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Human Milk is for Human Babies: Why Don’t We Just Say That?

Human baby nursing

For decades, I’ve heard people talk about “breast milk.” But for the life of me, I can’t understand why we call it breast milk.

What about other glandular secretions?

As far as I can tell, milk is the only glandular secretion that is described by the organ or structure from which it comes. We don’t talk about eye tears or mouth saliva or penile semen.

So why do we call what comes out of our breasts breast milk?

Admittedly, we do refer to the fluid in the spine as spinal fluid. That’s to differentiate it from fluid found in another anatomical part, say, for example, amniotic fluid.

But last I checked, the milk comes from only one anatomical part: the breasts.

I’ve been in practice for about 40 years, and I’ve yet to see ear milk or elbow milk!

We’re not giving credit where credit is due

Oddly, we correctly credit other mammalian species for their milk.   

We frequently speak about cow’s milk or goat’s milk. We don’t call it udder milk or teat milk.

Or, if we’ve spent time reading about mammalian milks, we’ll talk about elk milk or reindeer milk or camel milk or even whale milk.

But for us mammals who have two legs and can read this post, why then don’t we call what comes out of our breasts human milk? Or at least, mother’s milk!

We’re ill-equipped to call it what it is

Let’s face it. English-speaking people simply aren’t equipped to deal with the word to describe the secretion from this particular exocrine gland.

Notice, for example, that we talk about pig insulin to differentiate it from human insulin. When Humulin™ came out, the manufacturer didn’t name it Pancrealin.

Of course not! No one had ever referred to the secretion from the pancreas as pancreas insulin. So, it was named to reflect the species, not the gland.

The oddity of naming a secretion for its gland leads to the problem of how, exactly, to spell it.

Look at your textbooks or the World Health Organization’s publications or Pediatrics — any credible source you choose. You’ll quickly find that we have breast milk, breast-milk, and breastmilk.

Worse still, this opens the door for some people to use the abbreviation “BM.” I cringe when I see that! 

Ancient people didn’t use this term

Going back a few millennia, you won’t see the term breast milk. I checked my Revised Standard Version of the Bible. There, I saw multiple references to breasts or a mother suckling her young.

However, despite my best attempts, including doing an electronic search, I could not find anything about breast milk.

You could say that whoever translated from the Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic didn’t want to use the “B” word. But that’s not the case.

The “B” word appears in plenty of other places in the scriptures!

When did this term come about?

Fast forward a few centuries. Look at several articles and Apple’s book.

It appears that this strange phrase was coined about the time that man-made milk appeared in the world. (And no, I’m not being sexist; the earliest substitutes for mothers’ milk were designed and manufactured by businessmen.)

In the mid-1800s, we needed to differentiate the milk produced by a mother from milk produced in laboratories or factories.

Thus, we have it.

The name reflected a seemingly disconnected but functional body part that produced a product. Not the person, but merely her breast, produced the perfect milk.

There was apparently — and perhaps intentionally — no recognition that the milk was from a human, a woman, a mother.

Let’s acknowledge that it’s species-specific

We can’t expect the mantra of “human milk for human babies” to stick as long as we talk about breast milk as though it’s an anatomically-correct substance secreted by and fed to offspring of an unknown species.

Let’s clearly articulate what is authentic and what is man-made.

Let’s call that factory-made stuff artificial milk so that everyone understands that it’s a mere imitation, an imposter, a fake.

And let’s leave no room for doubt that there is only one authentic, all-natural, no-additives, species-specific milk for human infants. Human milk!

Do you take issue with human milk being referred to as breast milk? Are you working to correct your phrasing? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Ah, yes! Getting everyone else on board! You can help make that happen! Please forward my blog post to everyone you know! It won’t necessarily “speak” to everyone, but many people would be willing to change their language, they just haven’t thought about it.

  1. Julie

    100% When I teach breastfeeding classes, I refer to “milk,” “mother’s milk,” “human milk,” and “suckling” (vs sucking), and never to “breast milk”.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Yay! Yay! Now, if you can just help others to do the same! (Psst! Share this post with someone who still uses ‘breast milk”!)

  2. Rachael

    I fully support making changes to our language when we talk about human milk.
    I cringe though when biblical references are made related to the science of making milk and feeding babies, because the bible is hardly a reference book. The bible ranges from irrelevant to off-putting for parents who are not christian (a majority of the world’s population).

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Actually, that goes for any source, Rachel! Awhile ago, I took a course from a guy who was hugely knowledgable, but he kept using analogies to make his point. Which might be okay, except that all of his analogies were to science fiction! I don’t read that stuff, so the analogy was, as you say, irrelevant. When using any source, meeting parents where they are at is key.

  3. Nathalie

    In Spanish we say leche materna (mother’s milk) we do not use leche humana (human milk) except when talking about the milk itself to differentiate with other mammals like cows. But we also don’t use any translation of breastmilk. What a good post Marie. Thank you.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Oh, thank you, Nathalie, for your compliment and for the insight! Yes, I can totally get behind “mother’s milk” and that’s a term I use often. I’m all good with that! I just try hard not to call it “breast milk.” (I admit, though, old habits do die hard!)

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