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Is Breast Best?

Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood

Joan Wolf

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: NYU Press

Front Matter

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH, LIKE travel in a foreign country, is unsettling. It challenges how we know the world and de-centers ways of thinking we take so for granted that we are not even conscious of them. It also can be exhilarating, especially when we recognize that much is shared across cultures and that we have the resources to live in, make sense of, and ...

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Preface: Why Breastfeeding?

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pp. xi-xvii

IN CHICAGO, A counselor at a federal women, infants, and children (WIC) clinic laments the tragedy of teenaged mothers choosing to go to school instead of breastfeeding their babies.1 The director of the neonatal intensive care unit at DC General Hospital tells mothers of infants with runny noses that the babies would not be sick if they breastfed.2 And an ...

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1. Monitoring Mothers: A Recent History of Following the Doctor’s Orders

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pp. 191-20

EVEN BEFORE THE creation of powder formulas, infant feeding was a morally charged practice. In colonial and postrevolutionary America, for example, women who did not nurse their babies were often considered to be selfish and unpatriotic. Nonetheless, many women sought alternative forms of feeding. The demand for wet nurses, socially disadvantaged ...

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2. The Science: Does Breastfeeding Make Smarter, Happier, and Healthier Babies?

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pp. 21-46

AT THE CORE of the “breast is best” message is the notion that breastfeeding—the substantive properties of breast milk, the interaction between breastfeeding mother and baby, or some combination of the two—is medically superior to bottle feeding for babies. That is, breastfed babies are physically, cognitively, and emotionally healthier than their bottle-fed ...

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3. Minding Your Own (Risky) Business: Health and Personal Responsibility

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pp. 47-70

IN DECEMBER 2005, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece in which writer Karen Karbo poked fun at Harper Collins, publisher of a new edition of the popular children’s book Goodnight Moon, for digitally removing a cigarette from a photo of Clement Hurd, the illustrator. Alongside a redrawing of one of Hurd’s illustrations depicting the inside of Bunny’s ...

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4. From the Womb to the Breast: Total Motherhood and Risk-Free Children

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pp. 71-106

Today’s parents, she writes, have lost all perspective on safety and danger, overanalyze the significance of everyday decisions, and ultimately can do more harm than good by neither teaching nor modeling good judgment for their children.1 British sociologist Frank Furedi concurs, lamenting that parenting today “is not so much ..

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5. Scaring Mothers: The Government Campaign for Breastfeeding

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pp. 107-138

IN 1984, THE U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convened the Surgeon General’s Workshop on Breastfeeding and Human Lactation. Although just two years earlier, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had warned against “ignoring the complexity” of infant feeding and had argued that “inherent” differences between mothers who bottle-fed ...

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6. Conclusion: Whither Breastfeeding?

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pp. 139-152

FEW PEOPLE ARE against health. Or freedom. Or compassion. But when one person’s freedom to drive her car at any speed infringes on another’s freedom to travel safely, or when compassion for others leads to a loss of self, the merits of restriction and selfishness begin to emerge. Ostensibly unobjectionable ideals become controversial when advocates become myopic and lobby ...


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pp. 153-190


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pp. 191-230


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pp. 231-240

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814795255
E-ISBN-10: 0814795250
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814794814
Print-ISBN-10: 0814794815

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 828100278
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Is Breast Best?

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Breastfeeding -- Social aspects.
  • Breastfeeding -- Government policy -- United States.
  • Breastfeeding.
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