Just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it better. In fact there are many naturally-occurring substances that are deadly to humans: cobra venom, arsenic, and some viruses and bacteria for which we immunize children against. In the March 2016 issue of Pediatrics, University of Pennsylvania medical ethicists, Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, argue that using “breastfeeding” and “natural” in the same sentence may have unintended consequences:

Promoting breastfeeding as “natural” may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that “natural” approaches are presumptively healthier. This may ultimately challenge public health’s aims in other contexts, particularly childhood vaccination.

 

The authors have people who reject vaccines in mind:

The idea of the “natural” evokes a sense of purity, goodness, and harmlessness. Meanwhile, synthetic substances, products, and technologies mass produced by industry (notably, vaccines) are seen as “unnatural” and often arouse suspicion and distrust. Part of this value system is the perception that what’s natural is safer, healthier and less risky. This embrace of the “natural” over the “unnatural” appears in a variety of contemporary scientific and medical issues beyond vaccination, including rejection of genetically modified foods, a preference for organic over conventionally grown foods, and rejection of assisted reproductive technologies, as well as concerns over environmental toxins and water fluoridation. Much of the interest in complementary and alternative medicines also hinges on “ideas of natural techniques as safer, gentler and benign.” In some cases, however, this view that “natural” is synonymous with “better” may work against specific public health goals.

 

Is breastfeeding natural? Pediatrician and certified lactation consultant Dr. Hilary Garbon (Pediatric Alliance — Northland) offers an answer:

“For something that is supposed to be natural, it often feels so unnatural.” I use this phrase daily with breastfeeding moms.

The term “natural” makes moms feel like breastfeeding is supposed to come easily and feel like second nature, when in fact the opposite is often true. Breastfeeding can be quite difficult and takes a lot of work for many women. Labelling and emphasizing something as natural just makes it that much more stressful for those moms. There is also a big push in society to “go natural”. Organic, non-GMO foods are hailed as being natural and vaccines are criticized for being unnatural. Do I really think that by stressing breastfeeding as natural, I’m going to cause more people to turn against vaccines, as this article suggests? No, but as stated above, it can cause unnecessary stress for already anxious, overwhelmed moms who need extra breastfeeding support. So for that reason, I’m all for downplaying the term.

And full disclosure: the only way I had time to write this was to feed my toddler fruit snacks — the most unnatural snack there is!

 

Pediatrician Dr. Brian Donnelly (Pediatric Alliance — North Hills) is also a certified lactation consultant:

We can avoid the term “natural”; breastfeeding is robust enough to handle a moratorium on that adjective.

What needs to happen is a greater societal appreciation of the benefits of breastfeeding AND the benefits of immunizations. Once prolonged breastfeeding becomes more culturally acceptable, it won’t matter as much what words we use to ‘market’ it.

As the old saying goes: “I don’t care what you call me, just don’t call me late to dinner!”