Disclaimer: I’m about to get all social work-y and academic on you today. I’m playing student as I examine social oppression its relationship with breastfeeding and formula feeding in Canada.

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Recent health promotion campaigns have encouraged people to adopt healthier lifestyles (quit smoking, breastfeed, eat well, etc.) but less attention has been given to promoting the physical and social environments that enhance our health and well being.

To increase breastfeeding rates…

At a macro (government) policy level we need:

  • Increased wages for entry-level jobs so families can better afford to have the mom stay at home for her full maternity leave (in Canada this is one year).
  • Increased mandatory breastfeeding education for all health care providers.
  • Increased government funding for quality child care -> decreased out-of-pocket cost for parents.
  • Increased media support for breastfeeding campaigns

At a mico (individual) level we need:

  • Increased accommodations for breastfeeding mothers at work. While it is more rare in Canada for a woman to return to work before her year-long maternity leave is over, some women have to return to work earlier. It is therefore necessary to at least have a workplace policy on breastfeeding. Our local health authority! does not have any policy on workplace accommodations for breastfeeding mothers which I find appalling.
  • Increased welcoming attitudes by breastfeeding support groups for Women of Colour, women with a disability, working mothers and other women of minority.
  • More businesses with policies that welcome breastfeeding mothers in their stores.
  • Increased public support of breastfeeding, especially past six months or one year.

Breastfeeding moms in North America have a legal right to breastfeed anytime, anywhere. We know this and would like everyone else who isn’t a breastfeeding mom to know this too. We are tired of fighting for the right to have our rights recognized and accepted by others. We are tired of hearing about another breastfeeding mom who was ridiculed for breastfeeding in public or asked to leave a public place or move to a restroom or private nursing room in order to feed her baby. We are tired of improper employer conduct based on outdated or non-existant policies. It’s 2009 and it’s time everyone got with the program. Breast milk is the best food for babies and boobs aren’t lewd, they’re food.

But aside from the need to improve breastfeeding rates and attitudes, are breastfeeding moms as a group oppressed? I don’t think so. In Canada, the prevalence of breastfeeding tends to rise with education and household income. Generally, breastfeeding mothers are educated, middle to upper class, over the age of 25, and partnered [Source]. While breastfeeding moms may get discriminated against, especially when nursing in public, discrimination is not oppression. And when a breastfeeding mom has difficulties, it is usually the more privileged mom who gets the help she needs and can continue on with breastfeeding.

When a woman has difficulty breastfeeding, this private trouble can go in one of two directions: Either she gets help and remedies the problem or she stops. Some of the barriers mothers experience in being able to successfully breastfeed from the start are found in the hospitals they deliver their baby in. Sometimes the blame is placed on an individual (mom couldn’t produce enough milk, partner wasn’t supportive, baby couldn’t latch, etc) but often the problem stems from larger problems in the health care system. At a macro level, government reductions to spending on health and social welfare mean staff cuts – less staff have to do more work and there just aren’t enough people to do a thorough job. Conservative trends support focus on less government support and more individual, family and community-based efforts (like LLL, new mom groups, public health). But if someone doesn’t refer the mom to any community-based program, this public issue  - quality health care – becomes a private trouble when moms don’t get the help they need.

Now let’s take a look at formula feeding moms. A lot of people come down on moms for formula feeding. Some formula feeding moms come down on themselves. But if we take a structural approach to formula feeding and look at it as a public issue instead of a private one, we will soon see that a number of factors might influence formula use.

To look at choosing formula as only an individual choice is to ignore all other sources of the problem: media (advertising), health care system (cut backs and lack of breastfeeding education), economy (need to return to work early to make ends meet), social pressure (family, friends, society), the current conservative politics that drive all of the above and of course the invisible walls of patriarchy, and where applicable, ableism, racism and sexism. Or should I just say kyriarchy?


Not all moms who use formula live in poverty or are even low-income, but generally speaking many are. When a person lives in poverty they lack the resources more privileged people do. They generally have less education. They are marginalized in their jobs. They often can’t afford to take off a full year’s maternity leave, that is if they get one at all. In Canada one must work an equivalent of six months full time work outside the home to be eligible for maternity leave benefits, and even then, if your employer doesn’t “top up” those benefits you only get a fraction of what you were making before you took time off. Women who work low-wage paying jobs are often in the kind of job where it isn’t very easy to pump on breaks.  If a poor woman has breastfeeding difficulties she has even more barriers stacked against her. In Canada, with our universal health care system, many lactation consultants work for hospitals or public health provide free help to anyone who needs it. However, there is still cost. Transportation is a major issue for many low-income families. Many moms don’t own or have access to a computer so don’t have the online resources so many of us rely on nowadays. Therefore, it is usually the moms who can afford services and know they exist who get the help, fix their problem and go on to breastfeed.


In the United States African-American mothers are less likely to even initiate breastfeeding than white mothers. In Canada women of colour also have lower breastfeeding rates. A recent collection of anecdotal evidence in my area has shown that breastfeeding rates among local First Nations groups are declining. 


Mothers under 20 are also less likely to initiate breastfeeding.

Internalized Oppression

Internalized oppression is when individuals internalize positive messages about a dominant group and negative messages about themselves and their cultural group. This integration of negative stereotypes results in feelings of inferiority, shame, and self-hate, which then underlie the development of patterns of self-destructive behaviour [Link]. When a nurse unconsciously but discriminatingly assumes a woman of colour will formula feed and the patient assumes that’s what she should do because that’s what everyone else does, regardless of what is best or her curiosity, if she doesn’t speak out, this is internalized oppression. 

Internalized Dominance is when people in the dominant culture come to see the effects of colonization as normal or natural and are unable to see their privilege. They assume that everyone shares their view of the order of things, including stereotypes of colonized peoples and the view of history as written by the colonizers. Health care professionals can have internalized dominance over patients. Inappropriate hospital practices and the promotion of formula are a form of violence towards women. Violations of a woman’s right to breastfeed, including not receiving her permission to give her infant formula or giving her false information can be seen as a violating of a woman’s human rights. To read more about the feminist approach to equality for breastfeeding, please see this post.

So are moms who formula feed oppressed?

What do you think?

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17 Responses to “Breastfeeding, Formula Feeding and Social Oppression”

  1. #1 Amy (@HappyMomAmy) Says:

    November 9, 2009 at 1:39 pm
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    November 9, 2009 at 1:50 pm
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    November 9, 2009 at 2:47 pm
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    November 9, 2009 at 4:15 pm
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    November 9, 2009 at 6:26 pm
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    November 10, 2009 at 10:58 am
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    November 14, 2009 at 8:29 pm

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