By Claire McMurray
Did I breastfeed my daughter? As a new mother I spent an unhealthy amount of time grappling with this question. Not because I wanted an answer for anyone else, but because I needed one for myself. I still don’t truly know. For the first few weeks of her life my baby had a mix of breastmilk and formula. Then she had milk from the breast, even though she screamed every time I tried to feed her. At 12 weeks I gave up feeding her at the breast and she got pumped milk in bottles for the next few months. When I tapered off the pumping she got a mix of frozen milk and formula. Then it was just formula.
It was the disconnect between what seemed like a simple question and my own baby’s intricate and flexible breastfeeding timeline that sent me into a tailspin. What exactly is breastfeeding? I wondered. Is it just milk from the breast? Does pumped milk count too? And what about duration? What if I only breastfed for a few days or a few weeks? Would that count?
Eventually I turned to the research and science behind breastfeeding in the hope that it would help me settle my confusion. I emerged even more bewildered than ever. I had assumed that breastfeeding studies would be based on a shared assumption of what “breastfeeding” meant. However, many studies I found defined breastfeeding on their own terms, with researchers choosing a variety of ways to divide breastfeeding mothers from non-breastfeeding ones. Worse, some studies did not mention the criteria they used to define breastfeeding at all. All of this has even lead to conflicting results among studies.
An article entitled “What is the Definition of Breastfeeding” finally came close to answering my questions. According to the author, a 1988 meeting about the definition of breastfeeding sponsored by The Interagency Group for Action on Breastfeeding (IGAB) resulted in a set of definitions for breastfeeding, including exclusive breastfeeding, almost exclusive breastfeeding, full breastfeeding, full breast milk feeding, partial breastfeeding, and token breastfeeding. The consortium also defined breastfeeding as applying only to a certain moment in time and differentiated breastfeeding from breast milk feeding (what I was doing when I pumped and bottle fed the milk to my baby). Other health organizations, like The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, have a different set of definitions. They group breastfeeding into the categories of exclusive, predominant, full, and complimentary.
What struck me most after all of this reading was that the idea of multiple definitions of breastfeeding was already in place. I was surprised to learn that some researchers and health organizations had already been arguing for years for the nuanced differentiations and distinctions that I felt were so necessary and so lacking.
Yet my astonishment died quickly. If I was unaware of these ideas, it was because they have failed to make it into the popular press and into the public’s consciousness. Too often we still see breastfeeding in Manichean terms, as a two-sided debated pitting “those who do” against “those who don’t.” Instead of nuance, fluidity, and multiple possibilities, we picture a presence or a lack. It is a dangerous duality constantly perpetuated by science and health reporting, media headlines, and even our own pediatrician, family, and friends.
Why does all this matter? Why should I or any other mother care about the definition of breastfeeding? Quite simply because it is through the network of mothers that we can change the narrow view of what breastfeeding is. We can give ourselves and each other permission to embrace the full set of possibilities that exist. In fact, we can do even better than that. We can promote and make visible the idea of a breastfeeding spectrum upon which every woman can locate herself at a certain moment in time. We can recognize it as flexible, adaptable, and individualized. And we can refuse to be divided into camps and set in opposition to one another when we read, listen, or talk about breastfeeding. Let’s even stop writing and talking about respecting the other “side.” What if there were no sides?
I have decided that changing my definition of breastfeeding will be my own personal act of feminist solidarity. And I have pledged to myself that I will change my own breastfeeding vocabulary. I won’t use words like “side” or “camp.” I won’t ask anyone if she has or has not breastfed. Most importantly, I will stop asking myself the question Did I breastfeed? I’ll replace it with a better one: Where am I on the spectrum?
Where are you?
Claire has published essays in Parent Co, Scary Mommy, and Sammiches and Psych Meds. Her stories have been published online in Aphelion Magazine and by Scholastic Press. Claire currently live in the Midwest and work as the Graduate Writing Specialist at a university writing center. I earned a Ph.D. in French literature from Yale in 2010.