Breasts On Our Minds

IMG_3806“Blah, blah, blah.” This is the drone my husband hears when I talk (incessantly) about birth, breastfeeding and babies.

He will, on occasion, humor me and engage in some sort of discussion about breastfeeding rates, the midwifery model of care, nursing in public laws, skin to skin, human donor milk, the risks of artificial feeding, you know, the usual.

Usually though he retreats to the game playing on his phone, looks up every so often, and nods or grunts over my lecture. It’s no surprise then when someone requests I meet them for coffee, specifically to talk about breastfeeding, that I’ve got the girls packed up and am on my way before I even know where we’re meeting.

To be honest this only happened once so far, but I’m hoping it becomes a regular part of my schedule.

My friend (I will call her Penny to protect her privacy), an internal sales manager at a successful investment company, has become increasingly interested in the “business of breastfeeding” after having her third baby whom she nursed for about nine months. She nursed her two oldest children for 12 to 16 weeks.

After reflecting on her breastfeeding journeys, Penny expressed her anger and frustration with the current state of breastfeeding in our country.

One day while pumping in her private office, she noticed herself feeling self conscious. She worried that her colleagues might hear the whir of her pump. Wait a minute, she thought. Why should I care what they think. I’m feeding my baby.

Her frustration grew when she thought back to how difficult it was for her to find professional lactation support while learning to nurse her third baby. No help from the hospital where she delivered. Whatsoever. Penny, a determined, intelligent, confident woman was forced to become a detective at a vulnerable moment in her life. Forced to waste time when she needed time sensitive help. Eventually, she hired a private lactation professional who came to her home for a fee of 63 dollars.

“It was the best 60 bucks I ever spent,” Penny told me.

Penny got to thinking about how we as a society got to this point.

Why are women and babies harassed and scolded for breastfeeding in public? Why is proper support so hard to come by? What will it take to transform our culture into a mother- baby-friendly society? she wondered.

Over the next two hours (I’m certain we could have talked for at least another two, but Willow finished her smoothie and the toys we packed exhausted making for one fidgety tot), Penny and I got to brainstorming.

What is the problem here? What steps do we need to take to fix the problem? I’d like to share with you what we came up with; however this post covers gigantic ideas and I’m positive we’ve missed some essential points. That’s where you come in. What other suggestions do you have? Please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments below!

The Problem: We do not support breastfeeding as the biologically normal infant feeding option leaving a massive portion of our population at risk for serious health concerns, detachment issues and other far-reaching consequences.

So, what are we up against?

Language

The way we talk about breastfeeding makes it sound like an impossible ideal. As Nikki Lee put it, “Human milk is not magic fairy dust. Human milk is nature’s seat belt. A seat belt does not guarantee survival in a car crash. We wear seatbelts because they increase our chances of survival.” Read more about how our language shapes breastfeeding perception here.

Money

Formula companies. Need I say more?

Abbott Laboratories, Nestle, Mead Johnson and others will do just about anything to fill their piggy banks including slyly undermining the efforts of breastfeeding mothers.

And successful they have been having influenced our entire medical system to believe that factory- made, artificial milk is better than what women naturally produce for our babies.

In the past,“Physicians often worked hand in hand with formula manufacturers to encourage formula use because they suddenly had a new reason for patients to come in,” Dr. Jack Newman, MD writes in Breastfeeding Made Simple’s foreword. (ix)

Check out Gabrielle Palmer’s The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts Are Bad for Business to read more about formula company’s “thirst for profit.”

Sex

When a woman breastfeeds her baby, everyone gets squeamish thanks to the sexualization of female breasts, a relatively new idea. Interestingly, breasts technically play no role in making a baby.

Chantal Molnar wrote this amazingness in Breastfeeding and Feminism:

Breastfeeding refutes the cultural bent that breast’s primary function is as sex objects. America has an uneasy relationship with breastfeeding and has a hard time facing the duality inherent in breast’s function. Sex versus nurture, or sex and nurture? We don’t seem to have any problem with the duality of our mouths, which can be for sex and for eating. We do not make people cover their heads with a blanket when they are eating in public simply because the mouth is frequently used sexually.

Private Affair

Because we regard breasts as sex objects, it only makes sense to force the breastfeeding dyad under covers and into bathroom stalls. Forget the sexy beer ads, a breastfeeding mother is MUCH too titillating to let it all hang out in public. AH, the back of a baby’s head, my eyes are burning out of my sockets!IMG_1665

So to shield bystanders from this horrifying act, we created special lactation rooms. Penny argues that lactation rooms act as a transitional measure for the steady integration of public breastfeeding into our society. I say to heck with them.

The real issue here is that if women don’t see breastfeeding, we won’t learn how to breastfeed.

Nancy Mohrbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett write in Breastfeeding Made Simple,

When breastfeeding was the norm, girls learned about breastfeeding as they were growing up by seeing women actually doing it. Dr. Peter Hartmann…makes his point well with this anecdote that he shared at a breastfeeding conference…He asked a young Australian Aboriginal mother, ‘When did you learn about breastfeeding?’ She answered, ‘I have always known how to breastfeed.’ (20)

Law

“Forty-five states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

But what good are they if there is no enforcement provision included in the law?

Jake Marcus of Breastfeeding Law writes in Why Is An Enforcement Provision Important, “…If a law has no enforcement provision, there is nothing you can do if the law is broken.”

Education

Most people agree that breastfeeding is a good thing. Breastfeeding advocates and researchers have done a good job of proving this, despite a shoddy study claiming that the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding have been overstated.

While we’ve come to a consensus that breastfeeding is the healthiest infant feeding option for most mothers and babies, the people that women go to for advice about breastfeeding are most often ill-informed. Breastfeeding myths still circulate the general public, many physicians and other health care professionals making it increasingly difficult for mothers to get proper breastfeeding advice and support. Many of us still don’t recognize normal infant feeding behavior because bottle-feeding is so ingrained in our minds.

Birth Practices

Breastfeeding is an extension of labor and birth and therefore is easily influenced by these processes. Terribly high rates of unnecessary intervention, c-sections and birth trauma make it difficult for mothers to easily and successfully breastfeed.

So how do we change this behavior?

Here are the solutions Penny and I talked about, many of which are currently being implemented:

IMG_3879Education

It’s difficult to dispute the truth; offering evidence-based education to current and future health care professionals will help more women breastfeed successfully.

Our children’s school curriculum should include breastfeeding education too.

Maternity Leave

The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Mothers in the U.S. are often forced to return to work before their postpartum bleeding has ceased. It is vital to offer flexible work options for both mothers and fathers for at least the first year of baby’s life. MomsRising works to make an impact on current policies.

Women and their infants need time to establish a relationship or our society will suffer the consequences.

Safe Spaces

In order for mothers to be successful with our breastfeeding goals, we need support systems built into the entire community.

Initiatives like the Texas Mother-Friendly Worksites, Maternity Care Coalition’s Breastfeeding Friendly Businesses and the First Food Friendly Breastfeeding Campaign work to allow nursing women to integrate into society.

In addition the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative helps health care systems better support the breastfeeding dyad by implementing The Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, a compilation of evidence-based practices that have been shown to increase breastfeeding initiation and duration. These practices, like placing babies skin to skin immediately after birth, are easy, low cost steps health care providers can take to ensure moms and babies are off to the right start.

Low risk pregnant women under the care of midwives can expect good health outcomes for both herself and her baby including less labor intervention, low c-section rates and high breastfeeding rates.

Interdependence vs. Independence

From the minute our beautiful, little parasites make their debut Earthside, our culture dictates they quickly learn independence. We find this to be true as infants and young children are expected to sleep alone; we as parents are often warned not to spoil our babies.

Again, Mohrbacher and Kendall-Tackett put it perfectly in Breastfeeding Made Simple:

…the quality of early relationships has a profound impact on people’s health throughout their lives…When looking at the whole of life, people who are isolated from each other have higher rates of disease and even premature death… the goal is not independence, but interdependence and having social connections with other people. (38-9)

The same rings true for mothers. Peer support is an important part of ensuring healthy relationships between mother and baby.

Further, breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of the mother. The CDC has compiled a Guide to Strategies to Supporting Breastfeeding Mothers and Babies to help people involved in many arenas properly support the breastfeeding dyad. It’s important for people to recognize that the way in which an infant is fed affects everyone.

Access

Families need increased access to affordable, culturally relevant lactation and breastfeeding support.

Healthy Children Project’s Renewed Call for Collaboration Among Lactation Professionals asks lactation professionals to focus their energy on helping mothers and babies as opposed to debating the worthiness of one credential over another.

The Lactation Counselor Training Course ensures that breastfeeding advocates are equipped with evidence-based information to better support the three million mothers seeking support every year.

Other programs like the Baby2Breast Directory and Zip Milk give lactation professionals a place to make their services known and mothers an easy database to search.

Alternatives

Artificial baby milk does not have to be the only option for women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. In fact, the World Health Organization’s hierarchy of infant feeding places artificial feeding fourth on the list after breastfeeding between biological mother and baby, expressed milk from biological mother and expressed human donor milk.

Instead of defaulting to artificial feeding methods, we must increase access to affordable, safe human donor milk.

What else will you add to the list?

References: Mohrbacher, Nancy, and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett.Breastfeeding Made Simple. Second. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2010. ix, 20, 38-9. Print.

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