Unlatched by Jennifer Grayson

Posted 28 September, 2016 by Trish in Mommyhood, Reading Nook, Review / 10 Comments

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Unlatched cover by jennifer grayson


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!

On Amazon | On Indiebound | On Goodreads

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 ThinkIs 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.



10 Responses to “Unlatched by Jennifer Grayson”

  1. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t read any breastfeeding books/websites during our super-non-standard experience. I’m sure it would have given me all sorts of guilt and stress. We dealt with latch issues, formula supplementing, and the inability to take a bottle EVER. It was hard and worth it and totally personal.
    And I think that 2-7 year number is complete b.s. ;)

  2. Bravo – I don’t think I could read that book without pitching it across the room based on your many reaction as you read it, but I *DO* agree that we need to keep talking about breastfeeding and make it an acceptable *choice* for each mother.

    • I went pretty easy on some of the quotes I highlighted–some of it was so condescending! Too bad because I think she had many great points but would alienate too many readers before getting to them.

  3. Laura

    In my experience as a new mother, and from the experience of lots of my mom friends and acquaintances, it seems that many moms who want to nurse don’t get enough support! I know when I wasn’t producing enough, and Emily hadn’t regained her birth weight after a couple of weeks, I would have switched to formula if her pediatrician hadn’t sent me to a really great lactation consultant. I had no idea you could bring up milk production! I think doctors are often too quick to push formula instead of helping a mom find a solution to her breastfeeding issues. Breastfeeding is super hard, and definitely takes a ton of sacrifice on a mother’s part. I’m really interested in the “breastmilk is a tissue” statement too! I’ve read some pretty amazing claims about breastmilk, but have never come across that before. Now I’m curious :)

  4. I formula fed both of my children. By choice. I simply never felt any interest in even wanting to even try to breastfeed. While pregnant with my first, I took a breastfeeding class and left it knowing that it was not for me. I was absolutely appalled one day years ago (before I had kids) when a good friend of mine adopted her daughter as an infant and was actually approached by someone for formula feeding. She calmly informed the lady that she had no choice because her daughter was adopted. She handled it better than I would have. But it was in that moment that I realized no one should be judged for feeding their child, regardless of the manner in which they do so. It’s a personal decision and not one that should be pushed on someone; but rather, one that should be fully supported regardless of what that decision might be.

  5. Funny, I’m reading this post while nursing. A year ago I knew almost nothing about the world of breastfeeding. Now, after eight months of breastmilk and pumping while working full time I can say that it is SO hard and definitely not for everyone, but it was right for us. One of the best things I did was to find a breastfeeding support group at my local hospital while I was on maternity leave. Those early weeks were so hard and the lactacian consultants at the group answered questions and were so supportive! I’m I don’t do well with condescension in NF books, so I’ll probably pass on this one. I’m so glad I read your review before checking it out. I think the worst thing we can do is make another mom feel bad about how she feeds her baby.

  6. When I had my first born I wanted to breastfeed so bad, and I definitely tried but the nurses were so rude and would become frustrated with me that I quit right away. I didn’t even bother to breastfeed my second because of that experience. When I had my third, I had a terrible pregnancy & I wanted to breastfeed because I felt terrible that my body wouldn’t stay pregnant. My family was less than supportive but I was able to breastfeed for the first 6 months. I receive WIC and the ladies there kept trying to keep me breastfeeding but not having the support plus getting really sick and losing a lot of my supply definitely didn’t help me. It still breaks my heart that I couldn’t get to at least the first year.

    Breastfeeding is hard and it feels like not many understand. My family would say my daughter wasn’t eating enough because she was always nursing and that would definitely bring me down. I didn’t read any breastfeeding books while I breastfeed because I felt like i’d feel like a failure in the authors eyes.

  7. I feel all riled up just from your review! Breastfeeding was the hardest thing I’ve done yet – and I know I was really lucky with it. I do think its shameful how little breastfeeding support there is. I was at a phenomenal hospital and still barely had lactation support when my daughter was born. We toughed it out but I get why people don’t. I just wish we as women didn’t have to come down on each other so hard over our choices. Yes – I strongly believe breast is best but I’m not going to shame someone for not trying. I think this is a pass book for me – but totally a conversation that needs to happen again and again.

  8. I nursed both of my kids, but I tend to feel that it’s one of those issues people get all up in arms about but are rarely able to change anyone else’s mind. Some women breastfeed and others use formula. It’s silly of us to assume that we know anyone’s reasons and I hate that this is something that creates tension between moms. We are all just trying to feed and take care of our kids, right?