When breast isn’t best

A major maternity support group is at war with its trustees over its insistence that men should be enabled to breastfeed


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Here is the latest update from a previously unshelled trench in the sex and gender war: the British branch of the oldest international breastfeeding support organisation is fighting the majority of its volunteer trustees on its Council of Directors.

This is the battleground that impacts maternity and breastfeeding — the very territory where you might think gender identity ran a justifiable second place to the biological reality of pregnancy, birth and early nurturing.

But to comply with the policies of La Leche League International, its larger US-dominated overseer, La Leche League Great Britain has decided that — contrary to what its dissenting trustees say its charitable aims and governing documents attest — it is not and cannot be a single-sex network of mothers, helping other mothers. In fact, the very word “mother” is caveated.

Why? Because of “inclusion”. Now, men who either claim to be women or who just feel impelled to breastfeed can ask for help, information and support to do so. The LLL directors who have objected have been told by their US bosses and their UK director colleagues to get with the programme, you bigots, or get out.

Of course, they don’t say “bigots”. Instead, they remind the objectors that LLL is concerned to be available to “all”, without “roadblocks”. These roadblocks include the word “mother”; if it’s used, it must be combined with a clear statement that this doesn’t mean LLL is restricted to “one population of people”. Perish the thought. Instead, they’re told to ensure their public-facing comms use words like “lactating parent”.

LLL-GB is fighting back though. A majority of their Council of Trustees has reported their organisation to the UK Charity Commissioners, as any change to LLL’s stated aims and objectives cannot be decided unilaterally. An email explaining why has been circulated to all members.

I’ve seen this move towards denying the importance of sex in the breastfeeding support world over the last six or seven years. I first felt it personally, on an international (read American-dominated) email group for supporters. I was rounded upon by a handful of members for giving my opinion about a recent case study on a trans woman breastfeeding that had been published in New Scientist.

When I said the subject of the study was male, and that the findings were not credible (the data and observations presented in it were bizarre to anyone who understands the physiology of breastfeeding), I was told that “any human milk feeding” should be celebrated — and what good news it was that this person had found help to do so. Not one member posted in my support. I’m told by remaining participants in the email group that the subject doesn’t come up any more.

I’ve seen online breastfeeding support groups close down because they wanted to ensure only women join, and either faced objections or failed to filter out the men. Others decide they now welcome anyone who wants to “chest feed”, “body feed”, “give human milk”. Of course, the result is they get men in.

I was chucked out of a discussion group after an online pile-on in which I was called the usual names when I wondered, politely, what happens to mothers’ breastfeeding groups if men join them. Might it put some women off joining? Those who “liked” my post were also summarily booted.

Anyone with a strong stomach can google the story of “Gabrielle”, who called himself the “princess mom”. He joined a group for breastfeeding mothers who needed help to make sufficient milk, and solicited advice on production, simulating pregnancy and birth, and discussed how he might “borrow” a baby to breastfeed (apparently his “dream scenario”). Those who raised objections to this doolally fantasy being played out were reprimanded and banned from the group.

As trained breastfeeding supporters, La Leche League know full well that happy, effective breastfeeding begins with mothers staying close to their babies in the early weeks and feeding responsively both day and night. This allows the body to “calibrate” a sufficient milk supply to meet the baby’s needs. Interference with this can come in many forms: an idea that breastfeeding should only be done at home, or the baby should have a strict routine, or go through the night — they’re all the real roadblocks to getting breastfeeding going, not the word “mother”.

We already know a male body, even one with breasts, can only ever produce tiny amounts of milk through being induced with hormones, plus hours and hours (literally) of breast pump use in an attempt to stimulate production and many tries at direct breastfeeding. The cases in the literature show there have never been any quantities close to the daily litre or so a successfully breastfeeding mother produces beyond the newborn period.

But when the baby’s got their mouth round the nipple of someone who’s not their mother, even small quantities transferred risk undermining the establishment of the mother’s own supply. The man’s desire for a simulated experience is made the all-encompassing priority, not the baby’s needs, as it struggles to get tiny amounts of milk at a vital time in its development.

All breastfeeding supporters, including the ones in LLL, know about the importance of babies getting sufficient milk, as they’re trained in how the whole thing actually works. Yet, it appears some of them have come to accept the idea that gender identity — the subjective feeling of being a woman or a man, or neither or even both — is more important than biological sex.

In fact, their idea is that sex should be ignored in favour of someone’s gender identity and that we should have a shiny new ontology where “sex” doesn’t appear at all, except as another “social construct” that’s fluid, malleable, unstable.

Breastfeeding, valued both as a means of nurturing an infant and also as a bonding experience between a mother and her baby, now becomes something anybody, and indeed any body, should do if they want to. Asking questions about the wisdom of it is to undermine the whole genderist show.

The drive for trans inclusivity in breastfeeding began about 14 years ago, when a Canadian trans man (a female, that is) who’d had a “gender-affirming” double mastectomy, sought LLL help to breastfeed “as a guy”. That was Trevor MacDonald, who became the “poster dad” for trans breastfeeding, a well-known speaker and author and, by 2016, a trained La Leche League leader.

Trevor’s children were, in fact, partially breastfed despite the minimal breast tissue, and this experience evolved into something of a template for all trans-identified people — including the ones “assigned male at birth” who had (obviously, and unlike Trevor) not ever been pregnant. This all happened against a social backdrop which regards trans identified people as a unique and needy, even oppressed, group, where medical and pharmaceutical interventions have increased.

Last year Duke University in North Carolina published the case of a 50-year-old trans-identified male who sought help to breastfeed his own grandchild. Instead of saying, “No. Really, no. Go away. This is not appropriate, not healthy, and what on earth does the baby’s mother say about it?” researchers devised an individualised drug programme that modified the existing hormone therapy their patient was already using.

They wanted to address the patient’s wish to “create a bond from breastfeeding” that had not been possible with the five children he had fathered. The drugs protocol — published in the study so medics elsewhere could use it for other weirdo grandfathers who knocked at their door — resulted in the subject breastfeeding “multiple times” over a period of two weeks.

One astonishing aspect of the idea that men like this should be enabled to breastfeed is that it’s so often women in the vanguard of its promotion and defence.

The Duke research team working for the grandfather were mainly women. It’s mothers who are behind the current La Leche League purge. It was women who called me a hateful transphobe. It was almost all women who welcomed “Gabrielle” onto their Facebook page. It’s mainly women leading the other UK breastfeeding organisations (there are a few) who are changing their communications to avoid any sexed terminology, and shutting down all discussion about it.

Is it all that odd, though? In western countries, professional and volunteer breastfeeding supporters have long recognised the socioeconomic gulf between the mothers who breastfeed and those who don’t, or who don’t for long. And they have worked hard, with some success, at closing that gap. Now, most women of all backgrounds at least start breastfeeding. Access to help has grown with the internet, dedicated telephone lines, specialist breastfeeding midwives, plus growing numbers of locally-trained volunteer peer counsellors.

It is as if that perfectly reasonable push to make support inclusive has been harnessed by men who want their special identity affirmed, and women have kindly gone along with it. Yet I know many more women who are utterly dismayed by men breastfeeding. They don’t buy the idea that the reason for “gender neutral” services, communications and support is solely to include the tiny number of women, like Canadian Trevor, who say they’re now men or non-binary. They strongly suspect the motives of the men who breastfeed; they’re concerned about possible harms to the baby’s health; they know none of the exercise can be for the baby’s benefit.

Breastfeeding supporters value being mothers, being mother-centred in their work, and want to express it clearly and to help other mothers. But they’re equally dismayed at the idea they might lose their role in mother support if they voice their objections, or even question the wisdom or appropriateness of male breastfeeding. The stooshie at La Leche League — which has done more than 50 years of dedicated, valuable, heartfelt work — shows they’re right to be worried.

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