Is Breast Best?: Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood

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NYU Press, Dec 19, 2010 - Social Science - 258 pages
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Since the invention of dextri-maltose and the subsequent rise of Similac in the early twentieth century, parents with access to clean drinking water have had a safe alternative to breast-milk. Use of formula spiked between the 1950s and 1970s, with some reports showing that nearly 75 percent of the population relied on commercial formula to at least supplement a breastfeeding routine. So how is it that most of those bottle-fed babies grew up to believe that breast, and only breast, is best?

In Is Breast Best? Joan B. Wolf challenges the widespread belief that breastfeeding is medically superior to bottle-feeding. Despite the fact that breastfeeding has become the ultimate expression of maternal dedication, Wolf writes, the conviction that breastfeeding provides babies unique health benefits and that formula feeding is a risky substitute is unsubstantiated by the evidence. In accessible prose, Wolf argues that a public obsession with health and what she calls “total motherhood” has made breastfeeding a cause célèbre, and that public discussions of breastfeeding say more about infatuation with personal responsibility and perfect mothering in America than they do about the concrete benefits of the breast.

Why has breastfeeding re-asserted itself over the last twenty years, and why are the government, the scientific and medical communities, and so many mothers so invested in the idea? Parsing the rhetoric of expert advice, including the recent National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign, and rigorously questioning the scientific evidence, Wolf uncovers a path by which a mother can feel informed and confident about how best to feed her thriving infant—whether flourishing by breast or by bottle.


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Wolf's book is a fascinating antidote to the hugely overheated rhetoric about breastfeeding and formula feeding. It is an incredibly necessary critical voice in the discussion of the topic, and explains in quite simple prose why locking up formula and pacifiers in hospitals is not only a gross over reaction, it's actually the source of considerable harm. Her simplest point - that studies rarely control for the decision to breastfeed - unravels and equivocates much of the scientific literature on breastfeeding's benefits. This makes much of the rest of the book extremely irritating; once you realize the evidence and certainty behind breastfeeding's benefits are grossly exaggerated, Wolf's careful dissection of every effort put into supporting it highlights the waste and unnecessary guilt. The book represents the best of the women's studies movement - a careful analysis and vivisection of the assumptions behind some of societies decisions regarding where to allocate resources. And delightfully, it draws heavily upon the scientific literature in the process (the book features 40 pages each of endnotes and references). Her discussions of risk and total motherhood, using breastfeeding as a way of informing and engaging with both, were also quite interesting and provided another valuable challenge to the current American preoccupation with reducing all risks to their children, no matter how minute. 

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Brilliant and brave, social science as it should be done!


A Recent History of Following the Doctors Orders
Does Breastfeeding Make Smarter Happier and Healthier Babies?
Health and Personal Responsibility
Total Motherhood and RiskFree Children
The Government Campaign for Breastfeeding
Whither Breastfeeding?
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About the author (2010)

Joan B. Wolf is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at Texas A&M University and author of Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France.

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