In a selection from her book, Having Faith, Sandra Steingraber, who has a formal background in the biological sciences and a keen interest in the impact of chemicals on human health, discusses the immense problem with breastfeeding and contaminants through her own studies and those of others. Her findings reflect the consequences of a food chain in which deadly toxins in undiluted form are passed all the way up through the end of the food chain, which ends with breastfeeding mothers rather than men as always supposed.

Her oftentimes frightening assertions about the level of toxins present in breast milk and breastfed babies stands in stark contrast to the long-running media campaign that urges women to breastfeed for as long as possible as this is the safest, healthiest way and encourages a process of bonding. From this moment forward, with these duals sets facts in mind, I am going to agree become an advocate for a more balanced understanding of breastfeeding to counter the notions about how it is the “only” safe way to feed and connect with a baby. As it stands, there is no recognition in any of the broad healthcare advertising or doctor’s assertions about the possibility of passing on contamination and mothers are made only to see that breastfeeding is flawless, when in fact, this is quite questionable. This is a personal choice for mothers and this is not to agree that one is better over the other. The source of agreement to activism is to promote a view that tells mothers about potential hazards rather than glazing these important considerations over completely.

For new or prospective mothers, one of the first and most vital questions that come from their healthcare provider is whether or not they are planning to breastfeed. This form of feeding an infant is looked to as far superior to baby formula by health professionals and is the target of a campaign that leaves no stone unturned for those undecided prospective and new mothers. “The information that the ‘breast is best’ is now disseminated in every form, from bare slogan to detailed scientific information, through hospitals, community health centers, media campaigns, advice books, prenatal classes” (Kukla 158)and so on. In addition to this information everywhere, oftentimes depicting a baby softly nestled against its mother in a scene of perfect peace and bliss, the other suggestion being made by these campaigns is that breastfeeding is, as stated by an advocate, “a joyous natural bonding experience” (161). Women are not being given the alternative critical information about breastfeeding and due to the media pressure and that of their doctors and healthcare providers. Additionally, one study suggests that there is a link between a mother’s decision to breastfeed and whether or not she thinks she is a good bother. According to the results of this study, “some women persevered with breastfeeding for long periods of time, even though they encountered great physical or psychological discomfort” (Trist 6).

This is well-timed in the middle of a culture that is greedy for anything we perceive as organic and natural, and thus it receives a boost in advocacy from these groups as well. There are few perceived alternatives for women in the face of the media blitz in support of breastfeeding exclusively and as Steingraber notes, “The reason for this omission eludes me. Perhaps it is a larger cultural denial of breastfeeding. In any case, a failure to acknowledge the unique position of the breastfed infant within the world prevents us from having an informed public conversation about a very real problem” (Steingraber 930). With a greater conversation would come, one might hope, a more balanced portrayal of breastfeeding—not as a natural act of total beatific benevolence, but something that might come with serious risks as well.

The media campaign to promote breastfeeding solely is relentless and to its credit, it is important to note that the groups sponsoring this move are not companies but actual non-profit organizations aimed at promoting health. For instance, “very recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics opened their policy statement on breastfeeding by extolling the ‘benefits of breastfeeding to the infant, the mother, and the nation’” (Kukla 159). These are reputable groups backing the ‘breast is best’ movement, not parties with specific special interests. This lends an air of complete authority to their message as hearing it from them is equivalent to the advertising tactic, “9 out of 10 doctors agree that this is best” without ever address any negative consequences. Additionally, with the potent nature of the message behind these campaigns, the issue of guilt is essential to address. For instance, this campaign from the American Academy of Pediatrics discussed above is making mothers feel that it is their duty, for the health, emotional well-being, and vital state of the…nation. The nation? Breastfeeding is now not only being communicated as essential for a mother to enjoy true bonding with her baby, but it will support America and be a patriotic act? This reeks of pre-Civil War era “cult of domesticity” propaganda, whether one agrees that breastfeeding is best or not, and would serve as a great idea for later exploration. However, what it means in terms of this argument is that women are being made to feel guilty or negligent if they do not breastfeed. By making women feel as though they are neglecting their duty to their child and country is a heavy load for women who are wavering on the issue to face and even more so if they have valid concerns about contamination in their breast milk that no reputable medical group is willing to address, even in a casual way.

What is happening must be halted; women are being given very incomplete information about the nature of breastfeeding by groups they trust as being responsible enough only to provide them with the best information. What is worse, as the campaign to further eradicate complete truth about this issue grows, the media campaign is using fear to motivate mothers who otherwise might reconsider, either on the basis of personal choices or by their recognition of the dangers that Steingraber discusses. In regards to what has been considered as insensitive, needlessly over-the-top, and incorrect advertising on behalf of breastfeeding advocacy groups, some scholars have addressed the true danger of what is occurring, especially in the mass media. Wolf notes, “the message of fear neglected fundamental ethical principles regarding evidence quality, message framing, and cultural sensitivity in public health campaigns” (596) and goes on to say that ads such as the one she examined which bluntly told women that they wouldn’t take risks before their baby was born, so why take them now (by not breastfeeding) were, at their core, extremely harmful. She states that these ads that used fear tactics on mothers, “capitalized on public misunderstanding of risk and risk assessment by portraying infant nutrition as a matter of safety and danger, thus creating spurious analogies” (Wolf 596). What is necessary is that if any scare tactics are to be used, they should be those credible and legitimate academic studies that used control groups and verified measurements to assess the potential dangers of breastmilk and its possible contamination. As it stands, any talk about this subject is relegated only to the doctors and leading researchers who continually point to the same matters Steingraber discussed about the lack of safety of breastmilk due to contamination.

There is a “serious commitment, in both the public and private sectors, both to increasing breastfeeding rates as an important civic and public health goal, and to the idea that changing maternal choices through information transfer is a crucial route to accomplishing this goal” (Kukla 159). These goals, however, are not in line with the ideals of scientific inquiry and the need to present a balanced theoretical perspective that considers all ranges of possible evidence. One researcher with the National Institutes of Health offers the most sound and balanced perspective on breastfeeding that is free from the tremendous and confusing bias that tends to surround every aspect of the breastfeeding issue, especially with the copious amounts of advocacy in favor of breastfeeding. This researcher notes that while there are proven benefits, especially for the immune system for infants, this is really only especially present in colorstrum, which is “pre-milk” that is only secreted a few days after a baby is born and is the most vital sustenance a newborn can have. Still, as noted, “Nevertheless, given the tendency for persistent organic and other pollutants researchers and parents alike are asking whether the nursling’s exposure to these pollutants might reduce or even override the health benefits” (Mead 142). There is a critical need for a more balanced view being advocated across the board to address concerns voiced by concerned parents such as Steingraber as well as the numerous scientific and medical groups who, despite the dominant media push, continually assert there are clear dangers posed by contaminants in mother’s milk.

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Kukla, Rebecca. “Ethics and Ideology in Breastfeeding Advocacy Campaigns.” Hypatia 21.2 (2006), 157-18.

Mead, M. Nathaniel. “Contaminants in Human Milk.” Environmental Health Perspectives 116.10 (2008): 142

Trist, K. “Breastfeeding research points to backlash.” Australian Nursing Journal5.6 (1997), 6-6.

Wolf, Joan B. “Is Breast Really Best? Risk and Total Motherhood in the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy & Law 32.4 (2007), 595-636.