Breastfeeding, Language and Privilege

By Christine Cupaiuolo — August 14, 2008

A post at Well this week about a new breastfeeding study provides several lessons in language and privilege — and it also serves as a reminder of the importance of collective action.

The study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Human Lactation, found that while three-quarters of new mothers try breastfeeding, only 36 percent of babies are breastfed through six months. The recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to breastfeed exclusively for six months, with continued breastfeeding for one year or more. WHO recommends continuing for two years or more.

Despite those recommendations, the United States famously lags behind other countries in providing much-needed support for nursing mothers. Factors include the absence of breastfeeding training and support after hospital discharge; the high percentage of hospitals handing out free infant formula samples; the lack of paid maternity leave (only 51 percent of new mothers receive any paid maternity leave, and even among companies considered the best for working mothers [PDF], the statistics aren’t good); and the difficulties women encounter upon returning to work, including a lack of time and privacy to express milk in a safe, clean environment.

One of the first commenters on the Well post described her own experience:

I can tell you why breast feeding drops off before 6 months: Women have to work! As I type, I’m hooked up to a beast pump in my nice office with a locking door. It would not be possible for me to breastfeed if I didn’t have these small perks.

As a prosecutor, I’ve had to make some sacrifices to continue to breastfeed my daughter. For example, I can’t take any cases to trial because I can’t be away from my office for an entire day. Luckily, I have a supportive work environment.

I don’t know what one of my secretaries would do if she wanted to breastfeed. They are all stuck in cubicle land. […]

Which prompted this response a few comments later:

Perhaps the prosecutor – and other women with the privileges and perks she cites – ought to stand up for the secretaries and others who don’t have those perks. Rather than wondering what those in cubicle land would do, she might ask those women what they do, and what the workplace as a whole could do to support them. There must be some space that could be used periodically by any woman needing to pump, and advocating for that would be a nice way for the poster, or anyone else (male or female!) to support working mothers. […]

The commenter makes a great point, but really it’s the responsibility of all of us to advocate for these changes. Here’s another comment from a mother whose workplace seems to offer the ideal supportive environment that should be available to all women:

After returning to work when he was 3 months, I pumped three times a day in my work place’s “Mom’s rooms” which were a couple of small rooms in different buildings where we could plug in our pumps and store milk if needed in a fridge. Now 10 years later, we have more rooms and also company provided hospital grade pumps so Moms can just bring their own attachments instead of carting around the pump. I know being able to pump at work was a huge factor in me staying in the work force and not quitting to stay home. […]

This amenity is available to all workers at our location – both manufacturing technicians in our plants and office (we only have cubes) employees. I will say, it took a lot of work to pump, deal with the bottles, skip outside lunches etc but it was worth it to me and my family. Meeting other Moms who were also pumping was another factor in sticking with it, so now I try to give this info to any new Moms in my group. I try to be non-judgemental when I mention this, just letting them know what is out there and thats its possible.

A number of commenters also took issue with the headline of the post: “Most Moms Give Up on Breastfeeding.” I think this response best sums up the critique:

“Giving up” definitely implies failure by the person doing the giving up — and yes, how you express the fact of abbreviated nursing periods DOES matter, a great deal.

Blame for the failure should be shared by many overlapping systems (and, of course, in some cases, the particular families involved). But when the problem is expressed in terms that frame it as a matter of personal, individual responsibility, the solutions to the problem end up focusing on improving individual behavior.

Even though the evidence of the benefits of avoiding artificial feeding continues to accumulate, we fail SYSTEMICALLY to allow all women and children to enjoy these benefits. So yes, some families “give up”. But this article isn’t about a few individual women or families who choose badly, it’s about the many hurdles faced by breastfeeding women in this country.

If you’re looking for a place to get started, Moms Rising has a statement you can sign in support of the Breastfeeding Promotion Act, which was introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in 2007 and now seems stuck. These are the major provisions:

• amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect breastfeeding women from being fired or discriminated against in the workplace

• provides tax incentives for businesses that establish private, lactation areas in the workplace

• provides for a performance standard for breast pumps

• allows breastfeeding equipment to be tax deductible for families

Rachel has more details about the bill here (along with a smart quibble!). And check out more campaigns sponsored by Moms Rising concerning family leave, health care and fair pay.

Plus: For anyone interested in the history of campaigns to increase breastfeeding rates, I came across this interesting article in the American Journal of Public Health that describes infant feeding practices and public health campaigns in the early 20th and 21st centuries.

5 responses to “Breastfeeding, Language and Privilege”

  1. I recently an article about obese children who’s mothers ate unhealthy diets (sugar, fatty junk food) while breastfeeding.

  2. Hi:

    Many women discontinue nursing in a short time after going home and breastfeeding never really got off the ground. We have to look at breastfeeding in the context of the circumstances of their birth. So many birthing practices interfere with the labor, birth and therefore, the success of nursing .

  3. Another aspect to lower than normal breastfeeding rates in the US is this notion that “breast is best”. Implied in this, I think, is that breastfeeding is some form of perfection while formula feeding is an acceptable second — breastfeeding is the unattainable photoshopped cover model and formula feeding is the norm. I’ve often thought that “breast is best” was probably coined by formula makers. Breastfeeding needs to be seen as the normal mode of feeding an infant, formula the exception to the rule. If we had that kind of culture, all this needed legislation would breeze through. Thanks for all the interesting links in this post, btw. I love reading about this topic.

  4. While breastfeeding ideally would be for the best we also need to remember mothers who cannot breastfeed because of either medication they’re on or because their children cannot digest breast milk without problems. We shouldn’t shame these women for something that is beyond their control either.

  5. In response to the poster above:

    Most medications are compatible with breastfeeding and unfortunately many women are advised to wean their babies unnecessarily. Many providers equate maternal plasma levels as being the same as milk levels, which is not true. In checking a drugs compatibility with breastfeeding, healthcare providers should be referring to ToxNet or Thomas Hale’s Medications and Mother’s Milk or the Lactation Study Center at the University of Rochester rather than the PDR.

    The same is true of maternal diet and its influence on breastfeeding. Many women are also told to wean a colicky baby because their breastmilk is to blame. That reason is actually less common than believed. Before a mother weans her baby, she should get the advise of a doctor who is more aware of the physiology of breastfeeding and its importance and who can do a more responsible evaluation of risk vs. benefit. There are many other culprits to investigate before putting the overall lifetime health of the baby at risk. Even if it is due to something that a mother is eating, she can eliminate the offending allergen and possibly only have to do it temporarily.

    No one is blaming mothers for anything. That’s the myth that the formula companies and their supporters perpetuate. The blame is only on our own stubborn culture and its entrenchment in myth, ignorance, obstinance and, of course, financial gain.

Comments are closed.