Thursday, September 13, 2007

Breast is Best

Nursing. I absolutely love breastfeeding my daughter. I can't imagine doing anything but. Bean and I get to take a little break together every few hours and just cuddle and make eye contact and she nurses and is content and it's wonderful. Even our middle of the night feedings are really special, probably the most special. Bean is sleepy and hungry and she rolls her eager little body towards me, and we doze and she eats and afterwards we cuddle and she sometimes laughs in her sleep.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says Breast is Best. Breastmilk supports developement of a baby's immune system and reduces rates of both acute infections and chronic diseases like diabetes, Crohn's, obesity. Beastfed babies also show lower rates of SIDS and chronic allergies. It's also thought that the complex mixture of proteins, fats, and sugars in breastmilk is the best support for early brain development, and that the intimacy and bonding of breastfeeding supports an infant's psychological and social development. In fact, the AAP identifies breastfeeding as the ideal method of feeding and nurturing infants and recognizes breastfeeding as primary in achieving optimal infant and child health, growth, and development. Given all the benefits of breastfeeding, why is it that only 19% of mothers are nursing their infants for a year or more (the length of time reccommended by the AAP)?

It's a pretty complicated socio-economic issue, and I won't pretend to explore it fully here. But one of the biggest reasons women cite for not breastfeeding an infant under the age of 1 was the return to work. Many employers do not support female employees in the quest to express, something a working mother has to do in order to maintain exclusive breastfeeding. Often, a woman will lose her milk altogether if she does not express at work (decreased demand = decreased supply). And while some states have laws requiring employers to provide employees (unpaid) breaks to pump and a clean place to do it, some employers may follow the letter of the law, not the spirit. I also read an article in the NYT last fall that talked about the descrepancies within a company as to the lactation benefits. The article cited Starbucks as a prime example. Women working for Starbucks' corporate office are provided with a cushy lactation room, complete with armchairs. Women working as baristas at Starbucks may be lucky to have a break to sit on the floor of the ladies bathroom to pump. The access to lactation facilities, I think, is reflected in the statistics: the average breastfeeding mother is a young, highly educated, higher-income professional, despite the fact that breastfeeding is actually cheaper than formula feeding.

In addition, pumping pretty much totally sucks, but I'll address that in another post.

Something I think of as an equally big issue in the number of women who continue to breastfeed is the stigma associated with breastfeeding in public. In general, the Western culture associates the breast first and foremost with sex, not with nurturing a child. This association causes most to be uncomfortable with seeing a bare breast in public... for any reason. That means that most women aren't comfortable exposing themselves for the purpose of breastfeeding when they are out and about. This can be really restrictive when you are breastfeeding as very few public places offer a clean private place to sit down and feed your child (a noteable exception being Nordstroms and Macy's which tend to offer "Ladies' Lounges"). You'd be surprised at how little you can accomplish when your baby is eating every 2-3 hours if you only breastfeed at home. And so I think a lot of women, faced with choosing between the discomfort of breastfeeding in public or staying at home, simply choose not to continue breastfeeding. I never noticed, until I was a breastfeeding mother, how rarely I actually see women breastfeeding. I don't see women at the mall, at the park, in stores nursing their babies. I just don't. And the area I live in has one of the highest rates of breastfeeding in the country.

I saw an article which said that photos of Maggie Gyllenhaal breastfeeding her daughter in a park had been posted to a nude celebrity website. I found this outrageous. It's just this kind of sexualization of breastfeeding that makes so many women uncomfortable about nursing in public. And I think it's also why people tend to view nursing a child over the age of 12 months as creepy... Western culture has a hard time classifying the contact as a nuturing interaction rather than a sexual one.

You hear all the time about corporations that end up in trouble when they try to restrict a woman's right to feed her child. Victoria's Secret was the target of a Nurse-In by lactivists across the country after women were told they couldn't feed their babies in the store. Um, hello? Vicky's Secret is worried about breast-exposure? I can guarantee the models in the print ads they have posted all over the store are showing way more of their racks than a nursing mother does. And earlier this year a woman was kicked off an airplane for not using a cover when she nursed her child.

Why is it these places aren't ever kicking people out of their stores or off their planes for having their nasty thongs hanging out of their pants, or for showing off their crotch tattoos? THAT stuff is sexual. Breastfeeding? NOT SEXUAL.

I'm no lactivist, I just personally have gotten a lot less inhibited about nursing in public. Sometimes I use a cover, like a blanket or my Hooter Hider (a nursing mother's best friend!), sometimes I don't. In a restaurant: covered. In my car: uncovered. In a mall: covered. In the park: depends on how crowded it is. I think I basically cover up if I feel like people are going to be close by, or if someone creepy is hanging around.

The way I look at it, motherhood is already breaking down a lot of the personal boundaries I've set up over the last 28 years. So I'm getting a lot less worried about whether or not some stranger sees my boob while I feed my child. I try to be considerate, but if other people are bothered by me feeding my child, that's kind of their hang up, not mine. So screw 'em.

1 comment:

ScienceWoman said...

Nice summary of the major breast feeding issues. I'm with you all the way. I personally have never used a cover-up, I just tend to wear a baggy shirt when I know I'm going to have to nurse in public. I bought a few breastfeeding shirts early on from Motherwear, but their styling isn't great and I always felt more exposed pulling down a flap than just hiking up the shirt.