When you think about how babies get fed while they’re still attached at the breast — that’s right, by nursing — you might not immediately conjure up “cheeky” or “funny.” But there was an era when people actually used those terms. Back in the 1970s, women who nursed were often called “nursing mothers,” which sounds so quaintly antiquated now.
A woman would be considered something of a freak if she didn’t latch on her baby. And what did latching mean back then anyway? It meant sucking — but only because scientists thought that’s all a newborn needed to eat.
They believed that the infant wasn’t ready until he latched onto his mother’s nipple. But today, even though most babies can go longer without eating than once seemed possible, no one uses these phrases anymore.
The new lingo instead focuses entirely on feeding: nurse (to feed), bottle-feed, and formula-feed. It’s perhaps unsurprising considering where our language comes from. Much like the early days of modern medicine, the science behind lactation has been largely ignored.
For centuries before the 18th century, physicians had little knowledge about reproduction or child development. In fact, many relied upon ancient Greek mythology to explain birth as well as disease. As recently as the 1700s, the prevailing theory among some physicians held that the uterus itself produced milk.
And although it took almost another 200 years to realize that breasts weren’t just fatty tissue, it wasn’t until 1880 that American pediatrician Harvey Kellogg became convinced that children exclusively breastfed until age two had healthier teeth and fewer illnesses. He built a sanitarium in Battle Creek Michigan based solely on this idea.
Nowadays, however, the field of lactation research has exploded. Breastfeeding rates have increased dramatically since 1980 thanks to advances in technology that make it easier for moms to pump and store milk, and advocacy groups have pushed for more access to public spaces specifically designated for breastfeeding purposes. Still, lactation remains understudied compared to other aspects of pregnancy and childbirth.
And yet, despite decades of progress, many within the medical community remain skeptical of its benefits. Some argue that breastfeeding studies aren’t worth investing resources into because the results rarely hold true across every population.
Others say they don’t believe that infants should be completely separated from their mothers during the first few weeks after birth. Most of them claim that any potential benefit to the health of the baby isn’t enough reason to encourage women to continue nursing past weaning time. Instead, they suggest supplementing nursing sessions with bottles of pumped milk and/or formula.
many do agree that it’s best for both mother and child to breastfeed beyond infancy. So why does it seem that the conversation surrounding breast milk hasn’t evolved alongside advancements in understanding the process? Perhaps it stems from a lack of political will to support scientific evidence that may contradict established practices. Or maybe it’s due to outdated ideas rooted in sexism and racism — a history that continues to affect how society views lactating bodies today. Whatever the case, it’s clear that something needs to change.
In recent months, several prominent members of the medical establishment have begun advocating for changes in breastfeeding terminology. One such advocate is Dr. Rebecca Shansky, chief scientist of the Center for Health Policy & Systems Research at Northeastern University. She says that the current system doesn’t help new parents navigate questions related to breastfeeding.
She describes herself as someone who believes that everyone should feel comfortable expressing their own opinions and beliefs. That’s probably why she came up with her own alternative labels last summer when discussing pumping.
Dr. Shanksys wordsmithing led directly to the formation of La Leche League International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the value of breastfeeding. Her work inspired others to do the same, sparking conversations between friends and colleagues nationwide.
Since forming the group, dozens of individuals have reached out to the group seeking advice. Many asked if they’d heard of similar organizations. Almost overwhelmingly, the answer was no.
According to Shannon Kelleher, director of education of La Leche League, the group receives hundreds of messages each month asking questions about breastfeeding. To date, the number of inquiries regarding alternatives to nursing exceeds the number of email subscriptions.
Dr. Shanksy points out that the phrase “human milk” appears in the title of more articles than “colostrum,” the substance that flows through the body shortly after giving birth and helps protect against infection. Although colostrum is technically human milk, the latter phrase implies that it’s a magical substance that humans rely on for survival. This misconception persists even though colostrum plays no role whatsoever in helping a baby grow healthy bones.
To combat misconceptions, the group published a guidebook titled How Your Baby Is Born: An Essential Guide to Normal Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood earlier this year. Inside, readers will find information about the different stages of labor and delivery, including details about breastfeeding. The book contains detailed explanations of normal fetal development and shows images of a pregnant abdomen inflated using air.
Shannon hopes that the publication will demystify breastfeeding.
“We want to provide accurate information on the importance of breastfeeding and dispel myths and misinformation that exists in the general public,” she says.
The controversy over breastfeeding terminology
While proponents of breastfeeding cite numerous reasons for doing so, critics contend that much of the evidence supporting breastfeeding relies on observational data rather than rigorous clinical trials. Yet, according to Dr. Michael Radesky, associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia Medical School, randomized control trials are generally regarded as having higher levels of credibility than observational studies.
Observational studies tend to show associations between variables, meaning it’s difficult to determine whether one factor caused another. Observations can only point toward causation if certain factors are ruled out. Randomized control trials take things further. Researchers randomly assign participants to either a treatment or comparison group. Then, they follow both populations closely over time to see whether the outcome differs significantly between the two groups. If it does, researchers can attribute differences in the outcomes to the variable being studied.
Yet observational studies are common in the world of parenting, too. When determining whether vitamin D supplements reduce the risk of respiratory infections, for example, researchers found that children supplemented with vitamins had a lower incidence of colds. Other studies showed that exposure to sunlight reduced skin cancer risks. Even though such findings come from carefully controlled experiments, they’ve received far less scrutiny than random control trial results involving breastfeeding.
This is likely due to the sheer amount of interest in the topic. While nutritionists debate the merits of Vitamin C supplementation, for instance, tens of millions of Americans turn to Facebook and Twitter to ask questions about breastfeeding.
Radeksy wants to prevent confusion for these patients. “I’m worried that people are going to try to use anecdotes and testimonials to tell people what works for them,” he says.
He argues that the way the word “work” is typically interpreted means that a person must experience positive effects from something.
Since it takes time for new moms to establish a regular pattern of breastfeeding, it seems unlikely that anyone would seek out advice from anecdotal experiences alone. Rather, Radecy suggests focusing on concrete guidelines.
For instance, he recommends telling people exactly how long they’ll need to breastfeed prior to beginning a discussion about alternatives. Patients might hear comments like, “You’ll need to keep your baby close to your chest for six months,” or “Your baby will start drinking from the bottle around three months old.” Such statements acknowledge that new parents won’t know exactly how long they need to nurse until they stop producing adequate amounts of milk.
If someone asks a question along these lines, Radecky encourages them to talk to their doctor. His goal is simply to avoid miscommunication.
“People shouldn’t feel bad for wanting information,” he says.
Even if the patient ultimately chooses to switch methods, Radecy notes that providing options should help improve confidence.
“They may decide that formula is fine, but they wouldn’t necessarily feel confident saying that,” he explains. “They may discover that they really enjoy breastfeeding.”
As a result, he adds, parents may become motivated to learn everything they can about their method of choice.
Swapping out “:LATCH”
Another criticism of breastfeeding centers on the term “latch.” Critics argue that it implies that a mother holds her baby tightly and presses down firmly while feeding him.
Instead, many view this technique as potentially harmful to both parent and child. Studies have shown that compressing the chest can cause breathing problems in premature infants and lead to neurological complications later in life. Women who practice the traditional method commonly report experiencing pain and discomfort throughout the day.
Breastfeeding advocates counter that holding a baby upright and away from the chest wall allows for proper airflow. Additionally, they argue that compression techniques aren’t necessary for successful breastfeeding.