Breastfeeding in America

Recently many Twitterers (and their associates) contributed to my survey on American women’s attitudes to breastfeeding and its representation in the media. I promised to share the outcomes of my research and the survey, which this post seeks to do. For those interested, the entire paper (30 pages plus 15 page complete survey result appendix) is available by emailing me or asking on Twitter and I’ll get it to you straight away. If you’d like to see the summary of survey responses, this link takes you to the final Survey Monkey summary.

American Breastfeeding Rates

America has a dismal breastfeeding rate. The World Health Organization and the US’s own CDC recommend babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives, and then breastfed with additional food until they are two years old and beyond. The American Government then worked with the CDC in 2000 to develop the Healthy People 2010 initiative. It includes breastfeeding goals which fall short of the WHO and CDC’s own recommendations – that rates of breastfeeding be targeted to 75% initiating breastfeeding at birth, with 50% at six months and just 25% at one year.

Each year since 2000, American media has been fed press release diatribe on how successfully this plan is being implemented. And mainstream media have unquestioningly spurted it back at the general public. Headlines like “Breastfeeding rate soars” (USA Today 2002) and Reuters 2007 story headlined “US breastfeeding rates rise to record high” disguise the real issue – that even after 8 years of a government promotion to increase breastfeeding in America, 25% of women never even try. In 2005 only 11% of American women exclusively breastfed for 6 months (as opposed to the WHO recommendation of 100%) and in 2007 a quarter of women who initiate breastfeeding at birth have introduced formula within the first week of their child’s life.

So what’s the problem?

Media loves boorolling-stone-janet-jackson-coverbs – as long as they’re shown in a sexual way. We’re all familiar with advertising and other images of breasts. For example, this 1993 cover image of Janet Jackson on Rolling Stone won critical acclaim. The story focuses on Jackson and her embracing of her sexuality. The focal point is her breasts.

But a full 13 years later, BabyTalk magazine’s cover created outrage. No less than 700 complaints were sent to the editor over a cover promoting breastfeeding. So getting it straight, a magazine committed to mothering and babies, getting flak over a cover which promoted – mothering and babies.








In my paper I explain how I believe this has occurred. The movement of women into the public sphere has seen them embrace their femininity in a new way. There’s a whole “look, I’m in the boardroom and I have breasts” ferocity which has been associated with feminism. Women don’t like being confronted with images which remind them of the roles their mothers had. Feminism’s abject failure through the 1980s and 1990s was its devaluation and disempowerment of the importance of nursing.

Yes, I argue that the feminist movement has contributed to a sociey where even women more readily accept images of breasts that celebrate them on a sexual rather than a mothering level. This is reflected in media too. TV programs such as Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and Ally McBeal feature women who embrace their sexuality and power as successful. Women who hold traditional mothering roles are less successful, frustrated, angry or just plain stupid.

And then to have the audacity to bring those breasts, feeding infants, into the general public? No wonder women in general lead the call for ‘discretion’ and ‘hooter hiders’.

The survey

I hoped to get about 30 responses. The survey went viral and in three days I received 128 responses. More than a third of respondents added extra information to each of the basic four questions asked. Women have strong views. In my paper I relate this passion to religiosity. The religion of breastfeeding meets all the academic standards of definition. No longer is breastfeeding normal, usual practice. And I find that distressing.

While 95% of respondents did not believe media has any influence over their own ideas about breastfeeding, more than half believe media should show it more often. Clearly, women believe media has an influence over someone (if not themselves). One key response was along the lines of “media doesn’t influence my ideas about breastfeeding because it’s not shown in media.” My assertion is that this absence has just as much influence as if it were shown.

Moving forward

So what does this mean for feminists who embraced the bottle as their key to freedom from the ugliness and backward past? It means that the general public can look at American women and say “hey, are you women so stupid that you need to be told to breastfeed? And after eight years, you still aren’t getting the message?” It means that heck, if you’re an educated woman you need to recognise everything about you that’s powerful, not just breaking through the glass ceiling.


If media showed breastfeeding as part of normal life on television and other media. If it made it present and normal – not a focus of a storyline, but just part of the everyday life of families with babies on tv, then could we begin to see this overtly sexual obsession with breasts change? Could we begin to see women being more accepting of their breasts as being a special part of a relationship with their child, not just as part of the relationship with their sexuality? If, in a similar way to Hollywood reducing smoking in movies, we began to insert breastfeeding into them… what would happen? And what about the international impact this could have? Hollywood movies are seen worldwide.

Certainly our only hope can be to improve on dismal American breastfeeding rates – and who knows where it could end.


  • I happened to stumble upon when I was pregnant with my first child, so I actually did adhere to WHO’s recommendation on breastfeeding for both my children.

    It was a commitment to be sure. Fortunately, I had flexible work and a super-cool boss.

    I’d love to read more about the theme of feminism’ abandonment of “traditional” women’s roles.

    My view is that feminism bought into the values of a paternalistic system. Early feminism embraced a new model of womanhood as being a careerist and turned its back on women as the nurturer of children. A money-driven society gives lipservice to honoring the caretaking of children, but we see teachers and childcare givers among the lowest paid.

    Women’s advancement does not need to be made at the expense of abandoning women’s values. The future health of the world is literally in our hands.

  • Great post! I absolutely agree that the media plays a strong role. I think lacking maternity leave and expensive healthcare are other reasons too though.

    With regards to media, it is interesting to note that our “mainstream” parenting magazine here in Canada (Today’s Parent) would be considered very “crunchy” in comparison with mainstream parenting magazines in the United States. It is completely normal here to see images of women breastfeeding in the media and completely normal to see women breastfeeding anytime, anywhere.

  • Hi Eileen! My research has shown your perspective is spot on. And it is interesting to note how media has reflected this change in society’s values in its entertainment and stereotypes. There are a few new books/readings that you might find interesting. These both look at feminism and its relationship to breastfeeding.
    First: McCarter-Spaulding, D. (2008). Is Breastfeeding Fair: Tensions in Feminist Perspectives on Breastfeeding and the Family. The Journal of Human Lactation, 24 (2); pp. 206-212.
    Second: Kedrowski, K. & Lipscomb, M. (2008) Breastfeeding Rights in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group.
    And a couple more from a decade ago, which sets it all up:
    1. Blum, L. (1993) Mothers, babies and breastfeeding in late capitalist America:
    the shifting contexts of feminist theory. Feminist Studies. 19 pp. 291-311.
    2. Carter, P. (1995). Feminism, Breasts and Breastfeeding. Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Great article/blog we suffer from the same poor rate of breast feeding and media input here in the UK.

    I also feel celebrities could play a vital role in this, they all seem to enjoy showing off their children in OK and Hello, but it would only take a few pictures and comments from them about how they breast feed to get the masses to do it. (Angelina excepted)
    Thanks for a great read!

  • I just came across your page here and thought it was great. I am currently back in school and have been writing about breastfeeding all semester. I did a paper on media and breastfeeding, promotional video and have recently started up a group called birth art & beyond. I think what you are doing is great. Could you please email me the paper that you wrote. thanks

  • Hi I’m an Australian woman, currently breastfeeding my first child (she’s nearly six months old, but I plan to keep breastfeeding her until she is at least 2 years old, as per WHO guidelines). I don’t know the specific breastfeeding rates of Australian mothers, but I believe, though it is far from 100%, it is better than America’s rate. Since I became pregnant, breastfeeding has been an interest and passion of mine. I have taken note of media representations of breastfeeding. I have noticed that the symbol of the baby bottle prevails, but more and more breastfeeding is being portrayed as ‘normal’ by Australia media. I’m sorry I cannot say the same for the American TV shows and movies I see – often breastfeeding, if portrayed, is a joke. A favourte theme seems to be breastfeeding the older child – one movie made a joke of a mother breastfeeding a 3 year old – now what’s wrong with that? WHO recommends breastfeeding til at least 2years old – that’s only one year more. Funnily enough, the only TV show I’ve seen that presents it as ‘normal’ is the highly un-PC ‘Family Guy’. In two episodes that I can recall it has alluded to or shown the baby breastfeeding, and not made a big deal out of it in either case (althogh it must be said that in one of these episodes the baby was attempting to breastfeed from the father – but I view this scenario as making fun of the father, who was getting rather too in touch with his ‘feminine side’, rather than making fun of breastfeeding itself.)

  • Thanks for your comments Sarah. Yes, I think you’re right and that the rates are better in Australia, but only slightly unfortunately. Your interest and passion for the subject would be a great help for some of the organisations who are lobbying and supporting breastfeeding. If you’re not already involved, I know that the Australian Breastfeeding Association, and the Maternity Coalition would love to have your involvement. It’s rare to hear of someone who is breastfeeding at six months and indicates an intention to continue indefinitely – it’s far more common to hear people say where their limits are. Your comment is like a breath of fresh air. 🙂

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