‘Words have energy and power’: exploring language in infant feeding and perinatal health Part One

Words evoke imagery. 

Co-Director of Kabbalah Centre International Yehuda Berg has written that “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity.” 

“We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble…” he continues.

“What sets us apart from the animal kingdom is the use of symbolic language. Our ability to put our thoughts into words that symbolize objects allows us to communicate beyond the means of simple vocalization.” 

What do you think of when you see, say or hear the word breastfeeding? Is it a white woman with her white baby in flowing sheaths of gauzy fabric  feeding directly at the breast in a field of wildflowers? Is it a non-binary parent feeding their baby with a supplemental nursing system? Is it a parent feeding in public, covered by blankets so only the baby’s feet are visible? Is it a group of BIPOC women, holding their babies at their breasts looking fiercely at their audience? Is it pruned imagery of a baby’s mouth latched to a body on an informational pamphlet? 

Photo by William Fortunato : https://www.pexels.com/photo/mother-using-phone-while-breastfeeding-her-child-6392810/

During the United States Breastfeeding Committee’s (USBC) National Breastfeeding Conference & Convening 2022 session Decolonizing Language: Exploring Intent and Impact with Casey Rosen-Carole (she/her/s) of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM), Jordyn White, Deputy Director of Communities and Volunteer Relations at Human Rights Campaign, and Mari Villaluna, a lactating solo parent and doula, participants were asked to consider what breastfeeding looks like in our minds and how breastfeeding is perceived in society. 

Can we expand the images that come to mind when we use certain words? we were challenged.

“…Words have been streamlined to only pertain to certain types of people,” White began. “The visual connection to the word is always very strong. Words can be ostracizing even when they’re not intended to be. The goal in decolonizing language shouldn’t always be including new language, but also taking back the words that exist and reminding people that there are a myriad of ways that we can manifest.” 

Perhaps the words that we have were never intended to have a singular meaning, White went on to suggest. 

As we close out Pride Month, in two installments,  we’re exploring concepts around the language we use in infant feeding. This week, we explore some of those concepts which pertain specifically to the LGBTQI+ community. Stay tuned next week for others that are more generally applied. 


Language limitations and opportunities for inclusivity 

English is a language of colonization, and it has limitations. 

Photo by Kampus Production: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-gay-couple-parenting-a-child-7983196/

Currently in our country, people sometimes grapple with the “newness” of being transgender when in reality, being transgender is not a trend. Trans people have been documented in ancient societies, and so there has been language to describe those experiences too. 

USBC conference participant Candi Cornelius writes: “A native American term for LGBTQ population is ‘Two spirited individual’. In history they were spiritual leaders with great strengths since they walk in both worlds (male and female). Each tribe has their own stories of two spirited individuals.”

Casey Rosen-Carole (she/her/s) discussed ABM’s Position Statement and Guideline: Infant Feeding and Lactation-Related Language and Gender which covers language considerations like legal, research, translation, scientific accuracy, and personal preference. All of these arenas bring up different intricacies and challenges. 

For instance, “Desexed or gender-inclusive terms may be confusing in languages other than English. Many languages assign gender to every noun, so that such terms cannot be gender-neutral. For example, in an attempt to be gender inclusive, the word ‘parent’ is often substituted for ‘mother,’ but in many languages, ‘parent’ is a masculine noun that could mean ‘father.’ Many languages have no gender-neutral equivalent for relevant words. For example, in many languages, the term for ‘breast milk/human milk’ is ‘mother’s milk.’”

Check out Breastfeeding: A Universal Language of Love for a list of translations. 

Rosen-Carole sums things up by asking “Who are we talking to?” In a one-on-one interaction with a family, their language preferences should always be respected. When scientific accuracy is necessary, using desexed language may not be appropriate. 

As noted in the ABM protocol, “In clinical settings, health effects seen in mother–infant breastfeeding dyads cannot be generalized to other dyads due to lack of data and known or predictable differences with other dyads based on chromosomal, hormonal, and anatomic factors. Thus, substituting ‘parents’ for ‘mothers’ may be factually inaccurate.”

White made an important distinction for practitioners and researchers:  “The goal of this conversation and others like this is not to invalidate or undo any of the work that has been done because your research used the word ‘mother’ and ‘breastfeeding’. That’s not what’s happening here. We are evolving. The field is evolving.”


Reframing disparity and acting on inequity 

Equity has become a buzzword; in fact, one author brands the sentiment “Fakequity”. USBC presenters expressed their fatigue with the word. “We want to see action,” they said.

From Native Breastfeeding Coalition of Wisconsin: Oneida Nation

Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and Executive Vice President of the Seattle Indian Health Board Abigail Echo-Hawk, MA (Pawnee) reframes the language we use when describing disparities and inequities. Echo-Hawk points out that it is not accurate to call out disparities within Indigenous communities; instead, Indigenous communities have disparities because of the systems that oppress them. 

Echo-Hawk and other USBC presenters asked participants to consider the implications of the term evidence-based. Historically and recently in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, American Indian and Alaska Native populations have been left out of public health surveillance data, coined as Data Genocide. A parallel phenomenon is happening in API communities too.

Photo by RODNAE Productions: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-love-woman-joy-8298421/

Alternatives suggested to evidence-based were community-based, people-informed and practice-based.  Another term to consider here is culturally rigorous science which is for and by the people.  

Hummingbird Indigenous Doula Services is a culturally responsive, full-spectrum, Indigenous doula program, proudly not rooted in “evidence”. Instead, it’s a community designed program and as Camie Jae Goldhammer,  MSW, LICSW, IBCLC, (Sisseton-Wahpeton) points out, it was specifically funded because “the outcomes are amazing” thanks to their people-based approaches. 

In the comments during these sessions, there were requests to do away with the word minority ASAP. 

Mr. Rashaad Lambert, Director Of Culture & Community @ Forbes/Founder of For(bes)TheCulture explains in There Is Nothing Minor About Us’: Why Forbes Won’t Use The Term Minority To Classify Black And Brown People, “…Non-whites are already a majority of the world’s population. Second, in my lifetime, people of color will compose a majority in America. Finally, as any Black or Brown person will tell you (and as echoed in the words of Prince), there is nothing minor about us.” 

Stay tuned next week for Part Two.

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