Breastfeeding In America
Breastfeeding In America
Ask any physician, and they will agree that breastfeeding is the ideal way to feed a baby. Why is it then, in the Unites States, that there seems to be such a social stigma put upon mothers who decide to do it? Being the ideal method certainly does not make it the preferred method. I realize that for many mothers breastfeeding is not an option for a variety of reasons, but that doesn't make it any less natural or beneficial for the baby. Breast milk is nature's most perfect food for babies, but is American culture causing problems for breastfeeding mothers?
A Little Background
When I got pregnant with my first child at 24, I had never given any thought to how I would feed a baby. I just assumed, despite the fact that I was not breastfed, that unless for some reason you were physically unable to, mothers breastfed their babies. Period. By the time I entered my third trimester, I had been asked at least two dozen times by various people, from health professionals to family to friends, whether I was planning to breastfeed or not. My answer was always "yes" that I was planning on breastfeeding. Often times people seemed more than a little surprised, and much of the time would offer up their own experiences of why breastfeeding didn't work for them, or how difficult it is. Needless to say, I found this more than just a little discouraging, and as my due date approached I began doubting myself. Would I be able to breastfeed? Would it hurt? Would people think I'm weird? However, every implication that I might not be able to breastfeed or might not be successful, reinforced my desire to succeed.
How long did you breastfeed?
Let's look at some numbers. As of 2009, only 76.9% of mothers tried to breastfeed their babies after their birth. At 6 months, the percentage of mothers still breastfeeding drops to 47.2%, and at 12 months even lower still at 25.5%. If the AAP and WHO agree that babies should be on a diet of exclusively breast milk until 6 months, with continued breastfeeding up to a year or more, why are these number so low? I have a few ideas.
I'm not knocking formula feeding mothers. I'm not saying that I am better or my children are better because I breastfed, because I don't believe that. We're all mothers and we ned to support each other, and individual decisions. A well known phrase amongst mom that you see everywhere from the internet to billboards, you might even see it in a pamphlet in your physician's office, "Breast is best." Its a slogan that many are familiar with, but what does it really mean? It means that human breast milk is the best form of nutrition for human babies, and that is amazing information that they are putting out there. A few months later in that same office, after your baby is born, you might be faced with conflicting information. It is not uncommon for those same doctors to tell you that you should supplement your newborn with formula. Your baby is a little jaundice? Formula. Your baby is 1 ounce under the weight "they" recommend? Formula. In fact, let's go back a little further.
You just gave birth and are moved from the delivery room to your recovery room, and what do they give you? A gift bag filled with formula samples! From the time your baby is born, and sometimes even beforehand, it seems like formula is everywhere. When you have a question or a doubt, formula is the answer. Many times this "support" undermines the breastfeeding relationship between mother and baby. Sure, some mothers have success supplementing with formula, but for many this is the beginning of the end of the breastfeeding relationship. You see, breast milk is produced by a woman's body on the basis of supply and demand. When you supplement with formula there is less demand. It can be very tasking for a new mother to try to compensate for this later, and a sort of snowball effect can take hold. More formula = less demand = less supply. But this is what the formula companies want. They want your business. This type of aggressive marketing towards new mothers is illegal in most countries besides the United States for that very reason.
Formula companies aren't the only people who can put stress on a breastfeeding relationship. Well meaning family members often give unsupportive support by suggesting you can or give a bottle so that they can care for babies, and give mom a break. They may see a tired new mother and suggest to them that if they just give their baby some formula or even formula mixed with cereal that they may be more satisfied, and sleep more. Family members may also feel that new mothers are spoiling their babies by holding them more frequently and putting them to the breast for comfort too often. They may advise feeding schedules to help get new babies on a routine. These suggestions and criticisms can be difficult to ignore, and hurt more than they help. As I said earlier, breastfeeding is all about supply and demand, and significant interruptions early on can cause real problems. The easiest way to avoid a supply issue later, is to breastfeed as often as your baby wants.
What About Dads?
Having a husband, or significant other who supports a mom's decision to breastfeed is important. All too often you hear from women that their significant others feel like they aren't getting enough attention. In fact, recently a bottle company started an internet advertising campaign aimed at new dads, suggesting they purchase their bottles to get their wives back! Another common idea is that dads need to feed their babies bottles in order to bond with them. More marketing. My husband has never fed either of my children a bottle, and they both love him very much. Their faces light up with excitement when I announce that daddy is home from work in the afternoon, and I'm pretty sure that they couldn't care less that he *gasps* never fed them a bottle. Besides, there are plenty of other times throughout the day where dad can spend one-on-one time with your new little one, such as bath time, or diaper time, even just snuggle time can make dad and baby feel more connected.
Friends, Aquaintances, and Strangers
So I've talked a little about doctors and family, but what about other people? New mothers might feel more than a little out of their comfort zone breastfeeding in front of non family members. Even a woman who is secure with herself and feels okay about breastfeeding in public might be blindsided by comments made by others at her expense. After the birth of our second child, my husband and I attended a going away gathering for one of his coworkers, at a local restaurant. When we arrived I asked one of his coworkers if they would mind switching seats with me so I could sit with my back to the wall in case my son got hungry and I needed to feed him. Seems harmless enough, right? Well another workmate of my husband's, who was listening in, quickly chimed in, "You know they make bathrooms for that." What?!
I recently received a mammogram, and due to the fact that I am currently breastfeeding coupled with the nature of the test, I leaked a little during the procedure. The technician was freaking out. You would have though there was feces coming out of my nipples. I assured the woman that it was sterile, and tried to laugh it off.
Then there's this story, which might be the most upsetting to me. I was at a small cafe with my husband and our firstborn, when like babies often do, he decided he wanted to eat. I took out my nursing cover, and arranged my clothing to cover as much as possible. A few minutes went by, before a became aware of two teenage girls with their mother a couple of tables away. They were whispering and giggling, making quick glances in my direction which I tried to ignore. Then one of them took a cell phone and took my picture, no doubt to show their friends later. I never confronted them, but I felt horrible. I felt like no matter where I was, no matter how discreet I tried to be, that I would be judged by my decision to breastfeed.
Were people mostly supportive or unsupportive in your decision to breastfeed?
So The Question Remains
What is driving the lack of support? I don't think it's a simple answer. However it is clear that more education needs to happen on breastfeeding. Hopefully, if people are more informed, breastfeeding can be viewed as more of a normal and natural thing, as opposed to something to be whispered about or gawked at. If a woman can wear a low cut shirt, that shows almost her entire breast for no reason at all, why can't I breastfeed my hungry infant wherever I please without ridicule?