World Breastfeeding Week: Women’s Rights, Infant Health and A Supermodel Mom

Amie Newman

Breastfeeding is a critical first step in a newborn's health. And this year's World Breastfeeding Week focuses on establishing an optimal foundation for it through the "Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding."

It’s World Breastfeeding Week and that can only mean one thing – widespread media coverage of…a celebrity who misspeaks about breastfeeding!

Not that I’m complaining. “Supermodel mom” (so says Us Magazine) Giselle Bundchen slips up and calls for a “worldwide law” mandating breastfeeding for babies up to six months old and, though the comment was utterly ridiculous, at least it’s a great segue into a discussion about breastfeeding for World Breastfeeding Week 2010, happening this week. According to, in an interview for Harper’s Bazaar UK, Bundchen is quoted as saying,

“Some people here (in the US) think they don’t have to breastfeed, and I think ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.” [emphasis added]

After the quote ignited a controversy, Bundchen explained her statement more thoroughly on her blog:

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My intention in making a comment about the importance of breastfeeding…comes from my passion and beliefs about children. Becoming a new mom has brought a lot of questions, I feel like I am in a constant search for answers on what might be the best for my child. It’s unfortunate that in an interview sometimes things can seem so black and white…I understand that everyone has their own experience and opinions and I am not here to judge. I think as mothers we are all just trying our best.

The response is not exactly earth shattering and doesn’t address the most important points about breastfeeding in this country (and these points have nothing to do with breasts or babies per se) but at least it acknowledges that the question of whether to breastfeed or not is not necessarily an easy one; nor should the answers individual women come to about feeding their children, be subject to judgment.

This is not the first time a celebrity has chosen to (either inadvertently or not) make a statement about breastfeeding. Last year, actress Salma Hayek caused much eye-popping and hand-wringing when she breastfed a hungry baby on television (not her own child) on a visit to Sierra Leone, a country with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and the lowest exclusive breastfeeding rates. Though many expressed disgust – even outrage – over her actions, Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told ABC News at the time,

“We’ve lost the concept that breastfeeding is normal and human in the United States. In most of the world, it’s [nursing someone else’s baby is] as common as breastfeeding” one’s own.”

“In many African cultures, it is not just a nice thing to do, it’s expected — although it’s mostly within families,” she said. “Anybody who is able to lactate and who does not feed a crying child is considered not doing the right thing.”

The larger point is that breastfeeding is a lifesaver – a critical first step in a newborns’ health, when it’s possible. It’s what World Breastfeeding Week 2010 is all about this year – establishing an optimal foundation for breastfeeding –  through the “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding.” Just how much of a life-saver can breastfeeding be? From the WBW “Ten Steps” site:

If the vast majority of babies were exclusively fed breast milk in their first six months of life – meaning only breast milk and no other liquids or solids, not even water – it is estimated that the lives of at least 1.2 million children would be saved every year. If children continue to be breastfed up to two years and beyond, the health and development of millions of children would be greatly improved.

The good news is that, according to UNICEF, global breastfeeding rates, including exclusive breastfeeding rates (where no formula or other food is supplemented) are increasing – especially in the developing world. Exclusive breastfeeding rates in some countries have risen twenty percent over the last 5-10 years.

These rates are not increasing simply because we tell new mothers that breast milk is best or that we all should breastfeed because Supermodel moms do it or because we see Salma Hayek breastfeeding a newborn on television. It’s happening because the governments of these countries are prioritizing raising the status of women through implementation of both governmental and business policies:

The implementation of large-scale programmes in these countries was based on national policies and often guided by the WHO-UNICEF Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, including the adoption and implementation of national legislation on the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and maternity protection for working women. Further actions included ensuring that breastfeeding was initiated in maternity facilities (and that no infant formula was used), building health worker capacity to offer counselling on infant and young child feeding, and mother-to-mother support groups in the community, accompanied by communication strategies to promote breastfeeding using multiple channels and messages tailored to the local context.

These sorts of policies are not only helpful but critical to improving the lives of mothers and newborns globally. Right now there are only 94 certified “Baby Friendly” hospitals in the United States (as per a UNICEF/WHO Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative or BFHI), and approximately 19,000 worldwide though some countries have zero facilities that are considered “Baby Friendly.” A “Baby Friendly” maternity care center (hospital or birth center) is qualified as such if it offers, according to the WHO and UNICEF program:

an optimal level of care for infant feeding. The BFHI assists hospitals in giving mothers the information, confidence, and skills needed to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies or feeding formula safely, and gives special recognition to hospitals that have done so.

But it’s not only early intervention through hospital and birth center policies that make a difference. The BFHI also suggest new approaches to what “Baby Friendly” means outside of the walls of maternity hospitals and birth centers. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding, the global network of individuals and organizations responsible for World Breastfeeding Week, says:

Action at community level is particularly important since globally only 56% of women deliver their babies in a health facility, (only 33% in the least developed countries) and they may be discharged within a day or two. Women need ongoing support in the community whether they deliver in hospital or at home.

It’s also guaranteed maternity leave (paid), proper postpartum and breastfeeding support via certified lactation consultants, business policies that support mandatory pumping breaks for mothers who go back to work and paid sick days that are so necessary to support new mothers. These are core necessities, not in ultimate service to improving breastfeeding rates but to improving women’s status thereby allowing women true freedom to make choices. As Labbok wrote in her 2006 article, Breastfeeding: A Woman’s Reproductive Right (PDF),

In countries throughout the world, women’s autonomy frequently has been limited in the name of ensuring children’s well-being, subordinating women’s rights to children’s rights. However, by framing the issue as a woman’s right to choose and succeed with breastfeeding makes it a responsibility for the family, society and workplace to recognize and support this right.

And one mother commented on a post of mine,

If most women do not get paid maternity leave or very little paid leave, including all federal Government workers, then it is a bit hypocritical to tout the benefits (and dare I say scare/force women into it) when there is no environment set up to support the effort. There should be plenty support for the effort such as lactation consultants at the hospital available at all times (not just one who is so burdened with women that you never get to see her), breast pumps should be free or greatly reduced in cost, home visits with lactation consultants should be provided!

World Breastfeeding Week 2010’s Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding focuses entirely on health care facilities and what providers can do to help women, around the world, initiate and establish successful breastfeeding relationships with their babies. The steps include ensuring a written breastfeeding policy communicated to the health care staff, training health care staff in the skills to implement the policy, helping mothers initiate breastfeeding within a half-hour of birth by showing them how to breastfeed, facilitating the establishment of support groups and more. According to the WBW these sorts of policies contribute to increased rates of breastfeeding initiation and exclusive breastfeeding.

So, unlike Bundchen’s initial proclamation about the creation of a law mandating breastfeeding – one more way society would exert control over women’s bodies, what these policies, initiatives and laws do are to help offer women more control over their bodies, health and lives, by giving them options to make the best decisions possible about their children’s health and lives, acknowledging the societal support needed to do so.

While it may take supermodels and superstar actresses to get society talking about breastfeeding, we can use this as a prime opportunity to build off of the limited dialogue these scenarios create and root the conversation in a global women’s rights/reproductive justice framework. We’re then working towards a time when women are making decisions about the ways in which we feed our babies, based on equality and justice, not fear, limited resources or lack of information.

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