New Year, New Book!

Our new book is here! Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches is an edited volume featuring contributions by anthropologists across the sub-fields. In bringing together the work of bioarchaeologists, biological anthropologists, and sociocultural anthropologists, we hope to inspire innovative scholarship that advances our understanding of breastfeeding in the story of being human.

In 1995 Patricia Stuart-Macadam and Katherine Dettwyler broke new ground with their volume, Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. The book, which featured contributions from biological and sociocultural anthropologists, a social historian, and several physician-public health researchers, was a major effort to situate studies of breastfeeding at the cross-roads of biological and cultural studies in anthropology. Stuart-Macadam in her introduction called breastfeeding “… the ultimate biocultural phenomenon,” because “in humans breastfeeding is not only a biological process but also a culturally determined behavior.” (Stuart-Macadam 1995, 7). She cautioned readers not to ignore our evolutionary history or to assume that contemporary cultural concerns about breastfeeding reflect cross-cultural norms.

cebu bf ea quinn
Photo: EA Quinn

Over 20 years have passed since this book was first published. During this time, important advances have been made in the field, including a growing number of anthropologists engaged in human milk science and novel bioarchaeological studies that examine infant feeding in prehistoric populations.

Photo Charlotte King

However, broader efforts to integrate perspectives across the anthropological disciplinary divides remained elusive. Compared with feminist theorists writing about various topics related to breastfeeding in other disciplines, such as women’s gender and sexuality studies, science and technology studies, history, and bioethics, anthropological studies of breastfeeding were few and far between. Notably missing from the non-anthropological literature on breastfeeding and society were studies informed by deep ethnographic research with attentiveness to comparative cross-cultural, biocultural, or political economic analyses.

Our volume is particularly timely as breastfeeding has emerged as a critically vital global health imperative as well as a controversial topic, especially in Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Anthropological perspectives are critical to dismantling the flawed notion that breastfeeding is all about “individual choices” and being a “good mother.” These highly ethnocentric conversations about what breastfeeding is, or is not, have obscured the critical significance of the biocultural nexus in which human lactation and breastfeeding are experienced.

Drawing on case studies and analyses of key issues in the field, Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches demonstrates the power of anthropological research to illuminate the evolutionary, historical, biological, sociocultural, and political economic complexity of breastfeeding across time and space. Together these perspectives move conversations about breastfeeding beyond the predictable tropes of “breast is best” or mother-blame and closer to an articulation of the nuanced, flexible, intimate, embodied, social, symbolic, and performative aspects of human lactation.

Photo: Co-sleeping archive at

Breastfeeding is part of the ancient human story, in which the key theme is our remarkable adaptability to ever-changing environmental circumstances. Biocultural perspectives of human lactation enable us to see the ways that shifting ecologies and social processes become inscribed onto the bodies of parents and their babies.

The 14 chapters in this volume are organized around a set of central themes designed to reflect intersections that foster anthropological conversation across the discipline:

  • Breastfeeding as a relational, interembodied practice
  • Cultural ideologies and biocultural lactation practices
  • Variability and adaptability in breastfeeding
  • Ecological and political economic perspectives on breastfeeding

The chapters touch upon a variety of topics including:

human milk biochemistry and collaborative mother-infant immune systems; lay perceptions of infant immune systems and human milk sharing; mother-infant breastsleeping among the Beng in Côte d’Ivoire, Maya families in Guatemala, Japan, and the U.S.; African American mothers’ perspectives on “natural” breastfeeding in the U.S.; breastfeeding and body size in Pacific Island populations; human milk sharing as moral motherwork in Central Florida, U.S.; milk medium chain fatty acids and human evolution; chestfeeding and gender identity in British Columbia, Canada; mixed feeding in humans; breastfeeding and weaning in the archaeological record; biocultural breastfeeding and weaning in Yucatán, Mexico; breastfeeding and employment in the Midwestern U.S.; and maternal-infant tradeoffs as a way to understand how parents make infant feeding decisions.

These chapters, which feature both original research as well as reviews of important trends in the field, are bookended with a Foreword and Afterword written by our esteemed colleagues Professors Penny van Esterik and James McKenna.

We hope that this book will be a valuable resource for scholars teaching about motherhood and parental care; breastfeeding, infant feeding and infant sleep; and infancy and human development. We also see it as an important resource for health professionals and community breastfeeding advocates, including birth and breastfeeding supporters interested in understanding the broader contexts of human lactation and infant feeding that impact their own work.


Stuart-Macadam, P and Dettwyler, K (1995) Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, New York: Aldine de Gruyter

Tomori, C, Palmquist, AEL, and Quinn, EA, Editors (2017) Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches, London: Routledge


Medical Anthropologist | Lactation & Infant Feeding Researcher | IBCLC | Podcaster | Blogger. Opinions are my own.

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