Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Social Need to Nurse in Public

This post was inspired by a discussion on a webforum for swing dancers, oddly enough.

There has been a lot of media attention on the subject of breastfeeding in public. The main cause being the removal of photos from Facebook showing women nursing their children. At first, I was reluctant to take a stand on the issue. Parenting for me, is not a political statement. However the more I thought on the matter, the more I felt that so-called "lactivism" ran much deeper than a political feminist movement. Lactivists are pushing for a movement that is much needed in our society. Breastfeeding, and public displays of breastfeeding such as pictures, are needed to be seen in western culture for several reasons:
  • To promote the normalcy of breastfeeding
  • To educate the public on the healthfulness of breastfeeding
  • To decrease the number of problems that new nursing mothers face.
The first time that Jonah and I nursed outside of our home, I was embarrassed to the point of mortification. We were at a picnic with friends at Edgewater park in Cleveland. Jonah was less than two weeks old. We had nursed in the car, before making our way to the public park pavilion and had only planned on staying at the picnic for less than two hours. This way, I would not have to worry about feeding Jonah in public. I found the first time out, amongst friends, as a new mother to be refreshing. Two hours passed very quickly, and Jonah was ready to eat before I was ready to leave. My baby was frantic, crying for reassurance that food was nearby. I looked around the pavillion, but saw nowhere secluded or private. I timidly peeked my head into the bathroom, with its rank and rusty stalls. I couldn't stand the smell, much less the thought of feeding my baby in there! Jonah's screams were becoming more real. I sat down at the edge of the picnic area, took a deep breath, and unclasped my nursing bra. Just as I began to lift my shirt, with my flailing screaming newborn drawing attention to the situation, a group of men walked past and looked straight at me. I quickly fastened my bra, and began yet another frantic search. Finally, I pulled the stroller to the corner of the pavillion. I sat between the stroller and the wall, on the floor, hoping no one saw as I lifted my crying baby to my breast.

I am sharing this story, because I think that it is typical for new mothers to feel this way when nursing in public for the first time. Embarassed, frantic, and self conscious. I wish that I could take my confidence in nursing now, and project it onto other new mothers. When a mother is learning to breastfeed, this is not the state of mind that she needs to be in. Luckily for me and Jonah, we have recieved the support that we need to nurse comfortably when we are not at home.

Promoting Normalcy:
The reason that my story is so much like other women's first public nursing experiences, is that breastfeeding is seen as an abnormal behavior. People view it as weird, vulgar, and sexual. The breast is not seen as the vessel that holds nourishment and comfort for an infant or young child, but it is a sexual icon that is only exposed by the lewd and promiscuous. At the same time that it is viewed as a sexual conduit, the breasts also provide entertainment value to performers such as Britney Spears, Madonna, and a list of others too long to provide here. The breast is exciting and forbidding at the same time. It is no wonder with these conflicting views, that the public is easily misled about the true nature of the most miraculous part of a woman's body.

No woman should feel shameful about feeding her child. No woman should feel the way that I did in that park pavillion, desperately wanting to stop her child's cries, but desperately wanting to not offend anyone. The advice I have for mothers who are shy about nursing in public, is realize that if any onlookers are offended, it is their problem and not yours. Typically, I am the type of person who is a people-pleaser. If anyone finds my behavior offensive or awkward, I am embarrassed and quickly work to make the situation right. However, when it comes to nursing, a mother should be concerned primarily about the comfort of her child, and second, her own comfort. Breastfeeding is difficult enough, without having to worry about the comfort of individuals around you. Baby can sense when you are tense and uncomfortable, and in turn that will make him cranky and reluctant to nurse properly. For the best results, nursing in public should be just as comfortable for mother and child as it is in the home.

By giving the public more chances to see women nursing, breastfeeding will become a normal part of society. A child suckling at the breast will no longer seem "perverted" but instead would be publicly accepted. Women would no longer feel ashamed to use their body for what it is naturally designed to do.

Educating the Public: By achieving the above goal of promoting the normalcy of breastfeeding, it will be promoted as not only a normal source of nourishment, but also the best source of nourishment for an infant and young child. The more normal that breastfeeding becomes, the less mothers will turn to artificial baby milk (formula) as their child's source of nutrition. Formula is very useful. If a child should abruptly become seperated from his mother, if the mother became ill and was incapable of nursing, or if the infant was born prematurely and the mother's milk will not come in, are all reasons to use artificial baby milk. However, because breastfeeding has inherited the vulgar reputation through the conotation of the breast, many very capable mothers choose to formula feed their infant instead. Formula is promoted as a food source equal to mom's milk. Women say "why would I go through all of that when I have this other stuff that is just as good! Truthfully, formula is severely lacking when it is compared to breastmilk. It is missing several componants contained in breastmilk, including protiens and acids that promote healthy brain development, and antibodies that help protect the child's developing immune system (Baumslag,Michels "Milk Money And Madness" p 90). It is also missing the organic nature of breastmilk. Breastmilk, unlike formula which stays uniform, changes itself to meet the needs of the child at any given stage of development. The food that a mother is providing through her breasts is tailored perfectly for that child at exactly the moment he is drinking it (Baumslag, Michels p 77). The image that western cultures holds over breastfeeding is the biggest reason that mothers choose to feed their infants inferior food.

The general public is not the only group that needs to be educated. Pediatricians are severely undereducated in the breastfeeding department. I feel that this is due to two things. The first is that the current "normal" way to feed a baby is by formula. The general public wants to be educated in terms of formula fed infants rather than breastfed. For generations, breastfeeding was taboo, and therefor became ignored by the professionals. Anther reason is funding. Formula companies give enormous amounts of money to maternity wards and pediatric practices. All of the growth charts and feeding charts for infants are provided by formula companies and based on formula fed infants (kellymom). Doctors do not seem to know that breastmilk is broken down so perfectly by the human body, that a perfectly healthy breastfed baby will be smaller than a formula fed infant at the same age. Because breastmilk is broken down so completely, the body does not retain the unused portion as fat. A breastfed baby is also less likely to overeat. A pediatrician will urge many mothers to supplement "just one" bottle of formula every night, because their child is underweight. When a mother does this, it causes her body to produce less milk, and with time she will eventually increase the number of bottles given each day, decreasing her milk supply, and finally feeding the baby formula full time, when in fact there was nothing wrong to begin with. Pediatricians will also often tell a mother to wean her child right at twelve months, despite the fact that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for the first two years of life (World Health Organization). The pediatrician is seeing the world through formula fed infants, once again. Formula is not good for all of those wonderful healthy teeth that baby is getting, and neither is the artificial nipple of the bottle from which he recieves it. It is healthy for a formula fed infant to be weaned from the bottle, and given whole cow's milk (which is what his formula was based on.) However, a breast does not equal a bottle. Breastmilk is not harmful to a young toddler's teeth, and in fact promotes healthy teeth(La Leche League International). Sucking on a breast is quite different from sucking on an artificial nipple, and is not harmful for the child. While there is no nutritional value of continuing to give a young toddler formula after his first birthday, breastmilk contains many benefits for both mother and child way past twelve months. The child's immune system is not fully developed and capable of working on its own until at least 18 months of age. During this time, a breastfed child is getting an extra boost of immunity from the antibodies in mother's milk. At the same time, breastfeeding past one year helps protect the mother from certain cancers. These are only a couple of reasons that WHO has reccommended breastfeeding into the second year of life and beyond. If more people see breastfeeding as normal, these truths would become general knowledge, and our child's nutrition would no longer be clouded by the lies of formula companies.

Decreasing the Number of Problems that Nursing Mothers Face: Breastfeeding is not an instinctual behavior. It is a socially learned behavior (Tamaro, "So That's What They're For" pp. 28-29). Any mother can tell you that the day her baby was born and brought to her breast the first time, she stared at the baby, hoping he would tell her what to do next. No lightbulb just turns on. It is a very difficult task to learn, and without proper guidance and modeling it can be downright impossible. Women need to see other mothers nursing. We need the support and commaraderie of other nursing mothers, but above all, we need to see other mothers nurse. By keeping breastfeeding private, we are making it more difficult, and pretty much impossible, for the next generation of mothers to breastfeed. I feel that this is the most important reason why public displays of breastfeeding should be allowed without censorship. I am confident that with more nursing mothers in plain view, the next generation of mothers would have fewer problems learning to get a good latch, figuring out the correct position to hold their infant, what to do if the baby is not latching properly. Fewer women would have the frustration of a screaming infant while not knowing how to feed them. The top reason that women fall back on formula is because they feel frustrated with themselves and resentful towards their baby that neither of them know how to breastfeed. It is a behavior learned by watching others, and by mimicking others.

To close, I would like to say that I have grown more confident in my nursing since that dreadful first experience. I have learned to simply make Jonah and myself comfortable while nursing, and the rest just falls naturally into place. It is so natural, that many people do not realize I am nursing. I nurse while shopping (while he is in the sling,) while chatting to friends, and at restaurants. I have only ever recieved on negative comment about my nursing, at the mall, and I am still amazed at how much it did not bother me. I have stuck to my philosophy of "it's not mine or my son's problem to fix" and I am boosted with the confidence that I am doing the absolute best for my child: providing him with the most perfect form of nourishment, and responding promptly and calmly to his needs rather than frantically delaying them in order to find a secluded place.

other resources:
Ask Dr. Sears
Dr. Jay Gordon

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