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What a lactivist is, and isn't...

Earlier I read How To Support Women Without Demonising Formula and whilst I'm in absolute agreement that demonising women is pointless, hurtful and damaging to breastfeeding advocacy; another part of me as "A Lactivist" feels yet again attacked as a "Breastfeeding Nazi".

"It can be very tempting to further the normalization of breastfeeding by demonizing formula, or worse, by demonizing formula-feeding mothers.  It calls to you.  The information's right there, and, if you breastfeed, it makes you feel better about yourself and better about your struggles and your hard work to bring it up.  I remember!  It's so tempting to respond to the Similac recall with "Serves you right, you should have breastfed" or "Boobs don't have bugs, this is mom's fault."  Formula sucks."
Firstly would someone explain to me what demonising formula is?  If someone says x is a risk of formula - is that demonising it?  if so do we not tell mothers about the risk?, do we lie?  I ask this genuinely as I also feel that there are a lot of posts and articles online claiming the "benefits are minimal", or "it's nearly the same nowadays" as per my entry "When you can prove formula is nearly as good we'll talk" - a lot of women still believe these claims are true.

Demonising women is another issue entirely, but more about that in a second.
Some of the strongest advocates in the intactivist movement are mothers who circumcised their first children.  Marilyn Fayre Milos, for example.  Some of the strongest advocates for gentle discipline are those who chose corporal punishment first.  Some of the strongest proponents of natural birth are those who experienced an over-medicated labor or an "unnecessarian".  Many cloth diapering mothers chose cloth because their babies' bottoms reacted badly to disposables.

Most lactivists have never fed their babies an ounce of formula, and some (certainly not all) really seem to enjoy making that fact very known.  They should be proud, but sometimes comments cross the line.  Formula-feeding mothers are referred to as "lazy", "selfish", "lame", "stupid", "irresponsible" and worse.  I'm not pulling this from my own imagination; I am a member of many natural parenting groups and have seen all of these accusations in the last month.
I won't dispute things like this are said, just like some non breastfeeders will openly state they think "breastfeeding is disgusting", "women who do it are perverts" or "too attached to their child".  Is this all non breastfeeders?  No and it would be silly to suggest it was.  There will always be the gang of school bullies in the playground or the gossips over the fence   But are these people  "lactivists" as a group?

No, No, No, No, No!

What is a Lactivist?

I googled this and here is a good round up of what I believe a Lactivist to be:
Lactivism (portmanteau of "lactation" and "activism") is a term used to describe the advocacy of breastfeeding.Harmon, Amy. (June 7, 2005). "." The New York Times. Retrieved September 27, 2007. ..
"I believe anyone who believes in, supports and promotes breastfeeding and the value it provides to mother, who fights the good fight to enable women to MAKE THEIR OWN CHOICE when it comes to breastfeeding (e.g. safely breastfeeding in public, breastfeeding education, access to help, not having formula shoved down your throat at the hospital, etc) makes you a lactivist.  In other words, it's not just about how far you yourself go, it's also about enabling women everywhere."
For me, lactivism is about supporting the legal rights of mothers to breastfeed where and when they want, for as long as they want, and it's about making sure people are educated on the subject so that they can make informed choices which are right and healthy for their family.  I don't think an individual's ability to breastfeed, or the length of time that they do it, has anything to do with whether a person can be a breastfeeding advocate.
 I think a "lactivist" is someone who actively works to promote, protect, and support breastfeeding.
Is calling non breastfeeding mothers  "lazy", "selfish", "lame", "stupid", "irresponsible" and worse, in anyway fulfilling the criteria above?  Is it aligned with the role of a lactivist at all?  No. As has been pointed out this is actually harmful to breastfeeding advocacy and doing nothing to educate or support breastfeeding?  One could argue to advocate for something you have to fully understand it, and anyone who fully understands the politics of breastfeeding - wouldn't say the statements above!

"Acts of lactivism" I've observed recently include: writing to a supermarket that their leaflet was factually incorrect, reporting breaches of the laws surrounding the promotion and sale of infant formula, supporting a mother's right to express at work if she wants to or even telling Facebook, "Hey breastfeeding is not obscene!"  They don't include telling a mother who finds beetles in her baby milk that it's her own fault for not breastfeeding?!  That's like saying if you find a roach in your meal in a restaurant, it's your own fault for eating out!  Utterly ridiculous.

Whilst many of the women who say the above things may not have ever used formula,  just like the other movements mentioned most Lactivists have either a) had to use some formula, or express and supplement at least in the shorterm, b)  had a really hard time breastfeeding and feels passionate others get better support, c) have worked in a role that led to them witnessing the poor care of mothers and/or learning a lot about breastfeeding or d) have learnt about breastfeeding and it's barriers and have a feminist streak so want to empower others.  The most passionate women are those who have endured something, or observed it, got through it and want to help others.

A true lactivist does not seek to demonise women, but to empower and support those who need help.  To present accurate, unbiased, unjudgmental information on which parents can make a truly informed choice. Yes we fight the myths and yes many of us feel a need to point out information is wrong when it is.  But most of us understand the myriad of factors that influence breastfeeding choices and chance of success - and we work damn hard in a system that promotes breastfeeding so often, yet values it so little.

Please next time give women who make comments such as the above a different title, don't demonise the Lactivist.  Without Lactivists there would be no Baby Friendly accredited hospitals, no breastfeeding support organisations, helpines or volunteer drop in groups - and definitely no online breastfeeding resources not sponsored by formula manufacturers or the government.

If you believe lactivism is about true breastfeeding advocacy, please share this article.


  1. ‎'If someone says x is a risk of formula - is that demonising it? if so do we not tell mothers about the risk?, do we lie?'
    ~ Agree with this, and it can be applied to many things. When you speak about risk in relation to things like driving, ski-ing, surgery, tanning, children's car seats (etc), people understand that you're not judging them, and will usually not 'shoot the messenger'. These risks are generally accepted within society and they are not perceived as 'judgements'. However, mention the (also proven) risks of not breastfeeding, cc/cio, early weaning etc and you're being a bully. Very hard to present emotive facts without generating an emotive reaction, even when you try to do it in a non-judgemental way.

  2. i would say there is also e) a lactivist who did feed her newborn babies ok, but then was pressured into stopping before she and the child wanted by family, friends, society or (even worse as they should know better) Health visitors and doctors as "after all you have fed them x months, its far more than most babies get and you really need to get your life/health/body back"
    this happened with 3 of my children, one despite him being dairy intolerent ...but at the time i just felt i would have been doing something really wrong, and almost dirty, if i had continued breastfeeding a walking and talking toddler :( 4th son is still breastfed at 4yrs :)

    this is what i would LOVE to stop... people forcing their own prejudices onto others. it is not wrong to feed a child until they wean, just many of our attitudes need to change. (including all the Doctors, Health visitors who gawped at me telling them i was feeding him even at 2yrs! ;-P )

  3. I can explain 'demonising formula'. With my first baby my husband and I went through hell and high water for me to breast feed her, but when the consultant paediatrician refused to arrange for her tongue tie to be released because "if she can suck from a bottle there's no problem", and we were literally having to travel for a whole day to have it released at different hospitals, not once but twice (by which time the poor thing had given up trying to latch all together and simply wailed at the sight of my breast), to then read in The Mother magazine that formula can also be known as a "Can O'Crap" was extremely distressing. Yes formula is an inferior substitute and carries risks, but it isn't actively poison

  4. Anon - to me that isn't "demonising formula", it's utterly crap support!
    Of course it's utterly distressing that you found yourself in a position with no alternative but to give what is widely acknowledged as a second rate substance! It's disgusting the paediatrician is so uninformed he feels if baby can use a bottle they're fine! (bottle feeding in itself has masked this problem for years)
    and yes calling formula "can O'crap" is rather inflammatory.
    But on the one hand you acknowledge it's an inferior substitute with risks, and other that someone else is demonising formula?
    If you had received the support, you wouldn't have been forced to use it? and I personally would be really angry about that.

  5. Hi! First, I'm really happy that my post inspired discussion; that's what it's meant to do.

    I'm a lactivist. I'm not a breastfeeding nazi either. Calling all lactivists nazis would be like shooting myself in the ear. :) Being a lactivist means taking positive, proactive steps toward breastfeeding support.

    I agree completely with you. People who call formula-feeding moms these names shouldn't be considered lactivists at all. Sometimes, however, the level of discourse falls to below where it needs to be to further the goal of healthier babies.

    There are real risks to formula-feeding. Stating facts is never inappropriate. Just like you, I disagree completely with the folks who (on both sides of the aisle) attack either breastfeeding or formula-feeding mothers. You're right - someone who calls a formula-feeding mother "disgusting" is just as off-base as one who calls breastfeeding "disgusting."

    I think, ultimately, that we agree. Lactivism is about furthering breastfeeding, supporting all kinds of mothers, and holding companies accountable for their actions.

    Formula is inferior to breast milk. Formula-feeding moms, however, are not inferior to nursing mothers. I think that's the distinction, one you highlight well.

  6. Hi
    Thanks for replying :) I did want to send you a message linking you to the article (I didn't want you to think it was "out of turn" :)) but I couldn't find a comments bit on the piece. Glad you found it :)

  7. This is a great article. Why aren't more breastfeeding supporters stepping in and correcting those who call mothers "lazy" etc? It is obvious this is causing many, many women (and other parent/carers) pain. I think there's a lot going on there. Who benefits by having mothers fight with one another while many stand aside and snark at them?

  8. Another great post! I totally agree with you in that there are people who just take pleasure in making other people feel bad, whether they breastfeed or bottlefeed.

    I really admire the person who wrote the other post, though because, despite not being able to breastfeed she still supports it and wants more people to do it. I see where she is coming from but I think that perhaps she confused a few `idiots´ who enjoy bullying people with others than genuinely want to help.

    I am a breastfeeding counsellor and know a lot of other counsellors and breastfeeding supporters who help other women and I have not met any who have said or who think that bottlefeeding mothers are inferior. In fact, most people who bottlefeed are doing so because of the lack of help that exists.

  9. I have just read your reply to me AA, thank you. In fact I fed my daughter mostly EBM but my supply was shot through not getting started properly so I had to supplement. I knew I was getting rubbish support at the time and I knew what I needed but it literally was completely unavailable. And of course I knew at the time it was easy for the system to fail me because formula is easily available. It was a distressing start to motherhood. I am proud to say that I am going to my first MSLC meeting in a few days time and intend to change things around here.

    However I stand by my original comment, there are comments about formula along the lines of the 'Can O'Crap' one that are only going to alienate women, either they accept that they are feeding their babies poison or they blank out what's being said as extreme/obsessed to protect themselves.

    I'm not arguing against you, BTW, just fleshing things out

  10. Just to throw my 2 cents in: I didn't read your whole post. I'm too tired, my eyes hurt, and my son just went to bed. But when I read the line about "formula being shoved down our throats at the hospital (sic)", I had to pipe up. Every woman I know who has had a child, has been demonized in the hospital if they couldn't or chose not to breastfeed. I don't know where you're from, but it seems in Ontario, most nurses/doctors are heavily subscribed to the "Breast is Best" mentality. Personally I find that extremely offensive, and if I chose to/were able to breastfeed, I'd still find it offensive. Almost as offensive as the whole Pro Life/Pro Choice debate. I bottle feed my son, and I'm Pro Choice. I believe in a woman's right to choose in any situation, and I will support any woman's choice in either issue. All I'd expect is the same sort of understanding and support in return, rather than to be attacked for my beliefs/choices.

  11. I agree with AA about lactivism. I'm on the fence about feeding choice in the sense Sara for example argued for it. I can see, that the feeling of having an open choice to make re baby feeding can make mothers "own" bf more, when it's their choice, not "shoved down their throats". But why do we even have a view that bf is something to be shoved down our throats? Why isn't it an automatic choice for a mammal like ourselves?

    I look at nutrition and baby care quite biologically and scientifically I guess and in my heart I feel there should not be even a question of choice between bf and ff. Every mum should bf in the absence of special circumstances that prevent it. Of course for this to work, every mum would have to have informed bf education pre and post baby, bf counseling as needed and steady support. We know that for most mums this is not happening at the moment, although it could be.

    So in this situation and in the current atmosphere of fearmongering re bfing, it is quite understandable, that many mums feel they don't want to even try bf for size. But in a better world (and I'm not saying a perfect world, because that is not necessary!) there wouldn't have to be a choice, mums would just bf. We humans have previously lived in that world for thousands of years, so it is not unattainable.

  12. That's an interesting point.
    With the advent of elective c-sections being made available to all mums on the NHS, in twenty years or so will we be hearing some mums saying:
    'of course I knew what I was doing when I became pregnant, but I really object to the way the hospital wanted to shove vaginal delivery down my throat.'
    I'm not trying to judge mother's choices, but I think that perhaps the health service could have good reason to be one-sided on the subject of feeding babies - statistically, breastfed babies have fewer hospital admittances.

  13. Totally agree with this.
    No mother wants to feel demonised... we already feel judged for everything we do once we have children.
    There are decisions I made with my first that I didn't make with my second. There are decisions I made with my second that I HOPE I WON'T make with my third. I know a lot more now than I knew when was a new mum and I'd like share this information with more mums. If I'm branded as being a breastfeeding nazi then this is counter productive to the cause. Which mum would want to hear someone telling them they're not being a good mum?

  14. When you advocate for breastfeeding, you are up against those advocating for formula--namely, the multi-billion dollar industry with a truly sketchy record when it comes to honesty and integrity (to say the least). With their millions of marketing dollars aimed directly at a society that is very receptive to marketing, especially when done under the guise of "science" it is difficult enough, but I'm pretty sure its this same machinery that is pitting women against women, breastfeeders against formulafeeders. I have said it many, many times. As a breastfeeding advocate, I am not at war with moms who feed their babies formula, I'm at war with people who are against breastfeeding. I have heard countless situations where, yeah, even to me, it makes sense that a mom has turned to formula in that specific circumstance. In looking at the overall picture, the circumstance was created by a society that emphasizes: independence from our children, priority on materialistic gain, striving for unattainable wealth, and the individual as a commodifiable work unit. These are obstacles no one person can possibly overcome. It takes a major cultural shift to overcome the barriers to breastfeeding. The EASY ones are misinformation and bad advice. But those are simply symptoms of a larger cultural problem which has made breastfeeding, the most simple and natural way to feed a baby, an real uphill battle. So basically, blaming a mother who feeds her kid formula is like blaming Ronald McDonald for a bad cheeseburger. Maybe it makes you feel better because the clown is an easy and obvious target, but it won't get you anywhere. And maybe you don't feel like you can get anywhere fighting a multi-billion dollar corporation like McDonald's when you are too busy raising kids and working 40+ hours a week. Fair enough! Much easier to beat down the clown. But really, its not going to get us anywhere but a bad reputation as clown-beaters. (Ok, I may be carrying this analogy a little too far). What I'm getting at, is as breastfeeding advocates, we need to break down the cultural barriers to breastfeeding in a factual and unemotional way. We need to educate and promote, but in ways that are realistic for people. People who have grown up in a formula world, in a world where Drs know things they don't, and where WE'VE been largely demonized and named "nazis" or "militants" by the very institutions which have duped them in the first place. And it is never, EVER appropriate to blame a mother. Give me any formula scenario and I can tell you why you should be angry at society, NOT an individual.


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