Why Is Breastfeeding Such A Big Deal? Its History Reveals Why It's Such An Important Issue

As a society, Americans are forever changing their take on breastfeeding. No matter what, trying to to explain why breastfeeding is such a big deal in our country, especially, is met with so much indignation on every side — regardless of whether you're pro-breastfeeding, all for formula feeding, or you don't really have an opinion either way. But in order to understand the current climate surrounding breastfeeding, you need to understand that the history of breastfeeding is tied to gender roles, sexualization of women, and racism, and has roots that go much deeper than just the new Millennium. "Breast is best," wasn't always the norm. And today, this hot-button topic has become a right-or-wrong issue in the media and Hollywood, and it's affecting every single new mom.

Over the decades, the public’s perception of breastfeeding has shifted dramatically, based on modern thinking and our current understanding of science. And today, to call breastfeeding a "touchy subject" would be a tremendous understatement. I wanted to better understand how a personal choice could be wrapped up in issues ranging from law to Hollywood, so I spoke with health professionals, lactation consultants, parenting and breastfeeding authors, and many, many mothers to weave together the constantly evolving history of breastfeeding and the climate surrounding it today.

The History Of Breastfeeding In America

The cultural opinion on breastfeeding has always been rooted in wealth and how society understands science, says Amy Bentley, author of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet and a food studies professor at New York University, in an interview with Romper. In the 1700s and 1800s, wealthy women had wet nurses to feed their babies, but with the invention of formula, those who could afford to switched to the more manufactured approach. At the same time, society’s view of food as a whole was shifting. In the 1950s, the general population believed food created in a lab was superior to the meals prepared at home. Baby formula naturally became the obvious option for those seeking “more nutritious” and “sterile” sustenance. But as time went on, many doctors came to believe that even lab-created formula lacked the proper nutrition to produce healthy, growing babies. So a “good mother” in the 1950s usually swapped her baby’s formula for commercialized baby food about one month after birth.

Around the same time, the transformation of society’s perception of breasts also had a major impact on breastfeeding. Before World War II, breastfeeding was common. However, after World War II, sexual focus shifted from women’s legs (think Rita Hayworth) to pinup girls’ breasts (think Marilyn Monroe). The result? A loss of perception of the breast as a functional organ. As an excerpt from Bentley’s book, published on Slate, reads:

As breasts became more sexualized, they became less functional: more the purview of men as sexual objects and less the domain of infants and as a source of food. As this transformation continued, breast-feeding, especially in public, became less normal and more taboo, and by midcentury most Americans attached a vague sense of disgust to the practice. Now that breasts were primarily sexual the idea of women breast-feeding infants, especially in public but even in private, felt abnormal and destabilizing. Modernity apparently did not include breastfeeding women; by implication breasts were for men and sex.

“If breasts are very sexualized,” Bentley tells Romper, “it’s hard to think of them as mammary glands appropriate for feeding a baby. There’s something very icky about crossing those two very different streams: sexuality and nurturing an infant.”

Breastfeeding had been in decline already before WWII, but the shift to publicly sexualizing breasts really put the nail in the coffin, says Bentley. The change also fed discriminative thinking when many other countries — often third-world ones with nonwhite majorities — continued to breastfeed in public much more than white Americans. And as technology and baby food evolved, many Americans began to associate public breastfeeding with "uncivilized" behavior.

The Benefits Of Breastfeeding

But by the time the 1990s hit, societal thinking was radically different. Being a "good mom" meant breastfeeding as long as you could and then, when you were forced to stop, cooking your own baby food. The bottom line? Our perception of right and wrong, when it comes to breastfeeding, fluctuates constantly. “Every era feels like it’s doing the right thing, depending on the technology available and the current understanding of science,” says Bentley.

Today, roughly 80 percent of infants are breastfed at some point, but that number drops to 51 percent by the time babies hit six months old (the minimum age the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends mothers breastfeed until). Medical research tends to land in favor of the practice. Breastfeeding holds a host of health benefits for both the mother and the baby, according to Dr. Eva Martin, CEO and founder of medical device startup Elm Tree Medical Inc. Studies suggest breastfed babies gain healthier immune systems, a better balance of sugars, fats, and proteins, and face a lower risk of SIDs. They’re also less likely to develop allergies and struggle with obesity later in life. For mom, breastfeeding has been shown to lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, help stop bleeding after birth, and is the most effective way to aid post-baby weight-loss efforts, says Martin.

“The media discuss[es] breastfeeding as if it were an experimental drug. It is not,” Danielle Downs Spradlin, Certified Lactation Counselor, tells me in an interview with Romper. “Breastfeeding is the biological norm for our species. We are mammals. There are no ‘benefits’ to breastfeeding; there are only risks to not breastfeeding.”

"We're obsessed with 'boobies.' I was once at a convention and someone said, 'Oh, you wrote a book about your tits?'"

While the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests a one-year stopping mark for breastfeeding, it also notes that breastfeeding is recommended for as long as it's comfortable for both the mother and child. Some women do breastfeed for much longer. "When I tell people that I nursed my first for two years, I usually get some side eyes," Melissa Burke, a mother of two and an analytical manager at Wells Fargo, tells Romper. "My 3 year old has never had an ear infection and has never been on antibiotics. She rarely gets sick and she's in daycare full time. I attribute this to breastfeeding."

Is Breast Really Best?

The health and bonding benefits of breastfeeding often seem to dominate the media, appearing in newspapers and on the covers of magazines. "My favorite, favorite headline that I thought made fun of the media and made fun of breastfeeding was from the the Onion," says Lisa Wood Shapiro, author of Hot Mess Mom. "It read, 'New Study Finds Link Between Breastfeeding, Always Knowing What’s Right For Everyone.'"

Perhaps the reason that headline is so great is because it's so spot-on. Despite the constant feed of breastfeeding benefits, it certainly isn’t easy and isn’t even possible for all women — whether physically or from a time standpoint. Courtney Jung, author of Lactivism, initially breastfed, but the more she researched, the more she understood that studies showcasing breastfeeding’s benefits are really at a population level. In other words, just because research suggests that breastfeeding lowers infection, doesn’t guarantee that not breastfeeding will lead to an immediate infection. Population studies are all based on risk and likelihood, and are not the be-all-end-all, Jung, Martin, and Downs Spradlin are all careful to note.

“Breastfeeding is a way to feed a baby. It is not a sign of your moral worth, your status as a feminist, your ability to parent well, your commitment to organic, locally sourced food, or your adherence to God's will,” Jung tells Romper.

“It’s become a hot-button issue because moms want the best for this precious new person they’re responsible for,” says Martin. Bentley adds that the idea of breastfeeding brings up deeper issues, as it always has, such as socioeconomic status and gender roles. In 2014, Cynthia Colen, an assistant professor of sociology at the Ohio State University, wrote an article for the New York Time titled "Most Women Can't Afford to Breastfeed." In it, she breaks down the large obstacles women in a lower income bracket must face if they wish to breastfeed their children:

Seventy-four percent of children in families with incomes above 185 percent of the federal poverty line are breastfed, compared to only 57 percent of children in families with incomes at or below that threshold. These differences are driven by outdated and regressive social policies and workplace conditions, such as the Family and Medical Leave of Act of 1993, which only guarantees that new mothers can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave following the birth of their child. Poor women often occupy the position of key breadwinner within the family and do not have the economic resources needed to juggle the competing demands of child rearing and employment outside the home.

While breastfeeding can bring moms closer to the baby physically and emotionally, it also makes women less mobile, which in turn makes it harder to hold a typical job. “It becomes a fraught issue because it’s part of this conversation about the role of women and women’s equality,” says Bentley.

"Women cannot win in the media. Either you need to breastfeed, formula feed, or follow a celebrity’s recipe for homemade formula. It’s absolutely nuts."

Martin emphasizes that it’s all about finding the right fit for each individual mother. A doctor’s job, she says, is to present the information to mothers and come to a conclusion together about the best fit for each individual case. Downs Spradlin agrees. "I'm not the judge of some fictional parenting contest," she says. "It's my job to help parents make evidence-based healthcare choices with their healthcare team."

In other words, breastfeeding is a good idea if it works well for the mom and baby, says Jung. If it doesn't, mothers and babies should move on to formula because there are more important things to do as a parent than worry about breastfeeding vs. formula. “Breastfeeding is a way to feed a baby. It is not a sign of your moral worth, your status as a feminist, your ability to parent well, your commitment to organic, locally sourced food, or your adherence to God's will,” Jung tells Romper. “And luckily, breastfeeding is not the only way to feed a baby.”

Breastfeeding, The Great Taboo


Unfortunately, outside forces often drive a mother's personal choice of whether or not to breastfeed. I asked a handful of women who breastfed how our current culture gave rise to the contentious climate surrounding the practice. According to the mothers, these are some of the largest issues at play.

The Fetishizing Of Breasts

Says Shapiro,

We're obsessed with 'boobies.' I was once at a convention and someone said, 'Oh, you wrote a book about your tits?' It's amazing how quickly it goes right to, 'They're boobies.'

The Rabbit Hole Of Online Commenters:

Burke tells Romper,

The 'mommy blogs' and Facebook groups are terrible. I would go on and get sucked into reading the comments sections for hours... Women cannot win in the media. Either you need to breastfeed, formula feed, or follow a celebrity’s recipe for homemade formula. It’s absolutely nuts.

A Lack Of Understanding At Work:

Keri Koons, a mother of two who worked as a service advisor at a car dealership while she was breastfeeding, tells Romper:

My boss never mentioned my breastfeeding options to me. I was afraid I’d seem like a burden if I brought it up, so I knew I’d have to go into the bathroom to pump.

But Koons’ pump made noise — not an uncommon quality in breast bumps. The majority of her colleagues were men, and she didn't want them to hear the pump, “So I gave it up one week before I had to go back to work, even though I’d have preferred to keep breastfeeding my daughter."

Insufficient Medical Coverage:

Shapiro tells Romper that she "couldn't get my lactation consultant covered by my insurance," so she ended up paying out of pocket.


In most cases, the taboo feeling around breastfeeding doesn't come down to direct mom-to-mom shaming, Shapiro tells Romper. "I don't know if we as moms are so divided. I don't care if you nurse," she says.

The real issue, according to Shapiro, is the fact that breastfeeding in public isn't always legally protected. While all 49 states (with the exception of Idaho) have laws protecting women's right to breastfeed, it is not under federal law, and that sends a message. "I never heard anyone say, 'You should breastfeed or you're a bad parent,'" says Shapiro. "[The shaming] is a phantom." Knowing that, it's no surprise why some women feel like they're totally alone in the fight.