By Melissa Bartick, M.D.
Judging from the hype around Courtney Jung’s new book “Lactivism,” breastfeeding backlash is alive and kicking. In fact, if Donald Trump suddenly jumped into the breastfeeding fray, he might sound a bit like Jung: In her world, breastfeeding advocates are nearly always “lactivists,” self-righteous extremists preying on innocent mothers in the name of science and good parenting.
Jung, a professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Toronto, conjures a villain (or villains) everyone can rally against, as evidenced in the book’s subtitle: “How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy.”
If only some of the glowing book reviews mentioned Jung’s sloppy reading of the scientific literature, her absurd claims about the breastfeeding industrial complex and her misplaced theories of breastfeeding class warfare.
Let’s be clear: There is no place for shaming any mother about how she feeds her infant. There are indeed people out there who deserve our ire, who shame and pressure women instead of listening and educating. But Jung lumps nearly all breastfeeding advocates into this camp, stoking hatred of an entire group where only some are guilty.
Perhaps the book is popular for the same reason Trump is popular. It taps into mothers’ collective anxiety, anger and fears over a highly emotional topic, and then hold up twin “culprits”: breastfeeding zealots and bad science. The only problem is, the actual zealots are few (though offensive), and the science is not as Jung states.
Here are some facts: Breastfeeding mothers still get harassed in public and at work, and formula feeding mothers are subject to shame as well. For decades, formula feeding has been the norm in this country, and for much of our society it’s still the norm. CDC data show low-income women and African-American women have lower breastfeeding rates than middle class white women.
Not everyone can breastfeed and not everyone wants to breastfeed, but data show 68 percent of women who want to exclusively breastfeed do not meet their own goals.
To be fair, Jung does a few things right. For instance, a 2007 report from the Agency for Health Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that exclusively breastfeeding for three months cuts the risk of ear infections in half. To her credit, Jung highlights the same data from a different perspective, illustrating that six babies would need to be exclusively breastfed for three months to prevent one ear infection. And, also to her credit, she highlights fairly recent data showing little if any link between breastfeeding and lower risk of asthma, eczema and type 1 diabetes.
But overall, Jung’s grasp on the medical research is poor. Scientific papers are peer reviewed by other researchers who are experts in the same field and must pass rigorous standards before publication. Jung is not a medical researcher. While I don’t know if Jung’s book was reviewed by any medical authority, as a reviewer myself I can say it never would have made it past the first stage of the peer review process. It was reviewed by editors whose goal is to sell books.
She misstates so much of the medical literature, one wonders if she did more than just skim through these papers. Here are a few examples of inaccuracies:
• The rate of HIV transmission from mothers to their 6-month-old infants via breast milk is 4 percent among those exclusively breastfed, according to a study in The Lancet; Jung wrongly puts that number at 22 percent. Continue reading