A few months ago, I went to lunch with a friend of mine. Predictably, halfway through the meal, J wanted to nurse. As I settled him down to the task, she made a comment about it weirding her out. “It’s just food,” I told her. “No, it isn’t,” she said firmly.
I changed the subject after that, but the comment has stayed with me, along with the many others made by family, friends, and complete strangers. I remember feeling embarrassed, like I should apologize for needing to feed my son in her presence.
I know I’m not the only one who faces such negative attitudes towards breastfeeding. Go to any parenting forum, and you’ll find at least one post about some poor mom trying to deal with criticism. In fact, La Leche League has an entire forum devoted to dealing with criticism. You’ll find stories of strangers telling breastfeeding moms that it’s “disgusting,” that they’re being “indecent,” husbands pressuring their wives to give it up, family members asking them to leave the room to nurse, and doctors paying lip service to breastfeeding while encouraging the use of formula. I personally have been asked to take my baby in the bathroom to feed him, told (at the beginning) that I needed to supplement with formula because he wanted to nurse all the time, and told I was spoiling him by feeding him on demand (why is it spoiling a baby to nurse him, but not to give him a bottle?). My doctor, while being a pretty cool doctor in general, seems unsure about the fact that I’m still breastfeeding, and when J was four months old the people in the WIC office expressed shock that I was “still breastfeeding.” That’s not counting disapproving looks I frequently receive when nursing in public, even though I am decently covered and try to place myself in the most discrete location so as not to offend anyone.
It is frustrating and disheartening. I didn’t start out feeling self-conscious about breastfeeding, but I quickly learned to be. It’s no wonder that so many moms give up breastfeeding, or don’t try at all.
Despite the Breast is Best campaign, which strives to promote breastfeeding in order to improve general health, the majority of Americans remain fairly uneducated about breastfeeding, and the negative attitudes remain. Even doctors seem to lack critical knowledge of breastfeeding, which is why we see a lot of instances where supplementing is encouraged. In one survey, it was found that only 37% of pediatricians encouraged breastfeeding for the first year, and most of them felt that formula feeding was equal to breastfeeding. The majority of them had not been to any sort of presentation on breastfeeding for at least three years, and admitted to needing more education about breastfeeding. Without doctor support, many women not only lack the encouragement they need to breastfeed successfully, but also lack vital information–or in some cases, receive incorrect information. For example, as I said before, I was told that I needed to supplement in the beginning, but all that would have done is reduce my milk supply. A lot of women fall into that trap, where they are told to supplement with formula, but then they are not keeping up with baby’s demand, so they have to supplement more and more, and eventually they give up breastfeeding altogether.
The campaign has not been totally ineffective. Most Americans seem to agree that breastfeeding provides a lot of health benefits for mom and baby, which is an improvement. Yet many still feel that women should not breastfeed in public and feel grossed out by breastfeeding in general. It seems that the attitude is Breast is Okay, but Bottle is Better. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, you can’t turn on the TV or open a magazine without seeing an ad for formula that claims in some way to provide the same benefits as breast milk. And isn’t bottle feeding easier/more convenient/less embarrassing? And don’t you have to stop breastfeeding as soon as they get teeth anyway? The misconceptions abound, fueled by a multi-million dollar ad budget. (For more on this, there’s a really wonderful blog post about formula ad campaigns.)
At the same time, I know a lot of moms who feel pressured to breastfeed and feel like they’re bad moms if they end up bottle feeding for whatever reason. Yet there’s all this negative feedback about breastfeeding, especially in public. You really can’t win. (And just so everyone is clear: I am not in any way against those who bottle-feed. My issue is with attitudes towards breastfeeding, not other’s parenting choices. 🙂
I talked to a friend of mine about this, and she said she thought it was more of a modesty thing: that people just don’t want to see something they shouldn’t. I thought about it, and while that may be true in some cases, I think as a generalization it doesn’t work. (Besides, I have an issue with the idea that women’s bodies are something that should not be revealed, unless of course you’re at Hooters or an act on America’s Got Talent.) For one thing, no one seems to have a problem with skimpy bathing suits, and they’re way more revealing than the average woman breastfeeding. For another, it’s not just actual breastfeeding that freaks people out, but breast milk as well. There was an article in Parent’s magazine just last month about a lady who was trying to bring home milk she had expressed during vacation. It was really quite amusing to read about people’s reactions, and yet it got me thinking… why is breast milk, this amazing fluid specifically designed to provide the perfect nutrition for our babies, treated as something gross/weird? Why do we see so many instances on TV shows/movies where someone inadvertently picks up a bottle of breast milk or, God forbid, drinks it? (I know I’ve seen it on Friends, Look Who’s Talking, Seinfeld.. and I don’t even watch TV!) I have never seen this happen with formula (and have you *smelled* that stuff?).
I don’t get it. I really want to understand, but I just don’t. Is it that breasts are viewed as sexual objects in our culture? Is it simply the lack of education? The result of formula marketing campaigns? An extension of sexism? What, please tell me, so we can fix it.
When we trust the makers of baby formula more than we do our own ability to nourish our babies, we lose a chance to claim an aspect of our power as women. Thinking that baby formula is as good as breast milk is believing that thirty years of technology is superior to three million years of nature’s evolution. Countless women have regained trust in their bodies through nursing their children, even if they weren’t sure at first that they could do it. It is an act of female power, and I think of it as feminism in its purest form.” —– Christine Northrup M.D.