Are there unintended consequences to calling breast-feeding ‘natural’?

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Experts worry that promoting breast-feeding as "natural" could support fears of vaccines and other "unnatural" practices

Health department campaigns focus on breast-feeding as the "only natural" way

CNN  — 

Breast-feeding: “It’s only natural.” It’s a message women may have seen on Facebook or a state health department website, or heard on the radio, as part of a campaign launched in 2013 by the Department of Health and Human Services.

But, according to a pair of experts, this type of campaign could backfire in a big way. When federal and local health departments use the term “natural” to promote breast-feeding, it could inadvertently fuel concerns over other aspects of health and society that are seen as “unnatural,” such as vaccines, genetically modified foods and assisted reproductive technologies, the experts warn.

“We’re not making any statements against the recommendation of breast-feeding overall, but are instead suggesting that the language of ‘the natural’ in breast-feeding promotion is slippery and potentially harmful to other public health goals, like vaccination,” said Jessica Martucci, a researcher in advanced bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Martucci is co-author of an article on the topic that was published on Friday in the journal Pediatrics.

Breast-feeding is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians and other major medical organizations because of its many health benefits, such as reducing the risk of infection in infants and helping mothers recover after pregnancy.

Yet if Martucci’s argument is correct, these groups may want to reframe how they talk about breast-feeding. In support of its 2012 policy statement on the topic, the AAP called breast-feeding a “natural and beneficial source of nutrition” for an infant.

The price of pushing breast-feeding

On the one hand, invoking the “natural” side of breast-feeding may have helped create the breast-feeding renaissance we have today. After falling from popularity and losing out to formula milk in the 1950s and 1960s, breast-feeding started making a comeback in the 1970s in response to notions of “natural motherhood,” trends that Martucci has written about on a blog and in her book, “Back to the Breast.”