Breastfeeding fads

Why isn’t breastfeeding getting easier?

Some parents and health-care providers rely on misinformation. Fuelled by social media and commercial interests, misinformation may become popular, creating a fad. Fads may not be accurate, effective, or research-based; they may be ineffective or even dangerous. Breastfeeding is not immune to this. 

A) Describing fads

Fads are a part of our lives. However, unlike hairstyles, beards, and the styles of clothes, fads in healthcare can affect the health and well-being of families. Child-raising, and in particular breastfeeding, is also fad-prone.

There is limited research on normal breastfeeding and on breastfeeding difficulties (Jama 2017). This means that parents and health-care providers may rely on approaches that are not based on science. This can be further enabled by social media.  

Individuals and businesses may promote dubious approaches for financial gain. The infant sleep industry and those selling placental encapsulation services and homemade infant formula recipes and ingredients have been criticized for this.

Bad ideas become less popular with time as they are shown to be ineffective or dangerous, but that does not protect the people caught in the fad.

If you face breastfeeding challenges, we encourage you to consult a qualified health-care provider or breastfeeding specialist. If the condition does not improve, ensure that your approach is accurate, effective, and research-based.

B) Examples of fads in mother and baby care

Example of a medical fad: This is a photo of a Houston area nursery around 1960. Babies were kept in the nursery, away from their families, and could only be seen during specific hours. This practice was widespread and incredibly damaging to breastfeeding. John P.McGovern Historical Collections and Research Center, Houston Academy of Medicine – Texas Medical Center Library; Houston, Texas

1) Past fads

a) Medical fads

There have been many inappropriate fads in mother and baby care. For example, up to half of all baby deaths from the 16th to the 19th centuries in France were wrongly blamed on teething. Dangerous teething treatments, such as cutting or leeching the baby’s gums, resulted in more deaths. Colic was another popular diagnosis and was treated with alcohol, opium, and barbiturates, all of which are dangerous to the baby.

Surgery to remove tonsils (glands at the back of the mouth) increased dramatically in the first half of the twentieth century, and was the most commonly performed child surgery in the U.S.A. as recently as the 1970s (Dwyer-Hemmings 2018). Rates have since declined significantly, but concerns about unnecessary surgery remain (Grob 2007; Šumilo 2019).

Some of these fads were deadly. In the 1940s and 1950s, mothers who has mastitis were inappropriately treated with X-rays, resulting in a tripling of their breast cancer rates (Shore 1986). 

Until the 1990s, mothers who did not want to breastfeed were routinely given the medication bromocriptine right after delivery to prevent their milk from coming in. It is no longer used because of the risk of several serious side-effects, including death.

b) Infant feeding fads

Infant formula use increased dramatically during the first half of the 20th century as did the early use of commercial baby foods.

In the first half of the 20th century, North American mothers were often instructed to breastfeed babies on a schedule to minimize colic. This resulted in underfed babies.

By the 1950s, many health-care providers wrongly believed that infant formula was superior to breast milk for babies and infant cereal was started as early as two days of age, and often put in the baby’s bottle to make them sleep longer. Hospital practices, such as the routine separation of mothers from their babies, giving sugar water to newborns, and breastfeeding on a schedule made breastfeeding extremely difficult. 

2) More recent fads

More recently:

Currently, experts have raised concerns about the large numbers of babies who are diagnosed with cow's milk protein allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and tongue-ties.


Dwyer-Hemmings L. 'A Wicked Operation'? Tonsillectomy in Twentieth-Century Britain. Med Hist. 2018 Apr;62(2):217-241

Grob GN. The rise and decline of tonsillectomy in twentieth-century America. J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2007 Oct;62(4):383-421
Jama NA, Wilford A, Masango Z, et al. Enablers and barriers to success among mothers planning to exclusively breastfeed for six months: a qualitative prospective cohort study in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Int Breastfeed J. 2017 Oct 3;12:43

Shore RE, Hildreth N, Woodard E, et al. Breast cancer among women given X-ray therapy for acute postpartum mastitis. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1986 Sep;77(3):689-96

Šumilo D, Nichols L, Ryan R, et al. Incidence of indications for tonsillectomy and frequency of evidence-based surgery: a 12-year retrospective cohort study of primary care electronic records. Br J Gen Pract. 2019 Jan;69(678):e33-e41