Breast feeding is the most natural thing in the world. Or so they will tell you when you are blissfully pregnant with your first. For many of us, it’s not quite as easy as all that. The last thing we need is public scorn for trying to feed our babies in places other than darkened nurseries. I have no patience for people who are so scandalized by the possibility of an errant nipple that they insist we feed our children in bathroom stalls. Get a grip, people. When I was nursing, I couldn’t find a nursing bra I liked, and I developed an entire uniform around a “sleep bra” and men’s undershirts with slits cut in them under huge camp shirts. I still flashed people, I’m sure. Because that’s what happens when your baby decides he’s done for the moment and spits out your boob in public.
And yes, I was asked to feed my children in the bathroom. I am so sorry my breasts inconvenienced you. By the time I was confident enough to actually leave my home with a nursing infant, I had already overcome the hurdle of bleeding nipples. “If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong,” advised my la leche counselor. “This is the only way he knows how to do it,” I replied. Bleeding nipples are almost as painful as childbirth, and while it only lasts for a few days, it’s enough to make some women give up, and I don’t blame them. I was educated and determined and I had the support of my family. I still didn’t manage to nurse either of my children for the full year recommended by pediatricians.
In my state, only 10% of babies are still being breast fed at 12 months. This is despite the many known benefits of breastfeeding including a decrease in obesity, diabetes, ear infections, allergies, and asthma. Higher IQ scores in children who were breastfed have also been reported as well as a 30% decrease in SIDS deaths. The cost of formula (as much as $2000 for a year’s worth) is prohibitive and damn inconvenient. As far as I’m concerned, the number one benefit to nursing your baby is you can do it while you are asleep.
We as a society need to commit to breastfeeding as the healthiest start to a baby’s future. Pamphlets and free breast pads are not enough. New moms need our support. Education is certainly a factor. Some cultures, even in the United States, still see an ick factor to nursing that can only be overcome by patience and exposure. It would help if women were seen nursing in public on a regular basis.
But let’s be realistic. Lots of women stop nursing for a variety of reasons. Lack of adequate milk production is one. Pediatricians and lactation consultants will tell you this is a rare phenomenon. But a lot of women run into it, especially faced with THE PUMP. Some women are pumping pros and do both breasts at once in their cars while they are driving while learning French. For the rest of us, we nurse our babies, put them down for a nap, pump so we can leave the house alone, manage to produce 1/2 ounce of milk, cry for 45 minutes, and eventually go buy formula. But for working mothers who want to nurse, the pump is not a luxury item reserved for date night. It’s a necessity.
The only reason I was able to breastfeed my children for seven months was because I was not working. Women do not need better breast pumps. We need time to nurse our babies. If we are serious about the health of women and children, we must address the fact that we are one of the only countries in the world with no mandatory paid maternity leave. Even the Family Medical Leave Act, which is guaranteed unpaid leave, only lasts for 12 weeks. This is barely enough time to form an initial bond with a new baby.
In a depressed economy, taking time off for a new baby is a luxury few can afford. A 2012 Department of Labor survey showed that nearly 25% of women took less than 2 weeks off after the birth of a baby, and about half of those took less than a week. It is no wonder that women with longer maternity leave also report higher rates of breastfeeding. A generous maternity leave is also associated with reduced rates of depression in women, even years after returning to the workforce.
Some economists contend that maternity leave also benefits businesses as it prevents high turnover rates and training costs. Some companies are starting to realize this, and maternity leave is offered as part of a competitive benefits package. For most women, however, this remains out of reach.
If we as a culture believe in the health and well-being of women and children, if we believe that the health of our infants should not be dictated by Nestle, if we believe in work life balance, we cannot accept current American leave policies. And for those of you afraid of accidentally seeing a nipple while a baby is eating her dinner, go put a blanket over your head.