August 1-7 is world breastfeeding week.
As a new, first-time mom, I have been introduced to a whole new world of “politics” that I had only heard in passing before (usually while rolling my eyes and petting their cat with one hand, and cradling a Tokyo Tea with the other). Hospital or home birth? Disposable or cloth diaper? Ferber or Pantley sleep training? Crib or Co-sleeping? Spanking or not? And probably the most contentious: Breast or formula fed?
It is inarguable that breastfeeding, and breastmilk, is best for baby. Babies gain personalized immune support that formula companies cannot mimic because breastmilk has live cultures from the mother’s body that will respond if the baby is sick. Breastmilk adjusts itself as the baby grows, and is always the “perfect food” for a growing infant and child. It’s easier to digest than formula, which is usually based off of cow’s milk proteins. Breastfed babies have a lower chance of getting sick as an infant, are less likely to die from SIDS, and have a lower chance of obesity, type 2 diabetes, asthma, ear infections, and a host of other illnesses while growing up.
Breastfeeding is enormously cheaper than formula – and even formula companies say breast is best - and much more convenient. So why are the US breastfeeding rates so low?
While 76% of US women initiate breastfeeding (meaning they at least try to), only 40% are breastfeeding by six months and only 25% by 12. The World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months, and continuing to nurse at least until age two. Despite popular belief that babies should be off the boob by the time they pop their first tooth and women who nurse past nine months “have attachment issues,” the natural weaning age of the human species is nearer to the time we get our permanent teeth – hence why baby teeth are called “milk teeth.”
Nursing mothers already face an uphill battle at home and at the doctors. Despite me indicating on every form I’ve filled out that I planned to exclusively breastfeed, can after can of “free sample” formula ended up in my kitchen. I got one at the doctor’s office on Mo’s three day old visit because my 10lb, 5oz baby didn’t gain enough weight. I got one in a gift box from the place we did her 3D ultrasound. I got a couple in the mail from formula companies for “just in case” that seemed to scream at me louder than my daughter did when it was 3:00AM and my nipples were chafing. It’s already been stated that not only does formula companies targeting nursing moms hurt them, it also hurts mothers who formula feed, because sending out samples, flyers, and coupons to women who don’t want them drives up the cost of the formula for women who do need them.
In addition to the barrage of “you’re probably not going to succeed at this” mailers from companies that a hormonal, sleep-deprived new mother gets, she’s also most likely getting it from friends, family, and society at large. My grandparents generation grew up in a time when the doctors told them that formula – not breast milk – was best for baby. My parents grew up in a time when they were rhetorically told that they would probably fail at it anyways, so why try?
Now my generation, despite having the knowledge that breast is Best, gets two or three generations worth of misinformation heaped on their shoulders in the form of “helpful advice” from the women we feel we should turn to. One new, teen mother told me that her grandma told her that neither the grandmother nor my friend’s mother were able to breastfeed, so she most likely wouldn’t be able to either. Another friend of mine with a naturally petite baby had doctors telling her she was starving her child. Fathers complain that they can’t bond with the baby without being able to bottle feed. Mother-in-laws tell new moms that they should just give the baby a bottle so she knows how much she’s getting, or so the mom can “get some sleep.” Women think that if they can’t pump very much, they’re not producing enough and must have “low milk production” which is actually only a problem for a very small percentage of nursing mothers. Society tells us to “cover up” or “be discreet” and that thinner, more conventionally attractive women are exhibitionists who “just want to show off their tits” and larger women are “disgusting” and that “no one wants to see that.” Even men who say they support breastfeeding often like to add the caveat “I love boobs!” or “as long as it’s not fat or saggy.”
But perhaps the most pervasive and least talked about reason that the US has such low long term breastfeeding rates is that our country as a whole does not value childrearing as a legitimate and valuable contribution to society. We are the only wealthy country that provides no paid maternity leave, and only twelve weeks of unpaid leave. Over 1/5 of children under 18 live in poverty. Twelve weeks of no income is impossible for many mothers, and they end up going back to work soon after delivering, giving no time to establish a breastfeeding relationship. And while some mothers work at a job in which they can telecommute or that will provide ample time and space to pump, low-wage earners (who already have odds stacked against them because that they weren’t able to deliver at the most advanced hospital and cannot afford the in-home lactation consultants that middle and upper-class working moms can) do not work jobs that will lend themselves easily to taking time out of the day to pump.
Before maternity leave, I waited tables. Although I probably could have found time to pump, it would have been virtually unpaid ($2.13/hr), and it’s difficult enough to find someone to cover your tables for a bathroom break, let alone the 30-40 minutes it takes to pump. Those working manual, outdoor labor also face the issue of a sanitary place to pump as well as store milk, and many unskilled workers can’t risk being a burden to a boss who would rather replace them than provide the time, space, and support to the new mother.
We cannot ask mothers to provide the best for their children – nor shame them when they cannot – if we as a society do not make it possible for them to do so. A measly 14% of working mothers reported having access to paid maternity leave through their employer, and I can guarantee you that this access was not given to poor women who already face extra hardship in an attempt to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship. Being as prosperous of a country as we are and not providing paid maternity leave is grossly offensive to new mothers. Conservatives often crow about “family values,” but where are they when the beginning bonds between a mother and her child are so precariously perched? Where is Focus on the Family, or the American Family Association, or One Million Moms, or any other group with a name that you would think would give a flying hoot about the first precious days, weeks, and months of a new life? Instead of caring about things that truly matter, they opt to devote their time and efforts to anti-gay and anti-women bigotry, putting more and more patriarchy on the ballot and foster harmful environments for mothers and children.