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Breastfeeding has only been around since the 1970s

This is post 2 of 3 in our series that examines the language we use to discuss feeing a baby from a human body. 

You can read post 1 about the term Nursing here.

You can read post 3 about the term Chestfeeding here

This blog post isn’t like anything you’ve read before. It’s going to have definitions, history, and it’s going to be thought provoking, and I’m going to push some buttons.  I’m going to ask questions, and I’m not going to answer them for you. This is a sensitive subject. You might get triggered. You might get emotional. And that’s ok. Your feelings are valid, but how you choose to express those feelings, and the language you use might not be. Comments will be screened.

Let’s get started.

From the moment you announce your pregnant, there’s a lot of talk about how you “should” feed your baby. Whether that’s breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, pumping, formula — or some combination of these, everyone has an opinion. Feeding is a heated topic with a lot of conflict, and so’s the language we use to talk about feeding.

If you haven’t had to choose how to label your feeding approach, chestfeeding/breastfeeding might seem like just words, but that’s a privilege not everyone shares.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start by looking at some definitions and their origins. I’ve decided to tackle these in historical order. Think of this as the timeline for the vocabulary society has used to label feeding.

The term Breastfeeding

The word “breastfeeding” means feeding an infant at the mother’s breast. If you want to get more scientific, “breastfeeding” described a “simultaneous dyadic behaviour: the mother feeding her infant at her breast”. (Source)

Technically speaking, pumping breastmilk and bottle feeding isn’t breastfeeding. The infant is receiving human milk but not breastfeeding. If you want to dive deeper into this semantic debate, you can read The Meaning of “Breastfeeding” Is Changing and So Must Our Language About It, but it’s outside the scope of this blog post.

Milk produced from a human is referred to as human milk (HM) in scientific journals.  

Humans are mammals, and like other mammals breastfeeding is a physiological activity that is part of the female reproductive process. But unlike other mammals, we can opt out if we choose to.

For humans, breastfeeding is a social construct. What breastfeeding is and the role it plays in a person’s life depends on education, gender identification, beliefs, social norms, social class, ethnicity, place where they lived, culture, medical history, and so on.

I really wanted to find the point in history when doctors started using the term breastfeed instead of nursing, but I couldn’t find a direct reference that pinpointed the change in medical history. I do think that this change might have taken place in the 18th century or in the 1970s, when there was a pushback against formula. Here’s a bit of a history lesson.  

18th Century, a Change in Birthing Care

Caricature of a man-midwife as a split figure. Wellcome Images no.L0018481

During the 18th century, male midwives and doctors started to pushout traditional midwives in pregnancy and delivery. Forceps, were invented and could only be used by male midwives or doctors because women were not permitted to perform “medical procedures”. With the invention of forceps physicians claimed that they were superior to female midwives, and the largest shift in medical history of the care of pregnant people and birthing practices began. 

read more about the Man Midwife here

William Smellie-type obstetrical forceps, United Kingdom, 1740-1760 (Wellcome Collection) 

The 18th century is also when the natural sciences  emerge and there was a new found urgency to encourage and pressure women to breastfeed their own baby’s. Wet nurses were widely used that this point in time. It was argued that women should stay at home to nurse and raise their children, like mammals do.  This could be when the language started to change.

Photo: Boston Public Library / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How Formula Saved Breastfeeding

The history of the development and use of formula and the pushback that came from it in the 1970s could also be where the term breastfeeding started to replace the term nursing.  

Baby formula was created at the end of the 19th century. By 1883 there were 27 patented brands of baby food. It wasn’t until 1929 that nonmilk- based formula became available.

A lab technician fills a bottle with infant formula circa 1948 in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo: Irving Haberman/IH Images/Getty Images)


According to the La Leche League  breastfeeding rates steadily declined in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956,  breastfeeding rate was only 20 percent. It stayed low during the 1960s.

By the 1940s and 1950s, physicians and consumers regarded the use of formula as a safe, popular, substitute for breastmilk. In the 1970s, the decline in breastfeeding rates triggered negative publicity for formula manufacturers and in the United States and the UK a movement began to promote breastfeeding. This could be when the term breastfeeding replaced Nursing in popular culture. The term “breast is best” was the title of a book published In 1978, by British authors Penny and Andrew Stanley.

In 1988, the formula industry began advertising directly to the public, before this, formula was treated like a pharmaceutical product and was prescribed by a doctor. This change created tension between the medical profession and the formula manufacturers. By 1990, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement listing reasons for the organization's opposition to advertising infant formulas to the general public.And there was a resurgence to promote breastfeeding, and the term like “breast is best” was used by the World health organization.

Want to learn more about the history of baby formula? This is a good article 

The takeaway

The term breastfeeding was not popularized by a feminist movement to empower women. It was either started by the takeover of men in the previously female dominated medical profession of childbirth. Or it was a reaction to the formula industry and the decline of breastfeeding. “Breast is best” was coined to build awareness and education about feeding a baby human milk instead of formula. Some people have politicized the term breastfeeding, but that was never its origins or the intent of the term breastfeeding. 

I don't have a problem with the term breastfeeding. I breastfed both my children. I'm not attached to the word "breast". I'm aware that not everyone is represented by the word breastfeeding. And, I've certainly been told that the people who aren't represented by the term breastfeeding aren't the majority of my customer base. So why change the language I used to discuss feeding? for two reasons

  1. Representation matters. I acknowledge that I know that not everyone is comfortable using the word breast to describe their feeding experience. People deserve to be seen, even the minority. 
  2. Education. You aren't going to be involved in the feeding world for very long. I am, it's my job. I think it's important for me to bring things to your attention, things that you might not have been aware of because they don't affect you. Growing as a person is important (for me anyway). 

The next blog post is going to discuss chestfeeding, and that's where I'm going to "poke the bear" and challenge your attachment to language. It will be released on March 7th.



What do you think of the term breastfeeding?

Does it describe your experience?

Does it describe everyones experience?

Do you think breastfeeding is a feminist term?

Know the history of what you’re fighting for. Because maybe you’re hung-up on the wrong things. 

P.S. I came across this add doing my research. Insane isn't it?!


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