A Review of Milk, Money, & Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding

[Image Description: The cover of Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding, shown in orange and white block text over an abstract green and purple background.]

The Summary

MM&M is the very first book about breastfeeding culture that I ever picked up. I had a handful to pick from, but what persuaded me to read this one first was the amount of pictures, charts, and illustrations that I saw when flipping through the book. I’m a visual person, so actually seeing the material culture around breastfeeding (ranging from old-time Nestle advertisements to startling images of emaciated babies, to photos of women nursing animals alongside their own children, to figurines of women nursing the elderly back to health) really left an impact on me and drove home the importance that breastfeeding has had on humanity throughout our existence as a species.

There is a wealth of knowledge in this book, as well as tons of references (I love references!) provided in an appendix to give the reader some leads on further reading. The book itself is a bit dated, having been published a decade and a half ago, but much of the information is still relevant, accurate, and crucial knowledge for any lactivist.

Random passages of the book did seem kind of judge-y, and I could see that being kinda off-putting to formula-feeding parents.

The Breakdown

Section I: Breastfeeding Beliefs and Practices

This section is divided into two subsections, one about breastfeeding norms and customs from around the world, and the other about wet nursing. The section exploring different cultural practices and norms was refreshingly even-handed; the tone was not “Look how weird [and inferior] the norms of non-American cultures are!” – which is sadly common – but more like, “Oh hey, there are a ton of different ways that people approach this, and the Western way is not necessarily the right way. In fact, you can’t really call any way ‘the right way,’ so yeah.”

There was at least one section that made me cringe, although to be honest I didn’t take notes as I read because I didn’t have any plans for a review, so upon a second reading it might not be so bad. While talking about the intercourse taboo during the breastfeeding period that is prevalent in some cultures, the authors mention something about how barriers to breastfeeding to women of the developing world contributes to overpopulation. While I am in full support of women everywhere making their own decisions about spacing between children (and, of course, whether they choose to have children at all), I have heard too many complaints about “those people” reproducing and the privilege and bigotry behind such complaints is usually pretty evident; the wording in this text (I’m gonna update this when I find the right page!) was iffy enough that I couldn’t tell if the authors were genuinely concerned about the former (women’s reproductive agency) or the latter (poor brown folks using up “our” – privileged Westerners’ – resources).

The subsection on wet nursing focused mostly, but by no  means exclusively, on European women. Other cultures, including black American slaves, are also discussed. The topic was not limited to the Western ideation of nursing only being something that a human mother does with a child, but explores interspecies nursing and the suckling of humans of various ages, including the elderly. Again, the authors treat the subject respectfully, without treating the exploration of non-Western cultures as an episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Section II: The Miracle Food and Medicine

The two subsections here cover the properties of breastmilk (especially as compared to other infant foods) and the consequences of artificial feeding. While the section on breastmilk does delve somewhat into the immunobiological components of human milk, it was explained simply, which I – a woman who has not seen the inside of a science classroom for over a decade – was able to appreciate. There was plenty of information comparing the composition of breastmilk to other milks – mostly cow’s – and the physiological effects of breastfeeding on both infant and nursing parent.

The latter subsection details the practices and consequences – not only for the involved nursing (or non-nursing) dyad, but for the entire planet – of artificial feeding throughout history and the present day, in both developing and industrialized countries. It provided a historical context that called into question all of my assumptions about artificial feeding that I’ve been socialized to accept as “normal.”

This section was my favorite, and is the reason I was inspired to add Immunobiology of Human Milk (which, unfortunately, is WAY over my head and I will have to revisit after I do some private study on human immunobiology) to my library. The common perception of formula as being “almost like” breastmilk is roundly debunked here; in fact, the myriad ways that formula falls short (and the ways in which these shortcomings are minimized, ignored, or denied by the industry) is nothing short of breathtaking.

Section III: Breastmilk Economics – Shaping Corporate and Government Policies

These subsections explain the development of the WHO code, why it became necessary in the first place, and the conundrum of the working breastfeeding woman. The unethical practices of the formula industry (especially Nestle) and the decades-old efforts of mothers and advocates to combat them are laid out in explicit (and sometimes graphic) detail. This subsection also explains the various strategies employed by the industry in order to gain more consumers even at the expense of the children, parents, and communities who need breastmilk most.

The final subsection of the book looks into the barriers that working parents face when they want to pursue a healthy nursing relationship with their children, maternity benefits in various countries, as well as possible solutions to help parents bridge the gap between “gainfully employed” and “successfully breastfeeding,” as the two need not be mutually exclusive.

This last section was not as compelling as the first two, mostly because the book pulls away from an examination of cultural norms (which I love to read about) and focuses more on politics, legislation, and business practices (which are important, but I can’t say that I love reading about).

Appendices (in order):

  • Organizations Working to Promote Breastfeeding
  • Recommended Reading and Resource List
  • US Infant Formula Recalls, 1982-1994
  • Boycott Information
  • US Infant Formulas: Product Ownership
  • Physician’s Pledge to Protect, Promote, and Support Breastfeeding
  • Summary of Enacted Breastfeeding Legislation as of March, 1996

The Info

Title: Milk, Money & Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding

Authors: Naomi Baumslag, M.D. and Dia L. Michels

Published: November 30, 1995

ISBN: 0897894073 or 978-0897894074

Cost: The list price is $36.95 but I snagged a used copy from the Amazon marketplace for just $5.50.

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