Breast is Best

Okay, I just read something that got me het up enough to get political in my food blog again. It is about the conflicting messages that nursing mothers are given when it comes to feeding their babies.

I got up this morning early to send a fax to my mother, and so, while the fax machine was whirring away, I sat down with tea and decided to read the New York Times online, and a headline catches my eye: “‘Lactivists’ Taking Their Cause, and Their Babies, to the Streets.”

The American College of Pediatrics urges all women to breastfeed their babies, because as we should all know by now, breastmilk is the best food for all human babies to have for the first year of their lives. Their bodies are made to digest it, mother’s bodies are made to make it–it seems to be a simple, logical process to decide to breastfeed one’s own child. And, according to this article, it is becoming an overwhelming choice for a majority of mothers: apparently, 70% of new mothers are nursing their babies at least for the first few weeks of life, which is a huge jump from the nearly 0% who were breastfeeding their kids thirty-nine years ago when I was born and the 50% of women doing so in 1990. (I am proud to say that I was one of those 50%.)

This is great! This is good news, not only from my perspective as a chef, and a woman interested in public nutrition, but from my perspective as a mother. I am glad to see more women getting the message that breastmilk is the single best food for infants and not only is nutritionally superior to both dairy and soy-based formulas, but also confers greater immune system strength to the child, through the influence of the mother’s immune system. No formula can do that, and the result is healthier babies who would require much less medical intervention.

The American College of Pediatrics estimates that if all women followed their guidelines and exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and then continued to breastfeed in addition to supplementing with solid foods for six more months, health care costs for sick infants would be reduced by 3.6 billion dollars per year.

Doesn’t that sound good? Don’t we all want our babies to be healthy? Don’t we want every baby to be healthy, happy and well-fed?

Apparently not.

While 70% of new mothers are breastfeeding upon leaving the hospital, only 36% are still breastfeeding at six months, and 17% at twelve months. Only 14% are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months.

Houston, we have a problem.

What is happening here? Why are few mothers able to stick with breast feeding, even when they know conclusively that it is the best nutritional choice they can make for their babies?

It isn’t a lack of knowledge or experience out there; in 1990, when I was breast-feeding my daughter, I was one of the lucky women who had female relatives who had breast-fed and could help me figure out how to do it effectively. My grandmother and mother-in-law both had experience breast feeding and could teach me how to go about it; contrary to popular belief, breast-feeding is not an instinctive skill among we higher primates. Gorillas, chimps and humans all learn to feed our babies by watching others go about it. (When a captive gorilla in a zoo kept having trouble feeding her babies, the zoo administrators found a lactating human mother to sit outside the enclosure and feed and care for her infant where the gorilla could observe her. When the gorilla had her next baby, she fed it like a pro.)

Most other women who were breast-feeding at that time, however, were hard-pressed to get good information. Few doctors and nurses were trained in the mechanics of human lactation, and while there were chapters of La Leche League in larger cities, it was difficult to find any books on the subject, save for a few copies of their Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which while supportive, wasn’t that technically useful.

Today, there is a plethora of titles available to teach the techniques of breastfeeding to the increasing number of new mothers who want the best for their babies. A survey of some of the best include Bestfeeding, The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers and The Breastfeeding Book.

In addition to books, most hospitals have lactation consultants available on staff to answer questions and support new mothers in learning how to nurse their babies effectively. In addition, there is simply a larger pool of peers available who have breastfed or are breastfeeding, and there are support groups for lactating women in big cities, small towns and rural communties across the nation. And of course, there is the Internet, which is teeming with information and support on the subject of breastfeeding.

So, obviously, it isn’t a lack of information or medical support that is causing this drop-off in mothers who breastfeed. What is happening?

According to research by the FDA cited in the New York Times article, one of the greatest barriers to women continuing to breastfeed thier infants is the degree of embarrassment women feel about nursing. This factor was found to have more influence over women’s decision over whether or not to breastfeed than household income, maternity leave or employment status.

Women feel icky about it, in large part, because women are made to feel icky about our bodies in general, but our breasts in specific.


Because breasts, particularly in the United States, have been sexuallized to the point that women feel weird using them for thier primary function, which is feeding their babies.

And even if a woman herself doesn’t feel strange about putting her baby to her breast, there are plenty of Americans who will feel weird about it if they see her doing it, and will go out of their way to make her feel ashamed of doing the right thing for her baby. Women have been asked to go to the bathroom to feed their babies when they are in public places, because other people are uncomfortable watching them.

This is a ludicrous situation. Do you eat while sitting on a toilet? I didn’t think so. So why should a baby be sent to a room where defecation and urination happens, which are less than sanitary activities, in order to eat?

The answer, my friends is this: they shouldn’t.

And apparently, new mothers are tired of these mixed messages, and have taken to the streets over it, organizing “Nurse-ins” across the country in order to bring awareness to the fact that they are doing nothing wrong, dirty, shameful or disgusting and that there is no reason that they and their babies should be hidden away in their homes or a bathroom stall just because other people are made uncomfortable by the sight of babies eating in the way that nature intends them to.

In response, six states have passed legislation which require that women be allowed to nurse their babies in public without being harrassed or intimidated. Other states are following suit, while many corporations such as Starbucks and Burger King are making policy changes which allow nursing on premises without being asked to leave.

Perhaps, by 2010, Americans will have grown up enough to deal with the “horrifying” sight of women feeding babies that the Surgeon General’s Goal for Healthy People might be met wherein 75% of mothers nurse their babies at hospital discharge, 50% are still nursing at six months, and 25% are still nursing after a year.

Until then, let us all stand up for nursing mothers and babies and give them emotional support and positive reinforcement. If you see a mother being harrassed, stand up for her, and tell the harrasser to look away if the sight of a baby being fed bothers them so much. Write to your elected officials and tell them what you think about the issue. And if you have a baby of your own, breastfeed him or her for as long as you can, and if you need help learning how, ask for it without shame or embarrassment.

It takes a village to raise a child–and sometimes, it takes a village to help feed that child, too.


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  1. Hi,

    I’ve just liked to your breastfeeding post in a “feminist_yay” LJ group I’m on – if that’s not OK, please let me know and I will get rid of it!

    Link is here for you to check it out:


    Comment by Callistra — June 8, 2005 #

  2. Thanks, Calli. It is fine to link to my blog; I do write so others will read and hopefully, think, and maybe be moved to write and act, as well.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  3. I agree with most of this, but at the same time, I have to say, there are some “breastfeeding activists” who are really fucking obnoxious about it. If a woman you don’t know from Eve is bottle-feeding, it is not your place to go up to her, and harass her, either. I didn’t plan to breastfeed when I was pregnant (as you know, I lost the baby) and I didn’t take kindly to complete strangers who were not involved in my medical care asking me about it, because it was none of their business that there were a number of medications I needed to resume taking as quickly as possible after pregnancy that hadn’t been proven unsafe for babies, but which hadn’t been around long enough that I was willing to take the risk, either. I would like, in general, if pregnant women and women with babies were not treated by society in general as small children who have somehow managed to escape their captors and need to be advised and/or interrogated by complete strangers about everything they put into their mouths or their children’s mouths.

    Comment by Azalais Malfoy — June 8, 2005 #

  4. I don’t much mind people talking to a pregnant woman about what they believe is a good thing for them to do, so long as they are not harrassing them. I had an editor, when I was pregnant last year, ask me in email if I was going to breastfeed or not. I didn’t take it badly, because I knew that she meant only to spread the good word of her own experience to someone who may not know that breastfeeding is better.

    That said, anyone coming up to a bottlefeeding woman and lecturing her about how she -should- be breastfeeding instead needs a boot to the rump as much as anyone bugging a woman who is breastfeeding about “exposing herself in public” would.

    The fact is, there are good and right reasons not to breastfeed–you gave some particularly pressing ones in your post. I cannot agree with you more–and not only because I -know- you and have an idea what medications you are talking about.

    It is a matter of personal choice what we feed our babies, and it is between us, our doctors, the babies’ fathers (if they are participating in the raising fo the child) and the babies. That is is. Paternalistic preaching is tiresome, intrusive and bloody rude no matter who engages in it.

    So, really, you see–we do agree on this matter, pretty much completely.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  5. My daughter is 6 now. We worked very hard to get the breast feeding thing working.

    When she was 1.5 years old her pediatrician said I could stop breast feeding her because she was past her first birthday. I said that neither of us felt like stopping and since there wasn’t a need to, we wouldn’t. He kept at it until I said, firmly, that I would stop when I was ready to stop.

    They asked me, at her day care center, not to breastfeed her when I got there to pick her up because some of the parents were uncomfortable with their children seeing “that”. I was amazed.

    My father was squicky about me breastfeeding but he learned to look at my face and not my discreetly raised shirt.

    I nursed where I was when it was time for nursing. More for nutrition, of course, in the beginning and for comfort and security at the end. Generally, I got more positive comments from older women than glares from older men. When the inevitable suggestion that I nurse her in the bathroom was made, I countered with that same response… “when you eat in the bathroom, I’ll nurse my daughter in the bathroom.”

    We stopped before her third birthday. I _was_ ready and had to take some medication that would have been excreted in my milk.

    Thank you for reminding me of that time and the joys and the struggle.

    Comment by Sarah — June 8, 2005 #

  6. Questions for the women that have breastfed:

    Did people bother you about public breastfeeding if your breast was covered by a light cloth?

    I always wondered that, because it seems to be something brought up a lot, and for some reason it’s like asking that was a slap in the face. What is wrong with that question that it gets such strong reactions?

    If it would get the anti-public-feeding folks to chill out a bit, you know like a compromise, then I don’t see why the persons asking should be flamed at BF forums.

    To slightly change the subject: I overheard a young lady telling a story about how she had finally convinced her friend to go without pain medication for her delivery. Later on, during labor, when the new mom was starting to hurt more, the nurse asked if she wanted anything for pain. The lady I was listening to trashed that nurse SO BAD, like she was the most hideous person that ever walked the earth.

    She then went on about how she had to continue to convince her friend NOT to use ANY medication, while Ms Evil Nurse responded to the mom’s request for pain medication. Apparently she (the friend) argued so vehemently that she was almost escorted out by security.

    I don’t think using too much medication is the way to go, but darn it’s her choice you wackjob, back off. It’s not like mothers get one, and only one, chance to prove they’re a good mother, and suffering through natural childbirth proves you’re a better mother.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 8, 2005 #

  7. I never had anyone bother me about breastfeeding because I used a recieving blanket or a shawl to cover myself and my daughter. If I did not, I would have myself been very uncomfortable, because I have very large breasts. There is just no other way for me to modestly breastfeed.

    A lot of women don’t have to do that to be modest. They can tuck up a shirt, or open a couple of buttons, and about all you can see is a tiny bit of skin and you might get a flash of nipple when the baby latches on, but really, this is all beside the point.

    Why is it beside the point? Because men can legally go about topless and no one gives a hairy monkey’s bum if they do. And some men are not aesthetically pleasing without shirts, yet, it is not considered to be inappropriate for them to walk about in public without shirts. They can be turned out of restaurants and the like, but really, other than that, it isn’t an issue.

    And–women go to the beach and wear g-strings and bikinis that show a lot more skin than your average breastfeeding woman, but that is okay. Or will go out wearing shirts cut down to nearly the nipple and it is okay, but if you see a nipple because a baby just latched off of it, suddenly that is lewd?

    That isn’t lewd, it is ludicrous.

    So, no, I never got crap from anyone for breastfeeding in public fourteen years ago, and I did it in restaurants, at work, in the mall, and at a bus stop, and no one really cared, but, as I said, I draped a shawl.

    But even for women who don’t, they aren’t exactly flashing a huge breast for all to see. They aren’t saying, “Oooh, lookie here–boobies!” They are just feeding their kids, and most cultures around the world are fine with it.

    Americans need to get over their squeamish issues with bodily functions and their sexual fetishization of breasts and grow up and leave women who want to do the best thing for their babies alone.

    Now, that mini-rant aside, the issue about the pain meds in labor–no one should decide that but the woman in labor. End of story. There are people who are fanatical about these things. I am not one of them. If a woman wants pain meds during labor, fine.

    I am more concerned by the rising number of cesarian section deliveries in this country than I am over whether a woman chooses to have pain medication during labor and delivery or not.

    But yeah, some people need to get totally over the idea that a totally natural childbirth is the only way to go in all cases, because that isn’t true. Modern medicine has helped save the lives of many women and children and will continue to do so.

    It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation–there can be a happy medium, a middle path, where both the natural way of childbirth is available, as well as the best of medical technology if it is needed.

    I guess that just makes way too much sense, though. 😉

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  8. On the men being able to go shirtless thing, I agree – that’s really just unfair. I mean, even in places where women *are* allowed to go topless if they want, we’d have to deal with either dirty looks from people who disapprove or, well, leers from those who approve a little too much… I’d feel embarrassed to go out like that. Especially around here… ugh, I get enough stares and comments as it is.

    But we should still be allowed. Maybe if men got used to seeing them day in, day out, within a few years they wouldn’t be as much of a fixation. I mean come on, I’ve seen men with bigger boobs than mine, and they can run around topless all they want. If women have big breasts, men like it. It just… doesn’t work the other way around. So in other words, the law is more in favor of something that is NOT considered aesthetically pleasing than it is toward something that is. *scratches her head*

    With the C-section thing, I know a lot of it’s people overusing that option. But isn’t there something with brain size getting bigger? I can’t remember. I mean, it’s hard for me to believe brain size would be increasing from looking around me (but then, I am surrounded by a bunch of partiers who drink their brains away), but I suppose I have to account for the amount of technology we now have to learn, compared to several years ago. But that can’t account for all of them, anyhow. I just wonder, with C-sections becoming more common, number one, will they become required down the road as brain size gets bigger, but there is no way for natural selection for a wider pelvis to occur when everybody’s getting surgery to fix it (that’s the downside to modern medicine – stunts that whole evolution process as far as physical stuff goes). I also have to wonder if those mothers are any less attached to their children, sicne there are chemicals released during childbirth that help a mother to bond to her child. Anybody know if any studies have been done on that? I’m curious now…

    Comment by Karyl — June 9, 2005 #

  9. One of the reasons for a higher rate of C-sections has to do with the interventions that women undergo in labor in most hospitals.

    Labor progresses most easily if women are allowed to move around, eat or drink small amounts to keep up their strength and if they are allowed to stand and walk–gravity helps move everything downwards in the direction everything is supposed to go.

    In typical hospitals, women are put into bed with a fetal monitor, and are not allowed to move much, because they have a fetal monitor strapped to them. There is an IV put in, which further restricts mobility, and there is no eating nor much drinking allowed.

    Labor also is a time-intensive process. It takes awhile. Doctors do not have the time or inclination to hang around waiting for babies to be born, so once a woman is checked into the hospital, her labor either progresses by the clock, by artificial standards of “normalcy,” or else, labor is speeded up by the use of pitocin and if it doesn’t “progress” any further, a C-section is ordered. In addition, any flicker of a flutter on the monitor, and the fetus is declared to be in distress and a C-section is ordered.

    One has to remember, that obstetricians are -surgeons-. They are not general physicians–they specialize in a type of surgery.

    But at any rate, if women were allowed to walk around and keep up their strength, and labor was allowed to progress normally, most women would not need C-section births.

    Our brains are not getting bigger. Babies’s heads are not getting bigger–women’s pelvic bones are not inadequate, for the most part, for the rigors of labor and delivery. Most of the c-sections we are seeing in this country are not necessary, but are being ordered because of medical convenience–and most importantly–because of liability and malpractice concerns.

    The doctors are covering their butts–because malpractice insurance rates are so high for obstetrics (this is because of several cases where huge damage awards were given in situations where, in my opinion, the doctors really didn’t do anything wrong), the obstetricians -have- to cover their asses by using every gimcrack and machine that goes ping in the hospital so that if anything goes awry, they can say that they did everything that they could.

    There is a reason that there are fewer and fewer obstetricians practicing each year–they are leaving the field because it is too expensive both financially and emotionally, for them to continue.

    The end result will be this–women and children will be put in danger and there will be an overall lowering in the quality of healthcare available to mothers and babies in this country.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 9, 2005 #

  10. i’ve been w/out a reliable internet connection for a few days, so i’m coming to this a bit late – but what a great post.

    Comment by sarah — June 14, 2005 #

  11. Thank you, Sarah!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 14, 2005 #

  12. Susie Bright recently wrote a post about this on her blog, titled “The Unlikely Lactivist”:
    She wrote it in response to a recent complaint by Barbara Walters about how sitting next to a breastfeeding mother on an airplane flight “ruined” her flight. *sigh*

    Comment by Lexica — June 20, 2005 #

  13. Hello, Lexica–

    I read Susie Bright’s post and I just shook my head.

    People just have weirdo ideas when it comes to breasts. It is a fixation and not a healthy one.

    And can I say this–what an awful journalist that columnist who talked about how Susie was trying to “seduce” her because she breastfed in front of her! What about checking facts? What about asking Susie what was up with the bare breasts? How about not having such a dirty mind and then blaming it on someone else?


    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 20, 2005 #

  14. Sorry, I was looking through the archives and I had to comment.

    I wanted to bring up another angle to this topic that hadn’t been discussed. The fact that more women are choosing to breastfeed in the early weeks after childbirth is commendable. The fact that women do NOT continue to breastfeed after those early weeks is the problem. Yes, the whole “stigma” of nursing in public has a bit to do with it. However, there is an even bigger problem: employers.

    Unfortunately, our society has become what it is and the fact remains that most family need two incomes to survive. So even if the mother works for a fantastic company with decent maternity leave benefits, the question of what to do when the mother returns to work is a huge issue.

    Even here in Maryland (where I live) we have fantastic breastfeeding laws to protect nursing mothers in public. However, there are NO laws stating that employers should provide a sanitary or even PRIVATE place for a working, nursing mother to pump (express) breastmilk for care providers to feed her nursling while mother is away at work. Any nursing mother and lactation consultant will tell you that the whole breastmilk system is based on supply and demand. If there isn’t a demand (either by the baby nursing or mother pumping) the body assumes lactation is no longer needed and the supply dries up.

    So what’s a nursing mother to do? Well, sadly… most mothers stop nursing as soon as they return to work because even if they are lucky enough to have a private place to pump 3-4 times a day (in the early months) most employers see this as a productivity buster and will pressure the mother to “figure out another solution” so their pumping schedule doesn’t interfere with the boss’s agenda.

    In the end, it is more than just the general public that needs to get a grip and be more sensitive to needs of our youngest members of society. Employers need to do the same for the needs of working mothers. THEN (and only then) will our children not be short-changed nutritionally.

    [stepping down from my soapbox]

    Comment by M Smith — May 16, 2006 #

  15. That is a good point, M. Smith. I was pretty much able to keep up breastpumping at work, but I only worked part time when I had Morganna, so I was only missing a feeding or two. (The breast pump, on the other hand, sucked hideously, and I am glad to see that newer, better models are available these days. Because that one was awful.)

    Working mothers of newborns are just plain not supported in the workplace. Women and children are just not valued in our society, so of course there is no support for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. Most of the workplace is set up around the needs of men, by men, so why should they think about the needs of women?

    It sucks, but that is the way it is–unfortunately. Until breastfeeding women get together and demand changes in the workplace–it won’t change.


    Good points–thanks for posting them–breastfeeding is going to be an issue that I return to as my pregnancy progresses, I suspect.

    Comment by Barbara — May 16, 2006 #

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