Health & Environment

Prof Asks “Is Breastfeeding Best?”

A Texas A&M University professor challenges conventional wisdom about breastfeeding and the widely held belief that it is always best for babies.
By Blair Williamson January 10, 2011

Joan Wolf
Joan Wolf

(Texas A&M Women’s and Gender Studies)

A Texas A&M University professor challenges conventional wisdom about breastfeeding and the widely held belief that it is always best for babies.

After analyzing medical studies conducted over the last three decades, Joan Wolf, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Texas A&M, asserts “there really is no compelling evidence that breastfeeding makes a medical difference for most babies in the developed world. And this is completely contrary to what we are all told.”

In her newly released book, “Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood” (New York University Press), Wolf confronts the stereotypes of ideal motherhood and explains how public health campaigns and advocacy groups have relied on flawed infant-feeding research to exaggerate any health risks associated with using infant formula.

“I was shocked to discover just how weak most literature is. The inspiration for this book came from looking at medical studies and realizing that we—as a public and as mothers—are not being given accurate information about what precisely breastfeeding does and what benefits it actually accords to babies,” says Wolf.

From June 2004 to April 2006, the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign (NBAC) warned that women who choose not to breastfeed put babies at risk for a variety of health problems. Public service announcements stated, “You’d never take risks before your baby is born. Why start after?” alongside images of pregnant women logrolling and riding mechanical bulls.

Wolf notes the problem with the NBAC is it neglects fundamental ethical principles regarding quality of evidence and cultural sensitivity in favor of a message of fear. She argues that this message reflects “a pervasive cultural view that mothers must assume the responsibility to protect their children from any conceivable risk.” They also reinforce long-held stereotypes, such as women who choose not to breastfeed are callous and irresponsible mothers, she contends.

Wolf asserts that these views of parenting are encompassed in the concept of total motherhood, which “presumes that a moral mother will subjugate herself completely to a culturally defined, all-inclusive notion of the needs of children.”

This self-denial poses the risk of damaging a woman’s sense of autonomy, her career and relationships, and her economic well-being if she does not consider the costs of breastfeeding alongside its presumed benefits. Wolf emphasizes that until there is definitive evidence that breastfeeding is actually healthier for infants, there should be less judgment upon mothers who choose the reliability and convenience of formula.

Wolf received both her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching interests include women’s and gender studies, public discourse and politics, health politics, and identity politics

For more information about the book or to order a copy, go to or to

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