The “Breast is Best” Campaign is Evil

Yes, you heard me right.

Three weeks ago, I rushed to the hospital. One of my best friends in the world was battling a life-threatening infection. The diagnosis? Complications from breastfeeding.

She had been dealing with medication-resistent thrush pretty much since her son was born. What does this feel like? Let me quote her:

“The pain is getting so intense that I am starting to get very anxious about feedings.”

Translation: every feeding was so painful she dreaded the next, and still she continued on. First trying a natural solution, Gentian Violet, and when that didn’t work, she began taking Diflucon. Her symptoms did not improve. She continued seeing lactation consultants and doctors, but nothing worked. Friends and family members implored her to quit, but she wouldn’t. Why?

“I suppose some of the “breast is best” campaign has seeped into my psyche and maybe that is part of the reason I want to keep going. The truth is I haven’t done much of my own research into formula vs breast milk, though I’ve read the thoughts and opinions of lots of people on both sides of the argument. I have personally never liked the ‘breast is best’ campaign or any message that declares breastmilk’s superiority over formula and I have argued for formula feeders time and time again. Still, I feel almost certain that subconsciously I do believe that breast milk is better.”

One week later, she would be in a hospital bed with sepsis.

How Being Able to Breastfeed is Like Being a Range Rover Owner


Giselle, our modern day Marie Antoinette, wants to jail those who can’t breastfeed. She’s a clueless airhead, so it’s easy to dismiss her comments.

But there’s something in the analogy of a super-priviledged celebrity telling everyone to do something that they, in many cases can’t physically or financially do, that is telling with this issue.

What many breastfeeding proponents don’t seem to understand is the physical impossibilities for many. Just like some women are blessed to be fertile, some are blessed with the ability to breastfeed. For many women, they are blessed with neither of these capabilities.

Like Mel, who does not produce prolactin. Or me, someone who was unable to increase her supply after pumping every three hours around the clock for four months and taking an experimental drug (domperidone) that led to a chronic acid reflux problem I am still grappling with 6 years later. I wish I had not taken that medication in retrospect, but I was so desperate to breastfeed. I was so convinced my children would NEVER BE OK if I didn’t breastfeed.

It’s so stupid.

Yet, the breastfeeding police (from La Leche League to members of a twins club I belonged to) descended upon me as I struggled, prescribing all sorts of pseudo science explanations to increase my supply, and they guilted me into continuing.

When I asked those policing me about their OWN struggles around breastfeeding, what was described were problems so much more minor than what I was dealing with. Yet, they felt justified to look down their noses at me and say: “Breast IS Best, you know.”


How is this reaction different than someone who can afford a Range Rover looking down on those who can’t?

The ability to breastfeed is a PRIVILEGE. You are LUCKY you have the physical ability to do it and you are lucky to have the financial resources to be able to do it. That’s all.

Sisters Doing It For Themselves

Most of the people I know who breastfeed are, of course, not like this. For those who are lucky enough, for whatever reason, to be able to breastfeed? I support you. I have your back. I will fight for your right to the resources you need to make it happen. I admire you.

And I know you too, in turn, have the backs of those who are not able to breastfeed, for whatever reason. You know that you are fortunate and priviledged, and others are not, and you would NEVER make mothers feel bad for not having the resources to do this.

But society has not caught up with this sisterhood. We need to stop with the “Breast is Best” propaganda. Because this propoganda can kill.

I am furious that it almost killed my friend.



Filed under Parenting After IF

27 responses to “The “Breast is Best” Campaign is Evil

  1. Mo

    Yes! Yes! All of this. Just yes!!!

  2. Well said J. And it really, really needs to be said. The “breast is best” campaign is so pervasive, women don’t even realize that they are being held hostage by its message, and that is very dangerous. It is one thing to do research and come to a conclusion independently. It is quite another to have a belief drilled into without even knowing what it means or why it is being touted as truth. Instead of “breast is best” there should be honest conversations about the myriad realities of breast feeding and formula feeding so women can come to an educated conclusion about what is best for them, and then if life throws them a curve ball they can make more educated decisions about how to change their feeding plan to accommodate their unexpected circumstances. Unbiased education, not broad declarations that lead to bullying, is what we need.

  3. I’m sorry about your friend and the people who weren’t able to breastfeed, and I agree, you should know when to call it quits, especially when it damages your health.

    However, I am a breastfeeder and there are many, many reasons why you should breastfeed. There are also health benefits to both mother and baby. I wrote the baby benefits out here:

    But for mom it can prevent alzheimer’s in old age Other benefits are listed here:

    What I like about it is that I can just feed and go back to sleep. The oxytocin makes me feel good and sleepy. We sleep together and it really is the ultimate bond.

    I am not anti formula. It saved us when I had supply issues in the beginning. Today’s formula is a lot better than what it was in the past.

    But my experiences have been very different from yours. All my friends formula feed and I am the odd one out. It’s like I have to fight to be different, face “when are you going to stop” all the time, and get embarrassed looks when I take out my boobs, just to feed my child.

    In my opinion, the “breast is best” campaign is actually there to support mothers who have a hard enough time doing breastfeeding, not to make people make bad decisions about their health. If you want to quit, quit, but don’t blame the slogan.

  4. Agreed. Breastfeeding at all costs really can be a life-threatening situation- my son nearly died of dehydration because of it. And you are right- the people who preach Breast is Best and berate those of us who can’t do it exclusively usually have minimal or no problems themselves. Well said.

  5. It is important to remember that the Breast is Best campaign came about as a response to a society where the default was formula-feeding, where new moms were automatically given advice on how to dry up their milk after childbirth. A society where women were expected to breast feed in bathrooms, even at a friend or relative’s house. We have come a long way, but we still have far to go in terms of accepting breast feeding.

    It is unfortunate that a side effect is women feeling guilty about being unable to breast feed, or continuing long after they should’ve stopped for their own health & that of their children. I think the analogy to infertility is a good one: some people just can’t. And they should never be made to feel guilty about that. But I do think the campaign has done a lot of good.

  6. My friend had the same issue with prolactin and was hysterical when her baby couldn’t get enough milk. Eventually, she supplemented with formula and her child gained weight and she hung in there for 6 months. I even got a note from a complete stranger that just because I adopted I could still breastfeed. Not that I didn’t already know that, but I chose not to because I didn’t want to start a regime for something that may not have happened anyway. I don’t have an issue with either side, never had, never will, but I can’t tell you how many horrified looks I got when I stupidly told people I bottle fed. Oddly, all from strangers who were admiring the baby. After I while, I started to ask them why they wanted to know. I think every woman should educate themselves and do what’s best for them and their child.

  7. Thanks Deborah, I think you put it quite well.

  8. I don’t think the breast is best campaign is wrong. As someone who had to mix feed from 5 months on and had immense guilt for doing so I believe I can be justified in supporting breastfeeding having sat on both sides of the fence. Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for our babies but what does need to stop is the blame others mothers give us for their decision to bottle feed hence the suffocating guilt we feel when we struggle with it. We need to support mothers feeding in any way they can. Like infertility the ability to have other methods available to us when we need them is an amazing and fortunate thing. The analogy to infertility doesn’t stop there, I also think of the advances in child birth and the fact we can perform life saving c sections that save both mother and child.

    Overall, once someone has made the decision to stop breast feeding for whatever reason they need or want to, we all collectively need to support mothers, full stop . At the end of the day mum’s are just trying to do the best they can!

    • SRB

      Well said, Chon. I struggled with this post (and breastfeeding, FWIW) a great deal. The “evil” label is disheartening. Not at those who can/do exclusively breastfeed judge those who can’t/don’t. It’s detrimental to fostering support to assume so. I’m devastated when I hear of mothers not receiving adequate support to feed their babies with love, however that may look in a way that is best for mother and child. But honestly, it’s hard to support the mass transit plan, as it were, when I’m an assumed Range Rover driver. I’m a pedestrian and cyclist too, and I’m always available to give a woman who is struggling a ride somewhere, anywhere, if need be.

  9. I think it’s important to remember that this post is about the “breast is best” campaign and not about breastfeeding itself.

    It’s true that the breast is best campaign was developed because women were not supported in their desire to breastfeed, or weren’t given enough information to even consider it, and I think it’s good that now formula is not the go-to method of feeding espoused by the medical establishment, or our society. But I believe the campaign has morphed into something else entirely and it’s no longer about informing women so they can make their OWN choice about how to best feed their babies, but propaganda meant to shame women into breastfeeding, even when doing so is to their own, or their child’s detriment.

    I guess what it comes down to is what you believe the campaign’s message actually is. While I doubt anyone could argue that breast milk, in and of itself, is better than formula, BREASTFEEDING is a different beast entirely and should be treated as such. I don’t feel the distinction exists in the campaign, and the campaign does almost nothing to recognize the challenges, and sometimes the inherent impossibities, of breast feeding. Being able to breastfeed successfully really is a privilege, one that many women, much to their horror and devastation, do not have. And when a campaign is in place that basically tells these women they are failing their children, and therefor causes them to go to such great length to give their children breast milk that they put themselves, or their babies, in physical or emotional jeopardy, well that is just NOT OKAY.

    What we need is non-biased education that presents the facts, ALL OF THEM, including the benefits and drawbacks of breastfeeding (not breast milk, which is a separate, yet intertwined, thing) and the benefits and drawbacks of formula feeding, plus all the combinations thereof that women can look to to feed their babies. That is what we need and the “breast is best” campaign doesn’t provide that at all.

  10. And one last thing, because this issue is close to my heart, especially right now.

    The breast is best campaign is not even just about providing breast milk to your baby. At its core, the campaign espouses a kind of lifestyle, a parenting philosophy, a declaration that a certain way of BEING with your child is superior. It’s not just about giving your child breast milk but bonding with your child, doing what is “natural” and therefor superior. It makes women who are exclusively pumping still feel like they’ve failed in some way, even though they are giving their baby breast milk, because they aren’t giving it to them in the “natural” way. They are missing out on something that will hurt their child developmentally. Their definition of successful breastfeeding is so narrow, that women who breastfeed but don’t find it a blissful experience or women who pump and breastfeed are still failing some how. And THAT is why the campaign is damaging. It’s not about breast milk but some blissful breastfeeding experience that so many women just don’t have.

  11. I think I get what you are trying to say, Esperanza. It’s like the time I was in the birth class being the only one that had to have a c section and everyone was going on about natural births. It is wrong to put others down because of the way they feed their child / give birth. I also did the pumping thing for the first month, not fun, but I did what I could to make things work. I guess this is a complicated issue, like you say, it depends how you interpret the campaign’s message, and we all do what we can to feed our child in the best way possible.

  12. I completely understand your anger about your friend’s illness, and the desire to lash out at the societal forces that led her to make decisions that were ultimately damaging and dangerous to her health. I also agree that many breastfeeding advocates present information that is unhelpful and mother-blaming (my personal favorite is Dr. Sears telling readers that if breastfeeding hurts, that means you are doing it wrong. Really Dr. Sears? Tell that to my cracked nipple, my Reynaud’s syndrome, or my painful letdown reflex!).

    Having said that, I think that targeting the “Breast is Best” campaign, particularly with a label like “evil” is off the mark. I recognize that I am coming to this discussion from a position of privilege, having had only routine difficulties with breastfeeding (see above), and not the exceptional difficulties that force some women to make the difficult decision to stop. However, having been through infertility (I have only conceived once in 10 years of trying to date, with IVF, and have failed three cycles), and having a couple of disabilities on the side, I do know what body failure is like, and it seems to me that a slogan such as “breast is best” is only problematic if you are in the privileged and entitled position of thinking that you will always get to have what is best, and that giving your children anything but the very best means that you have failed. Several previous posters have noted the reasons for the campaign, and as a woman who had to fight for the right to do basic things like pump at work and feed my child without hiding in a bathroom, I am grateful for the movement toward greater acceptance of breastfeeding. I realize that in some urban communities, the push has gone overboard. However, in much of the country, the right to breastfeed if possible is still very much debated.

    As for what is “best”, I cannot run (ever, again, for the rest of my life, according to my doctors), due to a spinal injury, and I don’t find the statement “spinal health is best” to be in any way offensive. I agree that spinal health is best, and wish that I could have it, but I can’t. That is life. It’s unfair and it sucks, but there it is. IVF results in a small but significantly increased risk of birth defects relative to natural conception. Therefore, given a choice between natural conception and IVF, natural conception is (usually) best (in the absence of additional factors, such as genetic diseases that can be avoided using PGD). However, few people considering IVF actually have a choice between natural conception and IVF. Given my choice between IVF and no baby, I chose IVF, despite the fact that natural conception is (objectively speaking, in most cases) best. I am also considering attempting donor conception, despite the fact that being donor conceived appears to cause pain to some adults. A car with side-impact airbags is safer than the car that I drive (and therefore better for my child), but I can’t afford to buy a new car, so I drive what I can afford. That doesn’t make me a bad mother, and I don’t feel guilty about it at all. We don’t always get to give our children the “best”. We just do the best that we can, given our actual circumstances. I guess that what I’m saying is that I think that the real problem that drove your friend to persist in breastfeeding is the idea that to be a good mother you have to be perfect. Our society puts unreasonable pressures on mothers to always deliver the “best”, and THAT is what has to stop.

    • This is a thoughtful response.

      Here’s the thing for me: it boils down to one word. BEST.

      I am not disputing breastfeeding isn’t great. I am not disputing that women should not have the right to breastfeed in public, and have rights at work to pump, or even argue for longer maternal leaves.

      My problem with the campaign is that it uses fear and well, scary data points, to make its argument.

      I read Heather’s reply and it reminded me: that’s right, I’m at risk for Alzheimer’s because I wasn’t able to breastfeed. But even worse are the scary things I was told about bonding and attachment and brain development in children. The message isn’t that you are a PERFECT mother if you breastfeed: the message is your kids are going to be messed up if you DON’T.

      Imagine how devastating that message is for those of us who only want our children to be healthy and happy. We have been told how breastfeeding is really the ONLY thing to do, hearing that over and over and over, in classes, books, by our doctors, by the hospital. Then you CAN’T. For whatever reason.

      The reverberations never ever really stop.

      The campaign needs to be more softly worded, less all or nothing. More like, “Breastfeeding is great and we should all support those who can do it. But for those who can’t, formula is a great option too.”

  13. Thanks for the reply. I learn a lot from conversations like this. I hope you don’t mind me responding.

    I understand that the idea of losing the benefits of breastfeeding was scary to you. But I have some friends who weren’t daunted by that at all and chose to bottle/formula feed because it was more convenient for them. Different people have different triggers. I have a (I think rational, but everyone else tells me that it’s phobic) fear of being injured in a car accident, so the idea of having a less-than-safest car, or even a less-than safest car seat for my child really does keep me up at night. I wish that I could have the very best for my child, always. I’m sure that you feel the same way. But I can’t, and neither can you. We just do OUR best, even if it isn’t always THE best.

    The fact is that statistically breastfeeding offers benefits on average over other feeding methods to both mothers and infants. Those benefits are often vastly overblown (there really isn’t any way to control the intervening variables) in the reporting, but at least some of them are clearly real. Another fact is that breastfeeding is HARD. For everyone. It is much harder for some, and impossible for others, but even for people without any “real” problems at all, it’s hard. It’s exhausting. It hurts. It’s awkward. It’s nerve-wracking (is the baby getting enough?). Did I mention it being exhausting? So, for women with the economic means to acquire formula, the easiest thing to do, in the neonate stage, is to formula feed. Without support and incentives to breastfeed (by which I mean messaging that tells them that they are doing something important), women tend to give up. There are also tons of structural obstacles to breastfeeding for many mothers. I used to live in the Bay Area, and in the mid 1990’s, I worked for a company whose whole raison d’être was being “socially responsible”. I had a colleague with a young infant who spent each of her 15-minute breaks pumping with a manual pump in a bathroom stall. Seriously. For months. I will never forget that sound. Slurp slurp slurp…. And I will never forget thinking “I will NEVER do that!” The company did almost nothing to facilitate her pumping, other than not forbidding it, and we all thought that was normal. It seems to me that a message like “breastfeeding is great and we should support those who can do it”, especially coupled with “formula is a great option too” doesn’t seem adequate. To overcome these structural barriers, we need messaging that says that breastfeeding is important. Perhaps not essential, but important.

    My comments are addressed at the concept of the “breast is best” campaign. However, I absolutely agree that some lactation consultants and other advocates of breastfeeding go WAY overboard, to the point of being damaging to women who are struggling with breastfeeding. ALL of the materials and advocates should acknowledge that not everyone can breastfeed, and that it’s OK to make a thoughtful decision that breastfeeding isn’t for you (even if you physically CAN breastfeed).

    I guess that for me, one way of evaluating whether the message “breast is best” is intrinsically damaging is to consider whether male couples who become fathers by adoption or surrogacy beat themselves up because they can’t breastfeed. I’m guessing that the answer is no (I’ll have to ask around), despite the “breast is best” campaign. It seems to me that men they just acknowledge that breastfeeding isn’t an option for them, and that they then get on with the business of feeding their child. If men aren’t tortured by the messaging too, then it’s pretty clear to me that this is really an issue about messaging about mothering, not about feeding.

    • The problem with the men analogy is that no woman I know of knew going into breastfeeding she physically couldn’t do it. Women are told they can and should do it in most literature.

      There is also growing anecdotal evidence that women who have gone through infertility treatments have much more difficulty (there’s an article behind the NYTimes pay wall that mentions it.)

      I think breastfeeding is almost a faith-based thing: people believe in it so strongly and preach it to others. Yet, sometimes the message is destructive. I maintain the all or nothing approach is harmful, not just based on the extreme case of my friend, but by the little things that happen every day (a post I just read about a woman breaking down emotionally because breastfeeding wasn’t possible for her.)

      I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about this.

  14. “Breast is Best” doesn’t bother me as much as the phrase that “breast milk is liquid gold”. Guess what? There are lots of things in your breast milk that would surprise you.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at about having the financial privilege to breastfeed. My breast milk was free to my family, whereas when my supply declined I paid $30/can for powdered formula. It wasn’t until I started going through a can in under a week that I realized just how much money I had saved while exclusively breastfeeding.

    • There are several parts to the privilege to breastfeed. One is that the message that breast is best rarely makes it to lower-income folks so they miss that completely. The pressure likewise isn’t there to breastfeed. Many communities with folks of color have a lot of pressure NOT to breastfeed. Second is the income piece. Yep, formula is expensive but it’s only $30/can and at the beginning that doesn’t seem so expensive while a breast pump is a couple hundred, a lactation consultant about that much too for most people if you could find one at all (a LLL leader would be free but only if there’s one near you, my nearest leader is an hour away so I need transportation to get there and that’s not free) so the start to breastfeeding costs are high for lower income folks while the start to formula costs are much lower. There’s also the value of your time. If you work and don’t get paid breaks or would have to take additional unpaid breaks to pump, that costs you a lot. It takes weeks or months to establish breastfeeding and if you have no maternity leave or only unpaid leave, that cost is huge. The main privilege that allows you to breastfeed is having time to work at it, something probably most American women lack. My older kid didn’t latch properly until she was 18 weeks old. If I hadn’t had lots of time to correct her and nurse forever and willingness to be miserable with her bad latch, nursing wouldn’t have been an option.

  15. The “breast is best” campaign cannot be taken seriously by anybody who is of a rational bent. Yes, breast feeding is great and should be done whenever possible…but the key is “whenever possible.”

    If all goes well, I will become a mother by surrogacy in a few months after 3 years of trying to have a baby and recurrent pregnancy loss. I very badly wanted to provide my baby with breast milk, and I was thinking about induced lactation,which uses a drug that is touted by the “breast is best” folks to increase milk supply: domperidone.

    However, when I started reading about this drug, I found out it comes with a risk of arrhythmia (it can induce it, apparently, though the risk is low). Another woman talked about liver enzyme elevation (!!) after being on this for a few short months. That ruled out induced lactation for me. Surrogates in India are also prevented from breastfeeding by the medical establishment, and that ruled out another venue for me.

    But if not breast milk, then which formula is best? I started researching infant formulas, and I was mostly horrified by what I found: even the organic ones are pretty bad, and cow milk is not a great replacement for human milk, especially if you are starting very early in life.

    The post before talks about all the issues with the commercial formulas:

    Then I found out about goat milk, which is nutritionally far closer to human milk than cows milk, and is also less allergenic. I found a goat milk formula recipe that I felt pretty good about. Now, honestly, while the thought of not providing breast milk smarts, I feel that this formula will do no great damage and should be nutritionally adequate. Based on the experiences of parents, most babies on this formula seem to really thrive.

    More about the goat milk formula here, in case anybody is interested

    This may be a useful resource for your friend as well…hope she comes out of this quickly!

    • Arwen

      Goat milk is not significantly “less allergenic.” See: Mayo Clinic, . Please do not get your allergy information from people who are hell-bent and determined to scare people from commercial formulas. The person you quoted is spewing “information” that has no basis in provable fact, such as ” like the palm oil that forms soaps in the baby’s gut.” You do realize that palm oil, while it can be used to create soap, is included in formula because of the lauric acid (also present in fairly high amounts in human breastmilk) and is in many, many other foods–and shock of all shocks, we don’t have an epidemic of people with soap in their intestinal tracts.

      To boot, this person is literally “guessing that is a much less common/severe allergy,” but when you have infants going into anaphylaxis (a lethal allergic reaction), guess what–guessing is ridiculously irresponsible. This person, like so many other rabid lactivists hell-bent on dissuading people from commercial formula for no reason other than to go on some pseudo-medical power trip, has no business saying ANYTHING about food allergies.

      Frankly, I can’t think of anything LESS supportive than what you have posted.

      • Guess you know better than Dr. Sears too.

        Also, palm oil is the source for palmitic acid, not lauric acid. Coconut oil is a great source for lauric acid. I’ve gone into the palmitic acid issue at length on my blog.

        Also…are you quoting this?
        Did you not realize that the issue here is that the milk was non-pasteurized/raw?

        If you are quoting this,

        A child going into anaphylactic shock because they drink cows milk or goat’s milk would be a one-in-a-million case. If you are suffer from food allergies, the common symptoms seem to be eczema, bloody stools, colic…NOT anaphylactic shock. You don’t make the policies based on the outliers or the unusual cases, you make it based on the norm.

        Since this writing (in 2004), goat milk has been used by many infants who are allergic to cows milk, safely, and with no side effects.

        A few children who have been started on goat’s milk continued to exhibit the common signs of food allergy, and they are taken off it.

        As of now, goat milk has clearance for use in Infant formulas in Europe.

  16. Let’s see, I’m at increased risk of certain types of cancer (breast cancer for one), and now Alzheimer’s all because I can’t bear a child or feed it. Biology blows sometimes.

    I could give two sh*ts about the “Breast is Best” campaign. I’ve heard enough of my friends who had trouble getting the right kind of support from the La Leche League when they went looking for help. I knew about adoptive breastfeeding well before we were placed and that protocol was the LAST thing I wanted to put myself through. It’s hideous. Besides, you have to supplement because it’s physically impossible to make enough milk if you try to force your body to do it. AND, it’s the least natural thing I can think of doing to myself. (Besides IVF and I wouldn’t do that either)

    I think that if a baby is getting fed, whether from formula or breast milk, then it’s all good. At the end of the day, getting proper nutrients to feed a growing baby is the end game. I don’t care how you do it.

  17. I think the problem lies in moderation so to speak. I believe that, if the physical parts fall into place, its worth a shot and maybe a couple visits to an IBCLC to see if breastfeeding is possible. But, in no way shape or form do I believe it needs to be attempted to the point that mom suffers. Plenty of babies are formula fed and thrive – I simply don’t get air of superiority some have.

  18. I definitely support breastfeeding, but the term “breast is best” already implies that anything else is second best. I do think that in some communities/regions of the U.S., this message is needed. I just wish that 1) they would figure out another tagline for their campaign and 2) how about supporting this with legislation such as adequate leave. Yes, many mothers pump and manage to breastfeed after maternity leave ends, but it’s like adding a huge obstacle for those who want to breastfeed at least 6 months.

  19. Angela

    Thank you for this post!! The over marketing of breast-feeding along with the world breast-feeding week has gotten out of control. The pro breast-feeders keep talking about a need for “education.” No amount of education could make breast-feeding work for me. But it did give me a bunch of guilt and postpartum depression. The benefits of breast-feeding are grossly overestimated. It makes me sad that so many new moms believe this campaign and their scare tactics.

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