New review: The Politics of Breastfeeding

// 14 July 2009

Karen Gregory reviews the 20th anniversary edition of The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer

TPOBFcover.gifWhy has artificial feeding become the norm in many parts of the world? Why are worldwide sales of bottles and artificial feeding products still rising, and what are the health implications of this trend? How has breastfeeding become so damaged and who is better off as a result? Are mothers more equal, healthier and happier because they have been ‘freed’ from the tyranny of breastfeeding? Or are the real beneficiaries the multinational corporations that profit from the baby food market? In The Politics of Breastfeeding, Gabrielle Palmer seeks to answer some of these questions through a wide-ranging examination of the place of breastfeeding in today’s society. Encompassing discussions on the mechanics of breastfeeding, HIV and Aids, birth practices, fertility, wet nursing, economic developments since the industrial revolution and ecology, Palmer’s key message is that the decline in breastfeeding can be explained within an economic system which values its destruction in the name of profit.

The first edition of the book was published more than 20 years ago, in 1988. In the preface to this third edition, Palmer surveys the changes in feeding practices over the past two decades and concludes that we now have a far greater knowledge about the positive effects of breastfeeding, but the baby food industry continues to engage in ever more aggressive marketing of their products and the spread of misinformation about breastfeeding.

This has had particularly tragic consequences in the developing world. The figures she quotes are shocking. The global value of baby food sales is projected to reach $20.2 billion annually, of which two thirds will come from infant formula sales. Yet, throughout the world, three thousand babies a day die from infections triggered by the use of risky products such as bottles and artificial milks.

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