Should We Stop Calling Breastfeeding Natural?

Should We Stop Calling Breastfeeding Natural?

Recently there’s been a flurry of media articles suggesting we should stop calling breastfeeding natural.

Now, before getting into the detail about this matter, one overriding fact is crystal clear: Breastfeeding IS natural.

There is absolutely no denying it, and to suggest otherwise is ludicrous.

This latest media outbreak originally stemmed from an opinion (not research based) piece called ‘Unintended Consequences of Invoking the “Natural” in Breastfeeding Promotion’ that recently appeared in the Pediatrics journal.

What Is The Argument For Not Calling Breastfeeding Natural?

Proponents of this idea argue that calling breastfeeding ‘natural’ promotes other natural parenting practices that some see as ‘problematic’; they mention home birth, home-schooling, and the rejection of GMO foods. They also argue that promoting breastfeeding interferes with vaccination efforts.

It’s a massive long shot to assume parents will blindly refuse GMO foods, home-school their children, or home birth, simply because breastfeeding is promoted as being natural.

In the Pediatrics article, authors Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, Medical Ethics and Health Policy researchers at Penn Medicine, wrote:

“Building on this critical work, we are concerned about breastfeeding promotion that praises breastfeeding as the “natural” way to feed infants. This messaging plays into a powerful perspective that “natural” approaches to health are better… Promoting breastfeeding as “natural” may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that “natural” approaches are presumptively healthier.”

The Idea Lacks Credibility

My thoughts on this are: “What does promoting breastfeeding as natural have to do with all these things?” and “Where is the evidence that doing so influences any of these parenting practices?” There is none.

Even the authors themselves indicate “there are currently no studies demonstrating a direct link between the promotion of breast-feeding as natural and the rise of parents who don’t vaccinate their children”.

Despite the clear importance of breastfeeding for the health of mothers and their children, the authors conclude breastfeeding shouldn’t be promoted as natural, even if it undermines breastfeeding.

They wrote: “We should think twice before referencing the “natural” in breastfeeding promotion, even if it motivates women to breastfeed”.

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Breastfeeding Leadership questions the messages in the article, stating: “While we agree that the words we choose to encourage healthy behaviors certainly matter, equating breastfeeding as “natural” with the supposed “natural” of the anti-vaccine movement is neither logical, nor appropriate. Furthermore, this direct link is not substantiated in the literature”.

The AAP Section on Breastfeeding Leadership also says: “Let us state clearly that breastfeeding is the normative standard for infant feeding, and other feeding methods put mothers and children at risk for both short and long-term adverse health outcomes”.

What Is The Definition Of ‘Natural’?

So, what is the definition of ‘natural’? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of natural is:

  • existing in nature and not made or caused by people: coming from nature
  • not having any extra substances or chemicals added: not containing anything artificial
  • usual or expected

It’s clear that breastfeeding is natural by all three definitions. And yes, I know, not all mothers can or want to breastfeed. But speaking generally, breastfeeding is the final stage in the conception-pregnancy-birth cycle. The breast is programmed to take over from the placenta once a baby is born. So, generally speaking, breastfeeding is ‘usual’ or ‘expected.’

Breastfeeding is the natural and normal way to feed babies. On a population level, there are risks of not breastfeeding for both a mother and her baby. Sometimes, however, individual circumstances override population level risks, and if a mother cannot breastfeed, or chooses not to, that is her decision and that’s OK.

Being a mother is so much more than about how your baby is fed. Doing what works best for your individual family is important.

Although how a baby is fed is not everything, breastfeeding is important, and normal.

So, in answer to the question: No, we should not stop calling breastfeeding natural.

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Renee Kam is a mother of two daughters, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a physiotherapist, author of 'The Newborn Baby Manual' and an Australian Breastfeeding Association Counsellor. In her spare time, Renee enjoys spending time with family and friends, horse riding, running and reading.

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