Breastfeeding for the Greater Good

Encouraging breastfeeding is good public policy.

Finally, any lingering doubts can be laid aside because a) new research quantifies the public benefits and b) the U.S. government is making employers support it.

A study in the journal Pediatrics reports that approximately 900 babies’ lives could be saved every year if 90% of U.S. mothers exclusively breastfed during the first six months of their baby’s life (currently, 12% do). And page 1,239 of the Obama administration’s newly signed healthcare bill requires workplaces with over 50 employees to provide:

a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

We should celebrate any occasion when policy and practice work together for the common good of mothers and children.

One practice that public policy rightly does not support, however, is breastfeeding other people’s children. Although solicitous mothers have saved the lives of babies around the world by donating their milk, public policy simply cannot condone wet nursing without strict regulations because H.I.V., syphilis and hepatitis are all transmitted through breast milk. Recent donations of breast milk to Haiti have gone unused because of lack of refrigerated storage space.

Wet nursing also revisits class hierarchies among women—the rich pay the poor to nourish their children while the children of the working mothers learn to live with the shortfall.

So breastfeeding is good for babies, but not under all conditions. Health should always be the primary consideration, but social hierarchies need attention, too. This is why it is odd that Salma Hayek thought it perfectly acceptable to breastfeed a baby from Sierra Leone:

In the Nightline video above, Hayek classifies her actions as charitable: The baby was healthy and the mother simply had no milk. But the real questions should have been: Was Hayek healthy and did the mother ask her to feed her baby?

This is the moral of the story: Just because something may be good for babies doesn’t mean privileged people have the right to go ahead and do it. Hayek breastfeeding one baby was essentially harmless, thankfully. A Baptist charity’s attempt to “transport” ten children from Haiti to the Dominican Republic without anyone’s permission was more suspect despite the stated desire to provide them with “a better life.” Good intentions aren’t enough.

Saving babies, especially black ones, is an admirable project that I wish more people would participate in. However, practices based in privilege that eschew public policy–and parental consent–can easily do more harm than good.

Photo courtesy of / CC BY 2.0.


  1. Sister Utley, You have done it again. Found a way to advocate for woman, Black folk, and even children while keeping a sharp analysis on the issues with elitism that plague so many well intentioned actions by even “liberals” that violate people with the least amount of power. However, I am ashamed that I am intrigued by Salma breast feeding a Black baby. This is all too symbolic and sexy at the same time. Too much healthcare for me. I need to go pray… I am also a little worried I am the first to comment and I am a man with no experience in breat feeding so I hope someone else works this out.

  2. I thought that was beautiful, that baby looked so contented! I’ve fed three babies, I think it’s lovely.

    On one occasion I fed another woman’s baby when she had to rush off to hospital with another child, and was gone longer than she expected.

    The health issue is an important one though. But it just means women who donate to milk banks need to be screened, just like blood banks. The problem in Haiti was a separate issue, more do to with the infrastructure problems there than with any inherent problems with milk banks.

    I don’t know where the outrage at social inequalities come from. Now, if Selma Harek had hired a poor black woman to feed her own baby, it would revisit those hierarchies of the past, but it was the other way round! What Selma Hayek was doing was more akin to arrangements that took place between women of the same class when one was ill or didn’t produce enough milk. Then, as now, it was a better alternative than sugar water or animal milk.

    Until you know for sure, you cannot assume that she didn’t have the mother’s permission. I thought it sounded like it was suggested to her.

  3. Great post. Raises lots of important issues about privileged benevolence.

  4. “Privileged benevolence”…I like that…

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