Title: Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy
Author: Jennifer Grayson
Published: 2016 Pages: 336 | Genre: Nonfiction
Rating: Breastfeeding. It’s complicated!
My sister asked me the other day at what age I thought it was inappropriate for a child to still be nursing. Had I not just finished Unlatched, I don’t know what my answer would have been. The short answer I gave her was “I don’t know…it’s complicated!”
And that’s what makes Unlatched such an interesting read. Grayson goes into some of the history of breastfeeding and how views of breastfeeding have changed over the past century. These days it feels taboo to discuss breastfeeding, depending on the audience, and it certainly isn’t something that most women choose to do in public, despite it being the most natural way to feed an infant. How did breastfeeding become such a source of controversy? Why are mommies at war with one another over breastfeeding versus formula feeding?
I read Unlatched mostly while I breastfed my 8 month old babe or while I pumped breastmilk at work, because that’s when I get much of my reading in these days. Even though I am a breastfeeding mom, I had many conflicted thoughts while reading this book and at the beginning was incredibly turned off by Grayson’s tone and point of view. I mean, the second chapter of the book is entitled “What Would Baby Jesus Drink?” Cue the eyerolling. I formula-fed my first baby and felt so much guilt over it and it is very clear that Grayson is very pro-breastfeeding (she weaned her oldest at four years).
The breadth of the book is quite expansive and at times I felt like it was a little too wide. She covers breastfeeding in ancient times through the Industrial Revolution. She gives a lot of focus to when mothers began working outside of the home in the 1800s and the great effect this had on breastfeeding in the 1900s. She talks about the advent of formula and how formula marketing has played such a large role in breastfeeding and its public perception. She talks about the Women Infant Children program and the government involvement with formula companies and WIC.
Grayson also talks about the benefits of breastfeeding as well as some of the mysteries, but this is where I wanted more information. She dropped a bomb in my lap that breastmilk is actually a tissue. What the what? What does this even mean? She doesn’t expand and I couldn’t find any information online. She strongly believes that if more babies were breastfed that our national health would increase as a whole. But is there that much research to substantiate this huge claim? She didn’t convince me.
There’s SO MUCH. SO MUCH. There’s the idea that breastfeeding is now something that is tied to privilege–if you can stay at home with your child then yay for you. But this also assumes that you’re able to nurse with other littles around. Or that you have the flexibility and support system. Or that it comes easy to you. Breastfeeding is hard!
Which then leads into the discussion of how breastfeeding is handled in hospitals. My own experiences between my first and second baby were very different. No one mentioned putting the baby to my breast right after I had her the first time around–I had to ask the nurses when I should start trying to feed her. Rooming arrangements were also different between the first and third. With my first, she was only brought into my room to nurse. By my third baby, she never left my side for one second during our entire stay in the hospital. The presence (or lack) of formula, pacifiers, and lactation consultants varied each time.
She talks about how the women in 18th century France shipped off their babies to farms to be breastfed by others. Or the “mass infanticide” that occurred in Britain and Ireland when babies were not breastfed by their mothers (what?!). She talks about how the normal breastfeeding range is 2-7 years. Though I’m not sure exactly where this is happening. She talks about pumping and how the return to work is affecting our babies. Of course this also goes hand in hand with maternity leave–or the lack of it. This third time around, I’m lucky to work the hours that I do around breastfeeding and pumping. I know from my first corporate job that this is rarely the case for working mothers.
So yes, in many ways I really connected with Unlatched and it was a read that I found compelling. But the delivery of Grayson’s message was often tough to swallow. I spent the first half of the book exasperated with the way that she was trying to sell breastfeeding. Additionally, the first couple of chapters in the book felt unorganized and the information seemed conflicting. Grayson made a lot of claims but it wasn’t always clear whether these claims were founded in actual research or supposition.
The second half of the book was much more polished and felt more relevant to the conversations we need to be having about breastfeeding–how formula companies have evolved and how more research can be done to uncover some of the mysteries of breastmilk. These articles from around the web are snippets from the book if you’d like to get a taste of the writing style and content. ‘The World’s Oldest Profession’ Might Not Be What You Think; Is It Time To Stop Talking About The Benefits Of Breastfeeding?; Breast milk is best and free, so why is it a luxury for American moms?
I know, I know, this post is already a 1,000 words long…likely the longest book post I’ve written (not to mention the essay I wrote on my own breastfeeding journey), but here are a few of the passages I highlighted throughout the book (and there were many).
“But the truth is that while the rooting and sucking reflexes are hardwired in a baby, a mother’s knowledge of how to breastfeed is not. For humans and members of the larger primate order to which we belong, that knowledge is culturally based and it is largely learned” (loc 234). But then “…for thousands, perhaps millions, of years of human history, breastfeeding was a natural, intuitive experience that all Homo sapiens and previous human ancestors had shared and knew intimately” (loc 271).
“The federal government’s Women, Infants, and Children program, also known as WIC (which provides supplemental foods as well as health assistance to low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children under the age of five), buys and distributes more than half of all the infant formula sold in the United States every year, making the US government the formula manufacturers’ biggest customer” (loc 347).
“And many soon came to see formula as preferable in an era when doctors believed that breastfeeding could only be successful under ideal conditions: if the mother had ample daily exercise; if she drank prescribed quantities of water; if she followed a plain diet; if she abstained from tea, coffee, and alcohol; if she wasn’t stressed in any way. The bottle, unlike the breast, was predictable and measurable” (loc 1439).
“Yet here’s the crux of the problem: in a culture where both men and women automatically think sex when they see a naked breast, it is a real challenge for a mother to whip out one of those sexually loaded things every time she needs to feed her kid” (loc 2623).
“But maybe we should stop talking about the benefits of breastfeeding and instead start considering the risks of not breastfeeding, since I’m certainly not fine. Are you fine? Are we—an overweight nation of chronically ill, medicine-dependent formula feeders—fine?” (loc 3637…Grayson was formula fed as an infant).
“But in the United States, we’ve championed pumping to the exclusion of giving a new mother the time to bond with her newborn, by packing her off to work with a health care–sponsored breast pump and zero paid maternity leave” (loc 3856).
Bottom Line: Whew. I still have so many more thoughts and the more I think about it, the more the breastfeeding question continues to complicate itself in my mind. Do I wish that more mothers would consider breastfeeding their babies? Yes–absolutely! Do I think that mothers should feel less guilt over not being able to breastfeed? Yes–absolutely! It’s not clear-cut for me. I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Is this a book for everyone? No. Is it a perfect piece of journalism? No–I think Grayson’s book is flawed in many ways. But I do think that as uncomfortable this conversation is to have, we should be talking about breastfeeding more than we are.