Bloomberg’s new plan for encouraging breastfeeding by way of restricting the distribution of formula in hospital maternity wards has incited a lot of resistance. And rightly so. There are better ways to help women choose breast over bottle than limiting their options or shaming them into it.
At Slate’s Hanna Rosin writes:
The question here is not whether breastfeeding is better or worse, we can all agree that breastfeeding infants is somewhat better than not breastfeeding them. The question is, as I have written many times before, that we do not want to feed into a culture that has made the failure or lack of desire to breastfeed seem like a shameful and even criminal affair.
Forward contributor Lenore Skenazy writes at the Daily News:
The mayor’s idea, of course, is that since breast-feeding seems to be the healthiest choice, why not discourage the alternative? But then maybe he should discourage women from having babies at a later age. After all, those kids are more likely to have health problems. Or maybe he should discourage parents from ever driving their kids anywhere? After all, that is the No. 1 way kids die — as car passengers. Or maybe he should just stop us all from ordering a large soda …
Everyone agrees, as Rosin writes, that breastfeeding, when a viable option, is better than formula. But that “viable option” bit is an important variable. When you run through all of the reasons why a women might not breastfeed — which I will get to next — it becomes pretty clear that more than 60% choose the bottle for reasons other than laziness.
A woman might not breastfeed because she has to go back to her job (or jobs), and those jobs don’t provide the time or space new moms need to pump. A woman might not breastfeed because, psychologicaly, she can’t manage the stress of feeding and tending to a newborn. Or she needs to go back on her anti-depressants to deal with postpartum blues. A woman might not breastfeed because she has to go to school. And a woman might not breastfeed simply because she has read the studies and has determined that there is not enough evidence concluding that it is essential for her baby’s health.
Most of these scenarios do not involve choice, but rather a juggling of work and childcare that simply does not leave time for the very time-consuming act of breastfeeding. You’d think that Bloomberg’s plan would try to take into account some of these problems new mothers face, instead of just locking up the formula.
Earlier this year, Save the Children released a report entitled the State of the World’s Mothers and in it the United States ranked last in breastfeeding support.
In the industrialized world, the United States has the least favorable environment for mothers who want to breastfeed. Save the Children examined maternity leave laws, the right to nursing breaks at work, and several other indicators to create a ranking of 36 industrialized countries measuring which ones have the most — and the least — supportive policies for women who want to breastfeed. Norway tops the Breastfeeding Policy Scorecard ranking. The United States comes in last.
The report goes on to say:
A recent study in the United States found that less than 2 percent of low income mothers who planned to breastfeed were able to meet their goals, while 50 percent of women from a more affluent population did. The low-income women reported the obstacles they encountered when breastfeeding led them to stop sooner than they had planned. The study suggested better support is needed from medical professionals to help low-income mothers succeed in their breastfeeding plans.
There has to be someone in the Mayor’s office that sees the writing on the wall here. Yes, young mothers need more support with breastfeeding, or at least more education and support should they choose it.
But no, education and support by way of physically locking up what will inevitably be the most practical choice for many mothers won’t help. You want to help young mothers, Mayor Bloomberg? How about enforcing workplace lactation laws? Or making sure more mothers get maternity leave? Or making lactation consultants more readily available? There are ways to help here, but the Mayor’s plan isn’t it.
Mayor Bloomberg's Mammy State
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.