As an advocate, scholar and, well, a human, I’ve been following recent stories on breast-feeding — national coverage of the U.S. delegation’s appalling failure to support the World Health Assembly breast-feeding resolution and, more recently, local news about the criticism of breast-feeding at a Mora, Minn., kiddie pool (“Breast-feeding at pool ignites uproar online,” July 21). While the two issues may appear to be only tangentially related, in fact they stem from the same cultural resistance that inhibits the achievement of national breast-feeding objectives and individual breast-feeding goals.
When people at a pool, restaurant, retail store or other public place order nursing mothers to “cover up” or relocate, yes, they are breaking the law protecting the right to breast-feed. Even more tragically, though, these people are conveying cultural disapproval of a natural act designed to give babies the optimal chance at survival and good health. Media coverage of these incidents, which occur far too often, amplify its stigmatization, suggesting to other nursing women that they, too, will be publicly ridiculed should they dare feed their hungry children. It is not enough to have legal protection. We also need to embrace and support our nursing mothers.
If you’re not an expectant parent or nursing mother, you might be dismissive of these issues. Here’s the deal: Breast-feeding is not akin to other individual choices. Our ability as a society to support breast-feeding women affects our overall national health, influencing rates of infection, of chronic illness, of days missed from school and work. Moreover, the extent to which we globally help mothers to succeed at nursing affects the nutrition and mortality of children, particularly in lower-income countries (which have been especially targeted by infant-formula companies).
In the midst of the early July coverage of the resolution, President Donald Trump erroneously tweeted, “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.” This lukewarm “endorsement” is problematic for reasons more than its inaccuracies. At the same time, it underscores public sentiment about breast-feeding that prompted the pool and other public breast-feeding conflicts.
We didn’t used to be squeamish about breast-feeding, nor should we pretend that formula companies need help with promotion. It was the formula companies that spearheaded the shift in public perception. From the first ads for milk substitutes (formula) in the 1860s, these companies have used deceptive practices to successfully persuade women that their “inadequate” milk should be replaced with artificial food. Advertisements, not doctors, prompted the initial breast-feeding decline in early 20th-century America, correlating with spikes in the mortality for young children. Concerns about this negative influence prompted the Committee on Foods (a subcommittee of the American Medical Association) to restrict formula companies from direct-to-consumer marketing.
While the U.S. was clamping down on formula marketing, Nestlé and other manufacturers began expanding into developing countries and other regions, with devastating results. You know what happens when formula companies have unrestricted access to vulnerable people? Bottle-fed babies die at alarming rates, while children who survive are severely malnourished. Breast-feeding protects babies and toddlers, providing them with adequate nutrition even in places with contaminated water and food scarcity. And in rare (yes, rare) circumstances in which a mother cannot breast-feed, other women can fill in to nurse her baby. A lactating community is a healthy community, full of resources and good nutrition.
It is important to relay all news about breast-feeding issues. And yet, we need to have balance with stories of success and triumphs over adversity. For example, the mothers leading the Mora pool nurse-in should be celebrated for protesting injustice and for offering their support. We also need to go beyond individual experiences to examine how communities and institutions can help breast-feeding mothers feel protected. In other words, identify the “bright spots” (to use a term from authors Chip and Dan Heath for enacting change). The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, for example, offers clean, quiet spaces for nursing mothers.
It’s time to give attention to places that are getting it right, modeling how nursing mothers and their children should be treated. Breast-feeding is not just about the mother-baby dyad. It is a public health issue and must be addressed as such.
Katherine Foss is the author of “Breastfeeding and Media: Exploring Conflicting Discourses That Threaten Public Health” and is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at Middle Tennessee State University.