More Than Just Nourishment: Examining the Cultural Perspectives of Women and Breastfeeding

Aug 15, 2023 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Artwork created with artificial intelligence

The United Nations declared the first week in August as World Breastfeeding Week. Historically, cultural norms, limited medical knowledge, and societal attitudes towards women’s roles have influenced ideas about breastfeeding. As our knowledge of breastfeeding has developed, we now recognize its importance for the health of both mother and baby.  Breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 Diabetes, and some cancers. Guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the American Pediatrics Association both recommend that infants nurse exclusively for the first six months of life in order to see benefits.   Yet, some women are still apprehensive about their decision to breastfeed. Breastfeeding aversion stems from a lack of education, interest, ideas surrounding modesty, perceived inability, and overall frustration. 

And while breastfeeding is encouraged, a well-fed baby is always the best option. I exclusively breastfed my son for the first year of life. For my middle child, I did a mix-and-match. For my third child, I breastfed for three months and bottle-fed the rest of the way. I was very upfront with my daughter’s pediatrician about this fact. While I did receive initial pushback, our pediatrician confided in me that she had bottle-fed all of her children as well. It was from her that I learned that “a well-fed baby is the best-fed baby.” Furthermore, if the choice comes down to protecting your mental health vs. giving your baby the breast, moms should always put their well-being first. 

Among infants born in 2019, most (83.2%) started out receiving some breast milk, and 78.6% were receiving any breast milk at 1 month. At 6 months, 55.8% of infants received any breast milk and 24.9% received breast milk exclusively (Figure 1). Families can face many challenges when it comes to breastfeeding.

United States Census Bureau 2023

“A Well-Fed Baby Is The Best-Fed Baby”

We often speak about cultural attitudes and financial barriers to breastfeeding, however, we talk less about mothers and returning to work and even making space for reconnecting with your partner in intimate ways and planning for more children to strengthen their legacies. The idea of distributing the labor aspect of breastfeeding to a wet nurse, or the more socially acceptable act of bottle feeding has existed since antiquity. Among European royal families, such as the Tudors, Romanovs, and Bourbons, almost exclusively employed the use of wet-nurses to feed their children. However, this was not solely relegated to Europe. This was found in all royal families such as the Aztecs, Egyptians, the Ottoman Empire, and the Chinese Imperial family to name a few. 

Inuit Mother breastfeeding Courtesy of Library of Congress

While we may scoff idea today, this was common practice among royalty in order for the mother to quickly return to her royal duties as a helpmate to her husband as well as produce more children and grow the family dynasty. Yet, when you think about the labor aspect of this practice and the transactional nature of women’s bodies, there is a perceived lack of agency in the act. In essence, a woman’s value was solely connected to her ability to produce an heir and subsequent progeny for the sole purposes of the family at the behest of their husbands and social norms. It gets messy with sex, power, and arranged marriage, but we know that historically ideologies surrounding procreation can feel more labor intensive than practical or even motherhood focused. 

Portrait of Madame Charles Mitoire Courtesy of Public Domain

“American Slavery and Wet Nurses”

In America, the history of wet nurses is often tied to the forced labor practices of slavery and the use of African slaves to nurse White babies. Additionally, history reveals that this practice remains consistent with what it has always been. Yet, what makes it more of a blot on the American psyche is the dehumanization of these women who at times were not only breastfeeding the child of their masters but the half-sibling of their offspring. This up close and personal way of experiencing your husband’s mistress and possibly their child in close proximity to you can only be abated by creating a sense of delusion around the topic. For example, the introduction of the high call of motherhood and piety via “The Cult of True Womanhood” where women turned a blind eye to many things. One of which was possibly their husband’s affections towards their female slaves, as in the cases of some Chinese imperial families.

Chinese Dynasty Nursing Woman Courtesy of Public Domain

“It was common for emperors to become closer to their wet nurses than they were to their biological mother. And many Chinese still use the word nai ma (literally ‘milk mother’) to refer to modern-day nannies”

Wee Kek Koon, South China Morning Post

We don’t have to troll through history to see instances where the affections of men were placed towards women who seemed to do things traditionally defined as “womanly” or “motherly” such as being sexually available to them and caring for children. But, for royalty, they tended to function more like businesses that align for power and build up industry. Distorted ideas of class, labor, the utility of children, and the ownership of women’s bodies continue to resonate within society today. They simply morph into conversations surrounding gender identity, mommy wars, modern vs. traditional women, and abortion rights. 

African American Nurse and Child Courtesy Public Domain

The Dark Side of Breastfeeding

With breastmilk being marketed as the best choice for infants, and in many cases, rightfully so, the desire for mothers to provide infants with it has driven some families to the black market. In 2014, Medolac, an Oregon-based company working in conjunction with the Clinton Global Initiative, came under fire for seemingly targeting urban African American mothers in Detroit, MI by enticing them to join the Mothers Milk Cooperative, a milk bank operated by nursing mothers, who they had a partnership. The women would receive $1 per ounce for their milk if they passed the blood test and health screening necessary to be included in the coop. Medolac would then process and sterilize the milk and sell it to hospitals for $7 an ounce, according to a 2014 article in the New York Times. This practice is not only exploitive but reeks, of practices used during slavery. Often the milk of these mothers who have been marginalized and impoverished for generations are in need of money and are still being used to feed wealthy families of all races. 

As of now, there is no regulation of the sale of human breastmilk, which creates a preverbal black hole of limitless misuse of the product. A lot of which occurs hidden in plain sight on social media. The choice to breastfeed remains a deeply personal one. Although there will always be people who seek to subvert the good that breastfeeding does by using covert tactics that play on a mother’s insecurity to drive them to the black market, women should also know that there are options. I believe that women currently support each other and support other women’s choices in the matter.

Again, a well-fed baby is truly the best-fed baby, and many women are choosing to return to work and have no desire to pump. But it’s good that there is a lactation room available for women if they choose to do so. 

“I made the choice to ultimately formula feed.”

When I was pregnant with my third child, I told my husband that I would start out breastfeeding to get those antibodies in, but ultimately, I’d be switching over to formula. At the time I was teaching from home, and I’d gained better insight into my biology and how pregnancy affected my DNA. I wanted to shift from being a woman who felt “mommy knows best” to a more village mentality for handling my children. I wanted other family members to participate in raising her and to feel connected to her feeding experience as well.

Some people may ask, why didn’t you just give breastmilk in the bottle? The reality is, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to have a child, or a pump tied to my bosom 24/7. I wanted to drink wine without guilt. My children who had largely been breastfed both developed bad allergies and I attributed them to my health and habits. Who knows if it was true, but it’s what I believed. 

Another topic that is not discussed often is the connection between breastfeeding and depression. While there is not sufficient evidence to correlate the two, there is a thing called anecdotal evidence. In my case, I felt that the stress of motherhood and the attempts to be the most perfect mother, while battling the desire to have my freedom and give my child on-demand feedings developed into a sustained low-grade depression that I attempted to power through. While I never had feelings of self-harm or harming my child, I did develop a distorted sense of self and reality that left me feeling isolated within my “mommy” duties and home life. In conclusion, while breastfeeding is optimal, it is not for everyone. I have found that by sticking with my choice of ultimately largely formula-feeding my last child it was the best decision I made for me and my baby. I did not experience depression and I was able to be the best mother to my children because I was attentive and balanced—not overwhelmed and frazzled.  I am proud to say that my daughter is very social by nature, on target with all of her health goals, and remains allergy-free. Ironically, my little one is still stuck to me like glue, but that’s a great thing overall.