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The Accidental Breastfeeding Activist

About a month ago, I was nursing my son in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office. A young girl who looked to be about 10 or 11 noticed a pair of little feet sticking out from under my blue floral nursing cover and innocently asked me what I was doing, and I responded that I was feeding my baby. Her eyes widened incredulously as she asked, “How do you feed a baby without a bottle?” Now, her mother was right there, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the 8.5 months that I’ve been a parent, it’s that “backseat parenting” is just not cool, so I quickly mumbled something about asking her (mortified looking) mother and left it at that.

The incident got me thinking. I felt sad for that little girl that nobody had thought to explain to her one of life’s most beautiful biological processes; I also felt dejected about the prospects of raising this country’s appallingly low breastfeeding rates.

Whenever these kinds of conversations come up, someone inevitably remarks that feeding babies is about choice, and we should not shame mothers who choose to bottle-feed. I agree. The problem is: How often does it truly come down to choice — and not a “cultural booby trap”?

How many women “choose” to bottle-feed because the baby received a bottle in the hospital, and now won’t latch on to the breast? What about the woman who, on that first awful night at home, raids the basket of free formula she got at the hospital? Or how about those who give it up because nursing in public is frowned upon in our society, and they simply want to leave the house?

Studies have shown that poor advice, unhelpful hospital practices, the marketing tactics of formula companies, inadequate family leave policies in the U.S. and a general cultural aversion to nursing all conspire to cause breastfeeding failure. I beat the odds, but not only because of my own determination to breastfeed exclusively, but also thanks to the support of my husband, as well as other family members — and, yes, a lactation consultant.

Not every woman has that kind of support network or even knows the barriers she’s up against. The World Health Organization recognizes this, and has recommends restrictions on how formula companies can market their product. The Knesset is actually considering a bill based on the WHO guidelines on infant formula marketing that would prevent hospitals from exclusively promoting one brand of formula; cans of hospital formula would be unmarked. Parents would have to give written consent before the hospital could feed a baby formula, and free gifts from formula companies would be restricted.

Opponents of the bill cite concerns about infringing on “choice.” Yet the bill does not prevent formula-feeding; nor does it encourage breastfeeding, which, given the health benefits is most certainly in the government’s best interest, meant to induce guilt in anyone.

Another area where legislation would be helpful (certainly in the U.S.) is in enacting longer and paid family leave. This would benefit all mothers and babies, but especially those who want to nurse. Six weeks is not enough time to even get a steady milk supply established, and even three months is too soon for those who would like to breastfeed exclusively for six months, as per the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. Even with the new pumping laws, many women find it difficult to maintain the supply needed to meet that goal when having to rely on pumping rather than actual nursing. This issue actually cuts across the political spectrum (at least among women). I, for one, hold rather conservative political views.

The most pernicious obstacle faced by nursing mothers is the stigma against public nursing, even if it’s legal in 45 states. What most people don’t realize is that is that babies need their tiny tummies filled often. Every two hours in the first couple of months is pretty standard, and during the figuring-it-out stage, a nursing session can last up to 40 minutes. That adds up to about a third of the day, but since it’s interspersed, leaving the house would be impossible if not for being able to nurse in public.

Women are routinely bothered, harassed, and generally stigmatized for nursing in public — even with a cover. I am Orthodox and take tzniut, modesty, seriously. I wear long skirts, long sleeves, and a tichel, or headscarf, but I proudly nurse my son whenever and wherever he gets hungry. Yes, I use a cover because of tzniut, and yes, my primary concern is feeding my hungry child — not social change. But every time I nurse in public, I know I’m also making it just a tiny bit easier for someone else.

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