A friend sent me an article about some research conducted at her Uni into Australian attitudes to breastfeeding:
Australians need better education about breastfeeding from a young age to prevent mothers feeling they have to stay at home if they have a baby who needs breastfeeding, according to RMIT University lecturer Dr Jennifer James.
Dr James is RMIT University Lecturer in Midwifery and Breastfeeding and Human Lactation and Vice-President of the Australian Lactation Consultants’ Association, which commissioned a Newspoll survey that showed more than one in four Australians viewed breastfeeding in public as unacceptable.
The research also found adults aged 18 to 24 were least supportive, with up to 36 per cent considering breastfeeding in a cafe or at work as unacceptable.
Just 29 per cent of the 1,000 males and females surveyed strongly agreed that women should be encouraged to breastfeed publicly, yet 65 per cent of people believed breastfed babies had a better chance of surviving their first 12 months, Dr James said. Read full article here
I have to say, I’m not surprised. In Australia almost all new mothers initiate breastfeeding (some surely because hospitals encourage it but most because they know it is best for their baby – that message is getting through.) The vast majority who start, though, don’t keep it up. I felt like a failure when Little Bean weaned at 11 months but the fact is that we kept at it longer than around 90 percent of my peers, even though health recommendations are to maintain breastfeeding for no less than 12 months. The reasons for this lack of ‘extended’ (read: physiologically normal) breastfeeding are many but certainly one major one is public perception.
If women feel they must breastfeed only in private, it gets very restrictive pretty damn quick. When a baby wants to feed every couple of hours, there really isn’t much you can do but stay home if feeding around other people is not an option.
And no wonder so many mothers have fears about how they will be perceived – it’s not all just modesty or body image concerns that stop us from exposing our breasts to feed. There is a very real threat of open hostility from strangers, cafe owners, employers, even friends and family members. And this just multiplies as the baby grows older. Many formerly open breastfeeders become closeted as their baby becomes a toddler.
None of this is news.
But what strikes me as most depressing about this particular research is the disconnect between what people know about the benefits of breastmilk – and therefore what they expect mothers to provide – and what they are willing to accept in order for babies to receive that benefit. To say that breastmilk is best for babies and that breastfeeding has other benefits (such as bonding) but to claim that a mother feeding her baby in front of you is ‘unacceptable’ is, frankly, ridiculous.
These attitudes judge and condemn mothers who do not or cannot breastfeed (many of whom probably make the decision not to because their employer/family/the public will not support them to feed when and where they need to.) Yet at the same time, mothers virtuous enough to breastfeed their children are expected to stay in the domestic realm, to restrict their social and work activities, to attend to the needs of their baby but only in such a way as it doesn’t intrude upon anyone else’s delicate sensibilities. Because mothers, you know, are all about catering for the needs of everyone but themselves.
Breastfeeding in a cafe, or a church, shouldn’t be a political act. But it damn well is. Because it brings maternity into open space, it blurs the boundaries between domestic and public, it asserts the physiological function of breasts beyond their sexual role, it normalises the physical connection between parent and child as one which leaves no place for modesty or sterility.
And all this in a country where we have the legal right to breastfeed in public.