The breast milk problem: cultural considerations when mother's own milk is unavailable

Tanya Cassidy (Maynooth University)
Professor Vanessa Maher
Start time:
27 August, 2010 at 11:30
Session slots:


Identified specifically as a "problem" by influential early pediatricians at the turn of the twentieth century, constructions about how to deal with issues associated with reduced breast milk supplies due to economic, medical and/or social considerations have been imagined not only by the medical community but also multi-national corporations. The familiar slogan "breast is best" has recently been challenged by voices at either extreme of the breast milk-formula feeding continuum. Those who legitimate formula feeding argue for a more holistic lifestyle-orientated displacement of the primacy of breast milk feeding while breast milk advocates have suggested that "best" fails to convey either the routinized normalcy of breastfeeding or the negative qualities of formula feeding. This year's World Breastfeeding Week took as its theme, "breastfeeding in emergency situations", capturing one context where breastfeeding can save lives. Other more medicalized global circumstances include the increasing rates of prematurity and low birth weights within an economy of stretched resources. Connected to these issues is the WHO recognition of donor human milk banking which is experiencing an unprecedented growth world wide, while traditional cultural systems of milk sharing such as the Islamic milk kinship system are being displaced in nations at war such as the Sudan. This workshop offers an opportunity to consider anthropological issues when we look at how we imagine not only how infants have been, are being, and will be fed when they are not given milk from their mother's own breast. What questions arise when mother's own breast is not best?