Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Updated April 2016
Lisa Hassan Scott
Photo: Anna Bondarieva
Why breastfeeding makes you an eco warrior
￼Like most families, we do lots of little things to do our bit for the environment. Before getting married it wasn’t something I’d thought about very much. But my husband comes from the rolling hills of lowland Scotland, where the purple heather lights up the hillsides on a bright sunny day and the clear water of the River Tweed winds its way through the verdant valleys. It’s a beautiful place and it’s made him keenly aware of the importance of the environment. As I got to know him better, I found myself caring more and more about the things that matter to him and, as a consequence, a concern for the environment is now something that has quite a large impact on my daily life.
Thinking about the environment doesn’t have to mean beating myself with a stick about it.
Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can make a difference: we don’t litter, we buy foods with very little packaging, we reduce, reuse and recycle our metal, paper, cardboard and plastics. Most people I know do these things.
Other things are a little more complicated: we compost, I save all of our vegetable peelings in a bag in the freezer and make them into stock at the end of the week, and we’ve just had solar panels fitted to the roof of our house.
But one thing that we do that has a huge impact on the environment came as a surprise to me: breastfeeding.
I have nursed all three of my children, now ages nine, six and two. After overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the early weeks with my first, we went on to enjoy a long breastfeeding relationship. It’s been the same with my subsequent children. I wanted to breastfeed my babies because my mother had breastfed me. We have a family history of allergies and I read that breastfeeding could help reduce the likelihood and severity of allergies for my children. I wanted to give my babies the best chance for a healthy childhood and hoped they could avoid some of the allergic suffering that I had to put up with while growing up. The one angle we hadn’t considered when I dug my heels in and breastfed my babies in spite of the odds is that I was making a commitment to the environment that has far-reaching effects.
In terms of ecology—breastfeeding is as green as it gets.
Breast milk is unparalleled as a nutritious, local, unpackaged food.
My body efficiently uses the food I ingest each day and converts it into a comforting food-and-drink that gives my baby all the nourishment (not to mention immunological support) that he needs. It requires no fancy packaging, no advertisements to market it (though several health authorities are now trying to promote breastfeeding though marketing), no preparation in advance and there is no waste.
Breast milk garners zero food miles: no airplane or ship has to carry it from across the world to be delivered to my little one.
It’s ready and it’s warm: I need use no fossil fuels to heat it or to sterilize any equipment.
The alternative to breast milk is artificial baby milk, a processed, non-renewable food. Breast milk substitutes are sourced from the dairy industry, an industry based around the production of cows’ milk and red meat. These two foods are the most emissions-intensive foods available.
Cows need pasture, which has led to deforestation, contributing to erosion and nutrient depletion of the Earth’s soil. Cows produce 100 million tonnes of methane per year, a significant greenhouse gas. (i)
Moreover, the preparation of artificial baby milk requires water to clean and mix it, fossil fuels to heat the water and sterilize the equipment, and bottles and teats with which to feed it to the baby. The latter are normally made with petroleum-based plastics and preservatives, such as Bisphenol-A (BPA), which has recently received much media attention.
Additionally, the structures built up to package and market breast milk substitutes have a huge environmental impact.
According to Gabrielle Palmer, author of The Politics of Breastfeeding, “For every million artificially-fed babies, 150 million tins are used, made from 23,706 tonnes (23,333 tons) of metal.” Add to that the 341 tonnes (336 tons) of paper labels and promotional materials and it becomes clear that breastfeeding makes a big difference to the environment. (ii)
There are numerous, perhaps less obvious, ways breastfeeding benefits the Earth.
The milk I produce for my baby is perfect for his needs. As such, he excretes less and therefore requires fewer diapers. Fewer diapers mean less landfill space taken up, but even those who cloth diaper will have to wash fewer diapers overall.
I need no lorries, ships or airplanes to take my milk to my baby—he gets it straight from the source. By contrast, most countries have to import artificial baby milks, garnering more food miles.
Many mothers enjoy the benefits of amenorrhea while breastfeeding their babies. Where babies are breastfed into their second year, the average woman will not menstruate until her baby is 14 months old. (iii)
As most lactating women are not menstruating, they use fewer sanitary towels, tampons or cloths. Fewer sanitary products reduce the need for fibers, bleaching, packaging and disposal and reduce the number of tampons polluting the world’s oceans.
Finally, “breastfeeding prevents more births than all other forms of contraception put together (it is also one of the few methods not requiring resources, packaging, health worker time, etc.).” (iv)
One might argue that a smaller population, particularly in the developed world where the vast majority of the planet’s resources are consumed, may have a beneficial impact on the environment.
Before I thought carefully about it, the ecological impact of my breastfeeding relationship was simply an added bonus.
There are so many other reasons that I have loved breastfeeding my babies, including the closeness, ease and superior nutrition breastfeeding provides. But the more I reflect on the world I live in and the future I am creating for my children, the more I have come to understand the role that breastfeeding plays in conserving the Earth’s resources and reducing our imprint on an already well-trodden planet.
Although you might not consider yourself an eco-warrior when you sit down to nurse your little one, every breastfeeding mother and baby pair is doing rather a lot to save this place we call home.
We are giving our babies the best chance for a healthy life in a healthy environment.
i. Trivedi, B. What is your dinner doing to the climate? New Scientist Issue 2673, 11 September 2008.
ii. Radford, A. Baby Milk Action, “The Ecological Impact of Bottle Feeding” and Palmer, G. (2009) The Politics of Breastfeeding, 3rd Revised ed. Pinter & Martin, London.
iii. Andrew Radford, op cit.
IBFAN: Report on carbon footprint due to milk formula April 22 2016
Lisa Hassan Scott is an LLL Leader living in South Wales with her husband Keith, two daughters, and their son. She writes a parenting blog.