Sociologist discusses links between breastfeeding, fertility

The Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS) Program launched its lunch series Feb. 14 in Rockefeller Hall with a talk by sociologist Vida Maralani.

“People working in gender studies around the university don’t have enough opportunities to talk together,” said FGSS director Kathleen Long, professor of Romance studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. “These lunches will give us that chance.”

Maralani, associate professor of sociology, focused on her research on breastfeeding and fertility, conducted with her former graduate student, Samuel Stabler. One reason the topic interested her, she said, is that breastfeeding is a “culturally and emotionally charged” topic in the U.S. with many different stakeholders. Although the cultural messages span the continuum, from strong support to strong resistance, the reality is few women meet the guidelines recommended by the American Association of Pediatricians to breastfeed exclusively for six months. In 2002, only 35 percent of U.S. infants were breastfed at all for six months and only 13 percent were breastfed exclusively.

Maralani pointed out that breastfeeding rates differ greatly by mother’s education, age and marital status. For some, breastfeeding has become part of historic changes in the norms and values of parenting. Breastfeeding is part of the “intensive parenting” approach in which parents with more resources engage, she said. This particular investment is expensive in terms of the mother’s time; she added that “breastfeeding epitomizes the complex intersection of gender, culture, power and agency in the construction of contemporary motherhood.”

But fundamentally breastfeeding is part of the reproductive process, and demographers study it in relationship to childbearing. No studies exist, however, on the relationship between breastfeeding and fertility in the U.S., so Maralani and Stabler set out to examine the relationship between breastfeeding duration and how many children women expect to have and actually bear.

“Many of our existing theories suggested that breastfeeding for longer should be associated with lower fertility,” Maralani said.

But the researchers found the opposite – breastfeeding was associated with having more children, on average. They used a nationally representative 30-year longitudinal dataset, which provides information on a cohort of women who have reached the end of their childbearing years. These data allow the authors to account for many potentially confounding characteristics, including education, age, marital status, income and work histories.

“No matter what we account for in our statistical models, there’s no meaningful difference in how many children women expected by breastfeeding duration (although those who did not breastfeed at all expected fewer children),” said Maralani, “but women who breastfeed for at least 5 months are more likely to have three or more children and less likely to have only one child.”

They also found that breastfeeding duration was correlated with other time-intensive child investments, such as more time spent reading to very young children.

“Studying breastfeeding is one way to shed light on families that take a time investment approach to parenting,” Maralani said. “I see breastfeeding duration as a practice that is equally consistent with better-off families being able to spend both more time and money on their children and a gendered, embodied inequality where ‘mom does everything.’”

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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