What’s in a Name? Breast Milk Versus Human Milk

Sandy Sundquist Beauman, MSN, RNC-NIC / April 2018


There was an editorial in a recent Advances in Neonatal Care journal regarding breast milk versus human milk.1 The editorial was to inform future authors and submitters of manuscripts that papers with the term “breast milk” as referring to the milk itself would not be accepted.

Human milk is more descriptive and asexual, if you will. After all, mammals provide milk to their young, and cow’s milk isn’t referred to as “tit’s milk” even though it comes from the cow’s teats. So, why should human milk be referred to as “breast milk”?

Unfortunately, over the years, feeding a mother’s own milk from the breast has had negative connotations. Many think of the breast in a sexual way and not as an instrument to provide nutrition to offspring. Therefore, using the term “breast milk” seems to be something that should be whispered in mixed company, particularly when varying ages are involved.

Still, breastfeeding in public is often frowned upon, although legal in 49 states, plus District of Columbia (and why should we need legislation to protect breastfeeding?). Even if this is something that is said to be socially acceptable, just try it in an airport lounge or restaurant. While one may not be asked to stop, there are often “looks” at the very least.

Blogger Amber Hinds,2 who is also a lactation consultant, reports on a case of being asked to stop breastfeeding her daughter at a swimming pool. A report by Kelly Wallace of CNN asked the question many wonder about: “Why at a time when celebrities bare nearly all and are celebrated for it… do we as a society still seem so put off by a woman using her breasts for what they were made for?” 3

Encouraging the provision of human milk for human babies comes in many forms. The Baby Friendly Initiative lists several items recommended to support this concept. These speak to what happens after delivery of the infant, specifically in the hospital.

While these concepts are important, promoting breastfeeding happens in society as a whole, not just after a baby has been delivered. In fact, most mothers have made decisions about how they will feed their infant before a full-term delivery.

In addition, rates of breastfeeding initiation are exclusively higher than breastfeeding rates at six months. In many cases, this drop is seen much earlier than six months, often at days or weeks. Supporting and promoting breastfeeding should start before delivery, perhaps even before conception, and continue after discharge from the hospital.

A 2017 Cochrane Review showed that characteristics of support that impact breastfeeding exclusivity and continuation included ongoing scheduled visits where women can predict and rely upon support. 4 Support should also be tailored to the setting and needs of the group, and face-to-face support was preferred. This support was notably more effective in settings with high breastfeeding initiation rates, again highlighting that a culture that supports and promotes breastfeeding both prenatally and postnatally are important.

Making this change of terminology in a medical sense is perhaps the first step in making a wider change in perception of breastfeeding.

The act of an infant taking milk from the breast should certainly still be called what it is, “breast feeding.” But the milk itself is human milk made through a complex process in the human body to provide the optimal nutrition for the human infant.

This change in terminology is one small step in the process of promoting the use of human milk for human babies long before delivery, and extending after delivery as well.



  1. McGrath JM, Brandon D. Why Human Milk and Not Breast Milk Among Other Changes: 2018 Author Guideline Updates. Advances in Neonatal Care. 2017 Oct 1;17(5):325-6.
  2. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/amber-hinds/breastfeeding-in-public_b_3095644.html
  3. http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/29/living/breastfeeding-attitudes-parents/index.html

McFadden A, Gavine A, Renfrew MJ, Wade A, Buchanan P, Taylor JL, Veitch E, Rennie AM, Crowther SA, Neiman S, MacGillivray S. Support for healthy breastfeeding mothers with healthy term babies. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001141. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001141.pub5.


About the Author

Sandy Sundquist Beauman has over 30 years of experience in neonatal nursing. In addition to her clinical work, she is very active in the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, has authored or edited several journal articles and book chapters, and speaks nationally on a variety of neonatal topics. She currently works in a research capacity to improve healthcare for neonates. Sandy is also a clinical consultant with Medela LLC. You can find more information about Sandy and her work and interests on LinkedIn.