“Breastfeed”: It’s all in a Word

It’s rainy in Seattle today. It’s rainy in Seattle a lot. All this rain and hanging around indoors can give a person a lot of time to think. Lately I’ve been thinking about the word “breastfeed.” I can’t get it off my mind. Oh yes, it is one word. You see, you can’t separate the word “breast” from the word “baby.” They just go together. Which is my point. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

I think about the language I use when I work with mothers, when I teach breastfeeding classes and when I post on facebook. An innocent phrase like “breast is best,” for instance, implies that the standard is formula and breast milk is really, really extra great! The word “formula” suggests a special, individualized blend of just the right nutrients for your baby, does it not? And when I hear that a mother is told “your baby needs formula,” it makes me cringe inside. (Yes, sometimes babies need supplementation, but that doesn’t mean they “need” formula. It means they need more milk.) Colostrum is often referred to as “liquid gold.” And it IS! But don’t you think that calling it “gold” implies that it is only for the few as opposed to an essential fluid for newborns? What if we stop touting the “benefits” of breastfeeding and have an honest discussion of the risks of formula?

Perhaps I am being picky, but I believe that the language we use helps to determine the way we view the world. If we say “artificial baby milk” instead of “formula,” could that contribute to a higher breastfeeding rate in this country? Which brings us to the word, “breastfeeding.”

Before I continue I need to say this: My clients and colleagues know that when supplementation is necessary, I’m 100% all the way for it! When a mother’s nipples are extremely sore from a faulty latch, I often recommend pumping and bottle feeding for a day or 2 before my visit to allow the nipples to heal. When a bottle is the preferred milk-delivery system, I help parents find a bottle that works best for their baby. I even do bottle-feeding consultations for babies who are reluctant to try such a new-fangled approach to feeding.

Bottles and artificial baby milks are here to stay, but let’s consider this: Breastfeeding is the way human babies eat. We don’t say that kittens breastfeed, or that piglets breastfeed. We say they are feeding or suckling—the way that mammals do. We know that mother’s milk is VITAL for those babies. It is not “best” or special. It is necessary. It’s the same for human babies. They also need their mothers’ milk.

Breastfeeding is biologically normal. Bottle feeding is not. Bottles are a relatively modern invention designed to give nourishment to a baby. Do they work? Yes. Are they helpful? Absolutely! But just for the sake of argument, and because I’d like to start a discussion and make you think….What would happen if we referred to a breastfed baby as just a baby, and a formula-fed baby as one who is alternatively fed? Think about it…

2 thoughts on ““Breastfeed”: It’s all in a Word

  1. I sometimes refer to breastmilk as being alive, and then speak to moms about the antibodies, good bacteria and the different types of sugars that keep the bacteria alive …. and that we don’t find this in artificial baby milk …..

  2. This is great! I have only been a mother for 15 and a half weeks now but have always been bothered by the word “breastfeeding”. I typically say “nursing”. It just seems weird that we use that word! And yes, “formula” DOES sound like some fancy concoction of superfood, of which it is not. I have had more people ask me since I had my daughter, “are you breastfeeding?” I so badly want to say, “as opposes to what?” but I’m worried someone is going to get their feelings hurt or feel guilty but maybe I should get over that?? I am not shy about feeding my daughter wherever we are whenever she’s hungry because I feel like that’s what I’m biologically expected to do by her. She has no clue there’s another option!

    Anyway, thank you for having the balls to write this. I have bookmarked your blog as well :)


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