Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My two cents on Breastfeeding in America

Caveat: I'm not a mother.  I have never breastfed a child, and I'm reasonably certain that I was never breastfed, myself.  I have every desire and plan to become a mother, but at present all I have for "experience" is what I've learned from my sister and my two best friends who have children and have breastfed, my education as a doula, and personal study.  I am not as expert in this field; if I'm anything, I am an informed observer, and what I have to say is likely not anything that someone else hasn't said somewhere else in a more eloquent fashion.  Nevertheless, here it is.

Most of the people who will read this article are aware of the study that just came out about how many lives and how much money we could save right here in the United States if 90% of women exclusively breastfed their infants for the first six months of life, the minimum time period recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for breastfeeding since 2005.  The publication and subsequent publicity of the study caused an uproar throughout the blogosphere, social networks, and news sites all across America, lighting fires in the camps of pro-breast and pro-bottle alike.  Those of us in favor of exclusive (even extended!) breastfeeding were elated; more validation for not only our cause, but for the instincts of mothers everywhere.  Who can argue against something so basic that could save 900 innocent lives and $13 Billion every year?

A lot of people, it seems.

As quickly as we could raise our voices in jubilation, voices in protest answered back, screaming about maternal guilt, and how dare we make mothers feel bad for not breastfeeding their children!  I'm sorry, what?  We are trying to make mothers feel bad?  Oh, because they can't or don't breastfeed and they're tired of being made to feel guilty because of that choice or inability.  Here's a few things that come to my mind when I hear that:
  • First of all, the study talks about a 90% breastfeeding rate, not 100%.  That gives one in ten women free pass for insurmountable physical inability in herself or the baby: excessive pain that cannot be treated; milk supply that cannot be increased through diet, increased nursing, or pumping; undiagnosed or untreated tied tongue; damage to milk ducts or nipples; HIV/AIDS or other communicable diseases, or medications that would pass to the baby; soft palate defects; adoption; etc.  There are many physical obstacles to breastfeeding that can come up, but their incidence is relatively low and should fall well below that 10% allowance.  (Please correct me if I'm wrong, with appropriate source citations, but I haven't heard anything about such a glaringly obvious hindrance to our living up to the 90% as a nation.)  The remainder of the 10% allowance is technically up for grabs, either by choice or other life circumstances.  It's an ideal, and (to paraphrase an acquaintance) those are stars to steer by, not sticks with which to beat ourselves.  There's really no pressure here, which brings me to my next point.
  • No one can make you feel guilty or feel like a failure.  No one.  With the exception of real chemical or psychological imbalances, you own your emotions and you are responsible for them.  Yes, there are a lot of voices that genuinely do try to frighten or guilt mothers for their own gain, but you make the decision whether to comply and be afraid/guilty or to trust your instincts.  Having said that...
  • Mothers should not feel guilty if they cannot breastfeed.  As mentioned above, there's a lot of legitimate, physical reasons why it doesn't happen sometimes.  There's a lot more circumstantial reasons, and for the most part, that's where we can improve.  A lot of those circumstances are partially or completely out of a mother's control, from where and how she gives birth, to aggressive in-hospital and media marketing by formula companies, to the lack of mandatory paid maternity leave in America, to social pressure about nursing in public (covered or uncovered).
  • Some women, in spite of ability, still choose not to breastfeed, either exclusively or at all.  Technically, that's their right, but I just want to say this: any time you take something originally intended as a life-saving measure and apply it unnecessarily, there will be some consequences.  Formula was originally concocted in the hopes of saving an infant's life in the absence of its natural food source: human milk.  Sometimes, it didn't work.  Sometimes, it still doesn't work.  Granted, in America these days an infant is more likely to live than die, but they just aren't as well off as they would have been with breastmilk
  • At the same time, formula feeding doesn't mean you're a bad or abusive mother or a failure.   Whatever your circumstances or choices, you're still caring for your child, still feeding it, still caring, and no one can argue with that.  I wasn't breastfed myself because I was adopted as a newborn after a brief foster period, and I would never vilify any of the women who bore, cared for, or raised me because I was formula fed.  It has affected my life, but those details are for another post. 
When it comes down it, our system inherently fails every single day in supporting nursing mothers, and it does it with gusto.  I could spend the next several paragraphs explaining how, but I'm just going to refer you to the article linked below my signature because it's already done and I can't possibly say it better.

The vast majority of us who are pro-breast are not out to brow beat women into submission or tell them they're bad mothers for not being in the ~12% remaining at the six month mark still exclusively breastfeeding.  The failure is not in women, it's in the institution, in the way we live and work around birth and breastfeeding.  We need to stop yelling at each other about this and turn that energy toward changing minds, hearts, and policies. (Read the article.)

Encourage, educate, empower, and reach out to the public and help change perceptions of breastfeeding in public places.  Help return breastfeeding to its status as normal, natural, and healthy.  Talk to the children in your life, boys and girls alike.  Teach them that nourishment is the natural function of breasts as much as locomotion is the natural function of legs, and that it's neither shameful nor sexual; it's what they're for. 

To succeed in reaching a 90% breastfeeding rate, we need free and easy access to Education, Support, and Resources.  Women and their partners need to know what is normal, what isn't, what's supposed to happen, when, and how, and what to do when it doesn't.  They need to know whom to call upon for reliable information, support, and assistance.  They need the freedom and flexibility at home, at work, in public, in private, with strangers, with friends, and with family to know that they'll have what they need to care for their offspring in the best way they can provide in all circumstances.  (Read the article.)

Once again, 90% is the ideal, a star by which we can steer toward a healthier future.  This change can be made.  We excel at overcoming challenges on this scale when we have a core of passionate, empowered people who believe in what they stand for and strive for it.  We can save lives, we can save families, we can save our future as a people, starting with something as simple as a new generation of children being nourished and nurtured at their mother's breasts.

Jena Vincent of Abundance Massage

The article to read: "Motherhood and the $13 Billion Guilt" by Melissa Bartick, at A Peaceful Revolution from The Huffington Post.  Vital reading for anyone interested in breastfeeding, and especially this study.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Love your take on this topic (i.e. blame the institution, not women). I'll be checking out that article ASAP. Thanks for sharing!