The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Missing: Mother’s Breast in the Family Home

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Because they recognize that breastfeeding confers a number of immunological, nutritional, and neurological benefits, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that mothers rely entirely on breastfeeding for the first six months of their children’s lives. But doctors have found it difficult to gain compliance with their recommendations in a twenty-first-century world that often subverts home-based family life. A nationwide Canadian study at the University of Toronto and York University indeed illustrates just how the retreat from family life has undermined efforts to increase breastfeeding.

Analyzing nationally representative data collected in 2005 and 2006, the researchers identify a number of statistical predictors of compliance with the WHO’s recommendation for six months of exclusive reliance on breastfeeding. Again and again, these predictors are linked to traditional patterns of home-life that are becoming increasingly rare. For instance, the researchers find that “marital status” is a strong predictor of compliance, with mothers who “have a partner” being almost three times as likely to comply with the WHO guideline than are mothers who do not (Odds Ratio,  2.79). (Some readers may discern a certain irony in the fact that even as researchers document the socio-medical importance of marriage, they undermine the moral substance of marriage by adhering to a political orthodoxy that dictates a vocabulary of “partners” rather than “husbands.”)

Maternal employment status emerges as another statistical predictor linking exclusive breastfeeding to traditional patterns of family life: researchers note that maternal employment outside the home is “negatively associated with exclusive breastfeeding.” That is, mothers committed to the traditional role of homemaking are significantly more likely to rely exclusively on breastfeeding their infants for six months than are peers who leave the home for employment. Since other studies have shown that homemaking women are distinctively more fertile than employed women, it comes as no surprise that this study finds that women who have previously given birth are more likely to breastfeed in harmony with WHO guidelines than are women giving birth for the first time. “Multipara mothers,” suggest the researchers, are likely “to have increased knowledge and self-confidence from earlier breastfeeding experiences,” knowledge and self-confidence that a first-time mother may lack.

Given the way that twenty-first-century Canadian culture—like American culture—has weakened women’s commitments to marriage, homemaking, and child-bearing, it is entirely predictable that the Toronto and York researchers find that “the 6-month exclusive breastfeeding rate is low in Canada,” with only 13.8 percent of mothers in the study complying with the WHO guideline.

If American mothers want to do any better in delivering the benefits of breastfeeding to their children, they will need to rediscover the importance of wedlock, homemaking, and multi-child families.

(Ban Al-Saha et. al., “Prevalence and predictors of 6-month Exclusive Breastfeeding among Canadian Women: A National Survey,” BMC Pediatrics 10 [April 8, 2010]: 20).