9.4 The Anthropology of Breast Feeding


In the 1960s and 1970s, maternity was not a prime feminist issue in the West. Women were more concerned with freeing themselves from child bearing and rearing than with realizing the potential of these roles as a female resource. The tendency to bottle-feed gained momentum over the last hundred years, especially here in the United States. Only in the last couple of decades has there been a return to breast feeding--a campaign largely initiated by the La Leche League which provided person-to-person support for women who wished to breast feed.

Baby formula was a disaster in the developing countries. Powder added to water in developing countries where mothers had no access to clean water or refrigeration led to the death of great numbers of babies. In urban areas of the Philippines and Tanzania bottle feeding did help to raise well babies--but with the benefit of piped water, proper sanitation, adequate medical care, good housing, and higher than average medical education.

At this point, you expect the narration here to extol the benefits of antibodies in breast milk, intimacy with the infant, and so on. That will not be the case. The author has another agenda here and it will be reported as accurately as possible. You may or may not agree with the perspective.

Make up your own mind on the content of this article.



Few societies appear to stress the duty of the father to care for his children and safeguard their welfare. Yet, men in many societies decide who will be breast-fed by whom and for how long. Some say that boys are not usually socialized to assume care taking roles in relation to women and children. Instead, men prefer to enjoy particular privileges at the expense of women. In many European societies of the 16th, 17th, and 18th century--it was believed that sexual intercourse 'spoilt the milk.' Husbands (for their own benefit) therefore prevented their wives from breast feeding.

Adult male privilege is often reflected in the distribution of food and control of women. In some sub-Saharan economies, women seemingly earn the income and subsistence. Men then spend it. The women often have few resources with which to feed their families. In many developing countries, men often contribute to the children's support, in terms of work, cash and material resources, and women and children must share the 'short commons' (food scraps).

(My comment: pay close attention to the line of reasoning revealed here.) The decline of breast feeding may be because the purchase of powdered baby formula put women into the cash economy instead of having the burden of feeding children with their 'invisible' resource--breast milk. Women, in bottle feeding, give up the impossible task of compensating with their own bodies for the shortcomings of a social and material environment which is hostile to women and children. Bottle feeding became an attempt to off load part of the burden of parenting and food production onto men. Bottle feeding then compelled men to share in the parental role. It was a covert shift in the sexual division of labor.



The assumption that breast-feeding is a merely nutritional, or at most psychological matter, lies behind both medical approaches and women's failure to take a position to these approaches. The notion of 'successful' breast feeding varies cross-culturally, and often includes timely weaning. Here is an example. Some breast feeding societies deliberately deny the infant the colostrum the first breast milk which is rich in nutrients and antibodies. This may affect the infant's chances for survival.

Breast feeding, like female sexuality and childbirth, is the subject on considerable cultural elaboration in most societies. Stated differently, the 'nutritional uses' of breast feeding are culturally determined. It is not only conditioned by cultural patterns, but exerts a definite influence on them. Breast feeding may, in an indirect way, confirm the universalist ethos: 'the milk of human kindness'.



Three hundred years ago, Iceland had a population of about 50,000 people--and was in decline. Marriages were late and infrequent, yet there were plenty of births: married couples would have from twelve to fifteen births. Only two or three would survive, however. Breast feeding had been abandoned!

Infants were fed cream from cows' milk fortified with chewed fish or meat, diluted with milk, cream, or butter. The mothers were unintentionally killing their infants; however, they blamed it on external powers beyond their control. Hygiene and health were terrible. Families lived in one room, often with their farm animals. Cooking was done in an open fireplace; the fuel was dried manure and there was no smoke hole in the roof.

Why did Icelandic mothers not feed their children by breast for two or three centuries? Grinding poverty and poor nutrition may have so reduced mothers' milk that breast feeding was abandoned. A consequence was a reduced birth space; babies appeared once a year. Children seem to pose parents with serious practical problems as far as feeding was concerned and they were often cared for outside the home by others. The poorest women who didn't have access to cows' milk had a better infant survival because there was simply no other food source than breast milk. No single reason is known for these seemingly bizarre practices. It quietly ended with the Enlightenment, when women were reeducate to breast feed their babies.



The psychoanalyst Karen Horney said that the closure and isolation of the Western nuclear family, combined with its power structure which stresses female dependence and male responsibility and privilege has particularly negative implications for women and girls. The emphasis on female subordination, the eroticisation of interpersonal power, and the gender differences in the simultaneous repression and incitement of sexuality contributed to a complex family dynamic in which daughters and sisters were treated in ways that were both sexually charged and repressed.

These attitudes, the authors argue, spelled disaster for breast-feeding. One English book on breast feeding advised the breast-feeding mother to never forget that she is still her husband's mistress.



Manuals on breast-feeding for Western readers do not always discuss its sexual implications, other than to suggest that women may be inhibited from breast-feeding by their awareness of the erotic value of the breasts for men. One manual from 1978 said: "keep up your previous mistress image as much as possible!"

Many cultures have practiced a post-partum taboo, forbidding sexual intercourse for a period of time after birth of the infant. In West Africa, the post-partum taboo prohibiting sexual intercourse may last for two or three years. Frequently, the post-partum taboo is closely associated with the breast-feeding period. Such a taboo enables the mother to dedicate her undivided attention to the infant, relieving her of the fear of a new pregnancy which would endanger the young child and make it unnecessary for her to employ contraceptive measures (such as the 'pill' which tends to inhibit lactation).

A long period of breast feeding reinforced by the post partum taboo ensures a long interval between births to the advantage of both mother and child, where resources are scarce and a woman's work burden is heavy. In some, but by no means all of those societies where there is a post partum taboo, men may have more than one wife or mistress. Under these conditions it is likely that a woman's role as mother, kinswoman and worker will be emphasized at the expense of her marital relationship. This is especially true if one considers that a woman may bear six or eight children, each of whom she nurses for a couple of years, during which time she must abstain from sexual intercourse. But the post partum taboo also occurs in many monogamous societies. It may be considered necessary, in the interest of the child, that not only its mother, but also its father should abstain from any sexual relationship for a certain period of time.

The stress imposed upon Western parents on conjugal intimacy and privacy, their fears for the safety of the baby and for their own daytime efficiency, mean that babies cannot sleep on their mother's bed and suckle at night. Since the industrial revolution and separation of the work place from home, women are likely to be far from their children during the day.



The author emphasizes that in many societies, the rules regarding breast feeding are laid down by men and tend to support male dominated institutions. For example, in those countries which observe Muslim civil law, the duty of the woman to feed her husband's children, the lengths of time she should feed them, and the conditions under which she may feed children other than her own are all prescribed by a male dominated legal system.

Further, there is a common precept in Muslim societies which obliges a woman to breast feed her husband's children for two years, a rule that underlines a woman's lack of bodily autonomy and her duty of devotion to a husband and children. A woman's milk is a sign of the blessing and abundance that she brings to her husband's household, fields, animals, and upon which his prosperity depends.



The social and cultural importance of breast feeding is such that, even in Western industrial societies, it is rarely called into question. On the contrary, like many social imperatives associated with gender roles, it is considered 'natural' even though the majority of women do not breast feed.

The worldwide decline in breast feeding over the last hundred years is interpreted nowadays, particularly in medical circles, as an instance of women's alienation from their biological nature, or from their 'natural' gender roles. However, there have been historical instances, exemplified by the American conversion to formula feeding, or by the avoidance of breast feeding for centuries in Iceland (as we noted earlier), when not breast feeding has been considered to be an improvement on nature.

The author suggests that the decline of breast feeding in Western industrial societies is part of the process whereby, since the sixteenth century, women have lost control over their bodies as a symbolic and institutional resource, because of the medicalisation of reproduction and its subordination to industrial ideology and forms of relationship.

The emotional and physical relationship of women and children has disappeared from view to be replaced by a symbolic order and a bureaucratic practice, in which women and children reappear as resources to be optimally manipulated for reproductive ends.

By participating in the medicalisation of their bodies and in the view of breast feeding as desirable almost exclusively for nutritional reasons, women lose touch with their own desire (or reluctance) to breast feed their babies. Women themselves contribute to the medical representation of the female body as a machine which has to managed in order to fulfill its proper functions. This favors the view of the body as composed of so many more or less related parts. Many women perceive their bodies not only as internally fragmented but as split off from themselves as persons and as incumbents of social roles. Women in the industrial West are less aware that they create and acquire symbolic value by breast-feeding, than they are of the risk of being physically and psychologically manipulated by medical intervention and control of their bodies.

Breast feeding is difficult under these conditions, and not breast feeding may be even be considered a symptom of conscious resistance to a medical invasion of the self. In many Western hospitals, mother and child are separated for most of the day, but the rigidity imposed on their meetings is also presented as a model for the mother to follow once she has arrived home. Intervals between feeds and the length of feeds are to be timed by the clock. The mother should weigh the child after each feed and make up artificial milk to compensate for any shortfall in the average amount of milk per feed considered by the doctors to be necessary. Childbirth in hospitals supervised by male doctors takes women into a public and reproductive sphere dominated by men, making it a dehumanizing experience.



The drama of two beluga whales born in captivity at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium (summer, 1999) struck a common chord with many women who have had problems with breast feeding. Nurses at Northwestern Memorial Hospital passed out T-shirts that said of breast-feeding: "It's a whale of a job."

Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler who has studied breast feeding in Mali said that "to fail at breast feeding really cuts you to the quick . . . it hits you where you live-in your body and in your role as a mother." She observed that in Mali, every mom breastfeeds and the are very few problems.

In the 1990s, breast-feeding rates for newborns increased from 51% to 62%, according to a 1997 survey by Ross Products, a formula maker.

Breast milk is a food that fights disease, increases IQ and helps the brain develop-all among the benefits of human milk cataloged by science. Breast-feeding, according to a German study, reduces the chances of obesity later on.

There is evidence that breast-feeding often becomes difficult or impractical, frequently because the mother returns to work. Many give up because they feel that they aren't producing enough milk. A major problem for women who want to breast feed is a lack of advice from mothers or grandmothers who haven't had the experience. Male doctors aren't much help, either.

..... CJ '99

Primary Resource

Maher, V. ed. The Anthropology of Breast Feeding Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1992.

Supplemental Resources

"Breast-fed babies don't become fat, study finds" Chicago Tribune July 16, 1999.

Kendall, P. and Black, L. "Breast-feeding not as inborn as you'd think" Chicago Tribune August 6, 1999.

Sargent, C. and Brettell, C. Gender and Health Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1996.