In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Breastfeeding

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ideologies of Motherhood
  • Historical and Anthropological Accounts of Breastfeeding
  • Cultural and Media Studies of Breastfeeding
  • Geographies of Breastfeeding: Space and Place
  • Breastfeeding Politics, Policy, and the Law

Childhood Studies Breastfeeding
Phyllis L. F. Rippey, Chantal Bayard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0191


As mammals, all human babies are born with a need for their mother’s milk (or an adequate substitute), but as human beings, feeding babies has never been simple. Breastfeeding has received the most scholarly attention in terms of child and maternal health, debating whether the “choice” to breastfeed or bottle-feed is better. As will be seen, understanding the implications of breastfeeding for mothers and families goes far beyond simplistic dichotomies of what is best for infant health or about individual choices. For example, feminists and social scientists challenge breastfeeding prescriptions as influenced by cultural assumptions of what it means to be a good mother. Further, we will see that cultural expectations of what “normal” breastfeeding is does not always match up to the historical or anthropological evidence. We then delve deeper into what the cultural messages are in the early 21st century regarding breastfeeding in a context where breastfeeding in public spaces can be challenging for many mothers. Despite cultural barriers to breastfeeding, our section on the economics of breastfeeding shows that breastfeeding could save national economies billions of dollars in health-care costs. Despite these socially shared potential benefits, these savings come at an economic cost only to mothers, particularly where breastfeeding and work are incompatible. Not only can states save money off of mothers who breastfeed, but also corporations have a long history of profiting off of mothers who don’t, particularly in low-income countries. After examining the macro-level research on breastfeeding, we look at the subjective experience of breastfeeding across intersectional sociodemographic identities, within mothers’ bodies, and between mothers and others. We conclude by looking at how public policy and the law have been used to support breastfeeding, where it has been inadequate, and where breastfeeding itself becomes a political act. Overall this article aims to tread a path through the “breast vs. bottle” debate to illustrate the ways in which infant feeding is a culturally, economically, personally, and politically charged issue. Some of the research is highly polemical in nature, as it is carried out by both activists fighting for the rights of breastfeeding mothers and those who decry breastfeeding promotion as a means to control women. Our aim has been to avoid choosing “a side” in these debates, but, as feminist social scientists, we challenge claims of pure objectivity in science and are interested in the ways in which women’s bodies are controlled and constrained within capitalist, masculinist cultures.

General Overviews

There is no such thing as a truly objective account of breastfeeding, we would suggest. Rather, there are overviews that focus on different ways of thinking about the act of breastfeeding and its implications for infants and mothers. The American Academy of Pediatrics 2012 focuses on the health evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding. As will be discussed further in this article, however, understanding the health benefits that breastfeeding provides is insufficient for understanding the full implications of breastfeeding. Cassidy and Tom 2016 introduces readers to a wide range of cultural variation of the practice using ethnographic data, whereas Giles 2003 hones in on the embodied experiences of breastfeeding. The controversies and debates are most thoroughly explored in Hausman 2003, particularly essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the controversies between and among feminists both in favor of and opposed to the advocacy of breastfeeding. Importantly, the author’s perspective comes from a breastfeeding advocate perspective, but she takes seriously the concerns of feminists who challenge it. Finally, also from an advocate perspective, is a collection of research articles and essays developed out of an international consortium of feminist breastfeeding scholars (Smith, et al. 2012). This edited volume explores a diversity of ways in which breastfeeding can be viewed as a feminist issue (see also Ideologies of Motherhood for those who disagree with the promotion of breastfeeding, as well).

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk.” Pediatrics 129 (2012): e827–e841.

    DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-3552

    This policy statement provides a general overview of the consensus in the medical community for why babies need to be breastfed. Useful as a summary for the claims made by those who advocate for breastfeeding in social policy and for the basis upon which some critique breastfeeding discourse.

  • Carter, Pam. Feminism, Breasts, and Breastfeeding. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230389533

    An early feminist sociological critique of breastfeeding promotion from the United Kingdom. She explores the history of baby-care advice, breastfeeding and work, public space, sexuality and bodies, state involvement in infant health and health promotion, discourse of breastfeeding, and resistance by mothers. She offers a feminist alternative to the simplistic mantra that “breast is best.”

  • Cassidy, Tanya, and Abdullahi el Tom, eds. Ethnographies of Breastfeeding: Cultural Contexts and Confrontations. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

    Anthropological perspective on breastfeeding practices in areas including Brazil, West Africa, Darfur, Ireland, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Contributions include discussions of surrogacy, milk banks, milk sharing, and the medicalization of breast milk.

  • Giles, Fiona. Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

    A collection of stories and analysis celebrating men’s and women’s experiences of breastfeeding, dealing with many often-taboo subjects such as the erotic pleasures of breastfeeding. (See also Corporality of Breastfeeding: Sexuality, Emotions, and the Body.)

  • Hausman, Bernice L. Mother’s Milk: Breastfeeding Controversies in American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    Written by a breastfeeding advocate and feminist theorist, this book addresses the issue of how to make breastfeeding a “real choice” for women and not an unfair burden. The book provides one of the most comprehensive surveys of the major debates between feminists and breastfeeding advocates in the United States.

  • Smith, Paige Hall, Bernice Hausman, and Miriam Labbok, eds. Beyond Health, Beyond Choice: Breastfeeding Constraints and Realities. Papers presented at the fifth annual Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 20 March 2010. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

    An edited volume that emerged from the 2010 annual Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium in North Carolina. The book covers many of the social and material realities posed by breastfeeding, from a clear advocacy perspective.

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