Commentary Maternity and Birthing

Breastfeeding’s Double (Gold) Standard

Lauren Adelaida Villa

The rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding in the United States perpetuates anxiety, shame, and misunderstanding. We need a different approach.

I recently sat down with a new mother. She leaned in to tell me, “Breastfeeding is frighteningly difficult.” She looked around the cafe we were sitting in to make sure no one heard. She went on, explaining how at one point she wanted to kill herself for not breastfeeding.

I was shocked. Kill herself? After our conversation, I turned on my laptop to research the statistics behind breastfeeding.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women breastfeed for at least 12 months to get the full health benefits for their children. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for at least the first two years. Studies continually cite that breast milk can protect against infectious diseases, respiratory infections, ear infections, and even asthma, diabetes, childhood leukemia, and lymphoma. The benefits extend to mothers as well, with a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology finding that the longer women breastfeed, the less likely they are to get breast cancer.

Even in mainstream media, we are inundated with success stories about the benefits of breastfeeding. Articles like TIME magazine’s “Are You Mom Enough?” pictures a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old while standing up, leading us to believe that mothers everywhere are nursing their young boys and girls. But the reality is just the opposite.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 77 percent of new moms in the United States start out breastfeeding their new babies, but by six months only 49 percent still are and only 16 percent are exclusively breastfeeding.

Why are less than half of U.S. mothers breastfeeding after six months? What systems are in place, if any, to support new moms to continue breastfeeding?

In California, for one, mothers have the right to breastfeed in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another person. In 2002, the state required employers to provide a reasonable amount of break time for an employee to express breast milk in close proximity to the employee’s work area.

Despite these and other similar policies, there are barriers that make it difficult for women to breastfeed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a mere 11 percent of private-sector workers get paid family leave through their employers. Once mothers go back to work, there are few clean, private places where they can pump milk for later use. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), insurance companies are required to pay for women’s breast pumps and lactation counseling. However, dozens of message boards and blogs have popped up describing confusion about who qualifies as a lactation consultant and which breast pumps are covered under the new law.

In some ways, the known health benefits of breastfeeding have created an unsupportive environment for those who choose not to breastfeed—igniting judgment from the public eye. We are quick to judge women who turn to bottle-feeding and formula, thinking they aren’t “mom enough” to deal with the stress of painful infections, an insufficient milk supply, and anxiety when trying to breastfeed at home or in public.

Efforts like UNICEF’s “Golden Bow” campaign could be contributing to the problem. The campaign refers to breastfeeding as the “gold standard” for infant feeding. The Golden Bow website goes on to explain that the gold color symbolizes that breastfeeding is not only the gold standard for infant feeding but for which “any other alternative should be compared and judged.”

Against which any other alternative should be judged and compared? This is problematic not only for new mothers, but for family members and society. I wonder if the faculty member I mentioned above would have had more success if the environment she was in was more understanding, and less critical, of her decision not to breastfeed.

The rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding in the United States perpetuates anxiety, shame, and misunderstanding by holding breastfeeding to a fabled gold standard. Although I think every mother has the right to be educated on the benefits of breastfeeding, and the ACA is making strides to better support women, a different approach needs to be taken. We need to take a look at the reality of being a working mother in today’s society and ask ourselves how we can best support new mothers instead of comparing and judging their decisions.

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