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Breastfeeding – A Retrospective View Across Culture and Time
I had intended to write this story for some, but was prompted by a recent email I received from a young mother asking for advice on breastfeeding in public. Her baby was four weeks old and breastfeeding was going very well. Except she was uncomfortable breastfeeding in public. She wrote about the backlash she had received when she breastfed her son around her NCT class; none of whom were breastfeeding. A mother actually walked away from her. It was a horribly traumatic experience for this new mother and it undermined her confidence.
I think I have a unique perspective on this topic. I have nursed six children…notice I didn’t say successfully because few nursing relationships are without their difficulties. I’ve breastfed in four countries (the photo is of me nursing Emily outside the Louvre in Paris), five US states, and three decades. My partners come from three different cultures, including upper class white, Mexican-American, and British of Afro-Caribbean descent. I have been trained and worked as a peer counselor for two organizations… and in two countries… in different decades. What have these different experiences taught me?
Let’s start with my American perspective from the 80s to the 2000s…
My first memory of breastfeeding wasn’t until I was 15. I was bottle fed…my brother was bottle fed…all my cousins and every baby I saw was bottle fed. It wasn’t until my little cousin was born that I learned anything about breastfeeding. My mother’s younger sister was quite a non-conformist and decided to breastfeed her second child. I can’t remember how old he was when she weaned him, but I’m pretty sure it was between six months and his first birthday. In all that time, I saw her nurse him only once and then only fleetingly. When he started scolding, she would simply disappear into a bedroom to perform an unimaginable ritual. That time, I absolutely had to use the bathroom and to get there I had to enter this scary terrain. I’m not sure which of us was more embarrassed by the brief glimpse I got of the inch of exposed breast above her little blond head. But it was not a favorable introduction to this female art form. Sometimes I wonder how from that simple beginning I became such a committed breastfeeding mother.
When I breastfed my oldest son in the US more than two decades ago, I remember feeling just as uncomfortable as the new mother who wrote to me. I spent a lot of money on specially made tops so I could breastfeed discreetly. Even then people would stare rudely or make snide comments. But one of the strongest memories was of the missionary from Nicaragua who visited our church. He burst into tears when he saw me nursing my son. Our pastor translated that her tears were of regret that she had not breastfed her child because in her cultural formula it was considered more beneficial…largely because of the advertising dollars spent in this poor third world country.
In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of being a part of a new program through the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) project. WIC provided food and formula stables to low- and moderate-income (working poor) families. Providing formula cost them more than $100 a month, while providing nutritional supplements to nursing mothers cost them just $32. This program was nothing more than state-sanctioned peer pressure. They identified women who had participated in the program who had breastfed. These volunteers were jointly trained by WIC and La Leche League. Before pregnant women receive their supply of food stamps, they must attend an educational session with a peer counselor where the benefits of breastfeeding are presented. We then took the contact details of all expectant mothers, including their dates of birth. We called them several times during their pregnancies to talk more. Then, when they had their baby, we visited them at home or in hospital to help them get off to a good start. This project and many others like it across the United States have had a dramatic impact on the number of low- and middle-income new mothers choosing to breastfeed their babies. Dramatically, 63% of African American mothers now breastfeed compared to less than 15% just twenty years ago.
Fifteen years after the birth of my first child and almost a decade after this project, I had another child. I was living in California at the time. I have to say that those years and perhaps the more open culture of Southern California meant that breastfeeding even in public was not a problem. I went back to work when my son was 8 weeks old and my employer was happy to accommodate breastfeeding and pumping. Our pediatrician was the kind of grandfather who, if possible, was even more pro-breastfeeding than I was. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend exclusive breastfeeding until six months, Dr. Jones recommended not adding solids until nine months to a year. He thought that introducing them earlier increased the chances of children developing allergies. Even my militant breastfeeding couldn’t achieve this laudable goal when my eight-month-old looked longingly at every bite of food he took.
However, in stark contrast was the visit we made to my partner’s family home in Mexico when my son was a few months old. It was like stepping back in time… or worse. I remembered once more the tears of that Nicaraguan missionary. No one… and I mean no one breastfed despite the poverty. Families would go into their uncle’s store and buy expensive formula and two or three eggs and bread for the rest of the family. Of course, by this time I had become what you might consider a breastfeeding activist and made it my personal mission to expose as many people in that small Mexican town as I could to the sight of my nursing son. to my chest
When I moved to the UK with my youngest daughter in 2006, one of the biggest adjustments was the different views on breastfeeding. When we first checked in with our doctors, I was excited about the new perspective of health visitors… until I visited for the first time with one. My daughter was eight months old and still breastfeeding well even though I had added solids a few weeks earlier. I was shocked and horrified when my HV said in an authoritative tone… You need to wean this baby. After my shock wore off, I politely educated her that I had always followed the World Health Organization’s recommendation to breastfeed until at least two o’clock. Our visit quickly deteriorated into an argument as he claimed it was only for Third World countries. From that point on, I simply avoided health visitors.
A few months later I was pleasantly surprised when they were handing out flyers at the same clinic for a new breastfeeding peer counseling program. I signed up again and was happy to once again be among the first to complete the training. But over time I became disillusioned. Unlike the WIC program I had previously worked on, we were directly under the PCT, which meant that we were instructed never to ask anything the health visitors said to the mothers…even if we knew it was blatant misinformation.
One thing I do know, I’m glad my daughter was born in America. She was a month premature. While he had no difficulty breathing, his digestive system was another matter. He was jaundiced, had trouble pooping, and for the first two months of his life barely gained any weight. I know from personal experience as well as peer counseling work that if we had been in the UK I would have been pressured to top up (not that I would have listened).
So what happens to this new mother and the thousands of others like her? Is there any hope that the UK will become like the Los Angeles I left with babies feeding on exposed breasts every time you visit the mall? I have seen flashes of hope. One is my daughter’s swimming class. Sure, we’re in the toddler group, but the baby class is right before ours. The teacher encourages moms to breastfeed on the pool stairs after class to make a positive connection in babies’ minds with water…and milk. I was also very encouraged a few months ago by the teenage black mother who was interacting so positively with her baby and discreetly fed her on the Piccadilly line.
But if the UK is to successfully increase the number of mothers breastfeeding their babies, we need not only to provide the expert advice needed to get them off to a good start, but to provide a supportive culture that recognizes the unique value of the relationship of nursing . It wasn’t an easy or short battle for the US… and the war is far from over either considering the southern states have lower breastfeeding rates than even the UK. .. but considering the physical and emotional benefits for the mother, the baby. and society, it is worth undertaking.
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