The number seems small, but gets larger and larger as you contemplate it: 6 percent. That is the estimated share of breastfeeding mothers who exclusively pump and bottle their milk for their infants, never directly nursing. It is a number that was functionally zero less than a generation ago. And it is a subset of a much larger figure, the 85 percent of breastfeeding mothers who use a pump at least some of the time. This is no less than a “quiet revolution” in human nutrition, as researchers put it.
Women have become, in Jill Lepore’s evocative phrasing, their own wet nurses. When pumping, their breast milk becomes a commodity; they become producers and their infants consumers, the dyadic experience of breastfeeding unnecessary or secondary. Maybe this is a good thing, if pumping helps babies receive more breast milk, or if it enables mother and child to sustain a desired, direct breastfeeding relationship for longer. Maybe pumping helps women have it all—a full-time career and a breastfed baby. But there’s just one hitch, or two, or three. This “quiet revolution” is built on a foundation of surprisingly scant research and social support.
“We have an information gap on how many women are exclusively pumping, and over what period of time,” says Kathleen Rasmussen, a professor of maternal and child nutrition at Cornell. “We have an information gap about who’s actually feeding the baby the pumped milk. We have an information gap related to how clean the pumps are.” She went on: We have questions about best practices for pumping, about pumping and stress. The questions are more profound, too. In what ways does it all matter? “Does it matter to the woman?” she asks. “Does it matter to the baby’s health? Does it matter to the baby’s development? We really can’t say.”