far beyond our own households. (Imagine if every American chose to borrow or buy used of consuming endless piles of NEW baby stuff?) We who have the luxury of ‘choice’ also have the responsibility to live in such a way so as not to consume so many more times our fair share of global resources.

So by all means, do give aid if you’re able–but consider changing the way YOU live, too. Your choices matter to more than just you.

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