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Book Review: The Problem With Breastfeeding: A Personal Reflection

By James Akre
Hale Publishing, 2006

Review by Jill Tyson
Cleveland TN USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2008, p. 12

The Problem With Breastfeeding: A Personal Reflection is a wake-up call to anyone who supports babies' rights to human milk, especially those of us who are already supporting breastfeeding in mother-to-mother or professional contexts. This book examines breastfeeding as a cultural and social issue rather than as a personal, individual choice.

Author James Akre has over 30 years of experience in international economic and social affairs. Although he calls this book "a personal reflection" because it's based on his observations and personal experiences, he cites nearly 500 references. These references add credibility to his work, although the lengthy citations may be distracting for some readers.

Akre divides the book into four major parts. First, he explains why it is not just the individual mother who breastfeeds, but entire societies. He shows us how cultural norms and customs push down upon mothers and heavily influence the decision of how mothers should feed their babies. He writes that people act in ways that reflect the commonly accepted views in the culture and societies to which they belong. Akre sees the problem with breastfeeding as being particularly dysfunctional for people living under the "Anglo-Saxon arc," predominantly in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, and the USA. The phrase "breast is best" may be popular in these societies, but there is still the undeniable belief that infant formula is a loving and healthy alternative.

Although Akre's long, wordy sentences may be distracting for some readers, it enhances the passion in his thesis. He deeply wants societies to return to the biological norm of feeding human babies human milk. He reminds us of the major influence that the Anglo-Saxon countries have on the rest of the world, and helps the reader feel a social responsibility. He urges readers to act through a vehicle he calls the "International Breastfeeding Support Collective" to organize for positive change.

Akre feels that the world is in transition on its views of human milk and breastfeeding. He gives examples of other major world-view changes, such as societal shifts in widespread automobile seatbelt use and views on smoking and tobacco. He is hopeful that such changes can happen in understanding the dangers of infant formula and the superiority of mother's milk.

Throughout the book, he gives descriptive examples and colorful language that help the reader relate ideas to real life situations. One such example is that of helping his six-year-old granddaughter cross the street. He writes that of course he will hold her hand. To do otherwise is irresponsible, dangerous, and downright stupid. He states that he doesn't weigh it all out and make a conscious decision to do so, he simply knows that he should hold her hand (learned behavior) and he does it (no question). This illustrates the complexity of the learned responses we make from the inside out according to what we have learned and observed from everything around us. The learned response that Akre desires for all humans would be a presumption that human babies receive human milk, except in rare complications or emergencies.

Akre lists current positive initiatives and cases that are resulting in more awareness of the significance of breastfeeding and breast milk. He contends there is a counterrevolution toward a societal shift in thinking about infant feeding, and explains how individual action can accelerate this shift.

In the second part of the book, Akre chronicles real examples from articles, news clips and letters. Some are comical, and others raise anger and disgust for the attitudes that are revealed. They show us again how misunderstood and misrepresented our whole attitude is toward breasts, human milk and breastfeeding.

The third section of The Problem With Breastfeeding deals with the issue of infant formula marketing and strategy. While it may be offensive to some readers, many will applaud the strong language he uses to call infant formula "mass produced nutritional frippery," "emergency nutrition intervention," "nutritional mediocrity," and "starvation prevention." He asserts that it is not enough to know "breast is best"; we need to know that infant formula is bad for healthy babies. Akre asserts that the manufacturers of artificial milk misrepresent support for breastfeeding. He helps his readers to get behind the scene, to understand motivational tactics that imply to the public that they are in support of human milk.

In the final section of the book, Akre lists specific tasks that will help to accelerate the shift in societal attitudes toward breastfeeding. He calls for organization of goals and objectives through the "International Breastfeeding Support Collective." He suggests international networking and globalization, but also realizes that each culture will act independently to make major shifts in policy. He gives practical ideas for personal, governmental, and social action.

When I saw The Problem With Breastfeeding: A Personal Reflection, I was interested in the title, but anticipated a need for a defensive attitude. By noting that the author was a man, I thought that he may have some negative things to say about breastfeeding and why it was a "problem."

I was wrong. James Akre is, indeed, a friend and ally of the breastfeeding movement.

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