It’s all good, so long as you don’t wave it in their faces

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.

12 Comments

Filed under Breastfeeding, Lactivism and Doula-ing, Feminism

12 responses to “It’s all good, so long as you don’t wave it in their faces

  1. If anyone knows why WP has given me that weird skinny column and how to fix it, please tell me :-)

  2. Erm… don’t know about the page formatting. Did you copy n paste from Word or something? I find if i do that from Notepad with word wrap set (under the Format menu), it pastes as line breaks, so taking word wrap off prevents that. But i’d have thought you’d see it on your edit page before ‘going live’.

    As for the content of the post – sadly, no surprise. I’ve always felt like asking a café owner to tell some one, ‘A customer wants me to ask you to move, because your bottle-feeding offends her.’ Of course i would NEVER do that to a mum who, as all mothers do, is doing her best for her baby according to her (a) situation (b) temperament (c) knowledge.

    And i’ve always said bfg needs to be taught (with things like how the stock market works and how to manage savings accounts, and nappies, and the rules of the road) in primary school – i mean well before the teen years. As well as children needing to grow up with a range of age groups rather than being lumped together by the year they were born – which would include the breastfed age group.

    :0(

    And even more :0( those stats are no surprise.

  3. “And i’ve always said bfg needs to be taught (with things like how the stock market works and how to manage savings accounts, and nappies, and the rules of the road) in primary school ”

    Well, now that it is no longer the norm in children’s homes (and not having so many siblings means less exposure anyway) there is definitely merit in that.

    I find it interesting that this survey shows the worst attitudes to be in the 18-34 age group. I wonder if that is because the majority of these people may not be parents yet? I didn’t think a lot about breastfeeding until I was planning to do it and I suppose if you don’t know anything about it you might be more inclined to be judgemental, especially if the needs of babies just don’t figure on your radar. It kind of puts to rest the stereotype of the interfering old woman though… we like to think the ‘prudes’ are all in the older generations, before the benefits of breast milk were widely known, but that’s clearly too simplistic!

  4. ‘if you don’t know anything about it you might be more inclined to be judgemental’ – that’s why the best line is to ‘educate the public’, ie get the word out there and make it NORMAL (soaps on tv, images on kids’ tv, etc; i want to write a novel with longterm breastfeeders not even commenting on it), rather than reproaching individuals. As parents we can all remember muttering, ‘I’ll never let my own kids do that…’! and this is the same kind of thing.

    I feel so sorry for mothers who forced themselves to stop bfg, against their own wishes and instincts, because of wrong advice given by professionals, people in authority, or just ‘older n wiser’ mothers.

  5. *oops* Forgot to turn off the italics after the word ‘judgemental’!

  6. Pingback: A kind of woman « Penna mulierculae

  7. imanewmommy

    I am sad to say that this negative view of breastfeeding doesn’t surprise me, either. Sigh. :-( I have been working so hard to breastfeed my little one, because I want what I feel is the healthiest for him. It isn’t easy, but I feel that it is important. The different reactions between age groups strikes a chord. I agree that people in the 18-34 age group (or younger) don’t understand if they don’t have children of their own. But in the younger ages it doesn’t seem to matter if they have kids or not. I just watched a show on MTV about teen mothers. At one point they were discussing why they decided not to breastfeed. Their reasons angered me; “it’s hard,” “my boobs got full and leaked,” “it made me tired,” etc… What part of being a parent isn’t hard and tiring? It is one thing to make a good attempt and not be able to do it, but not one of these young women tried to breastfeed for more than a few days AND they didn’t seem to care. It really opened my eyes that our youth need to be educated about the benefits of breastfeeding.

  8. Thanks for stopping by imanewmommy. I wonder if being a teen mother is sometimes so hard that anything that is perceived to make it harder is just too much? I wish there wasn’t that perception problem because in a lot of ways, once breastfeeding is established and the early hurdles are over, it makes motherhood easier – certainly less time consuming and more convenient. A lot of mothers need extra feeding support and my hunch is that many teen mums would fit into that category at a time when accessing support services is not easy for them.

  9. ‘once breastfeeding is established and the early hurdles are over’ – that’s what people need to be told, that their early experience of bfg is not what it’s like. A friend told me sadly, ‘It takes six weeks to establish breastfeeding, and if i’d heard that i wouldn’t have given up at three weeks.’ And she was one of the most dedicated and loving mothers… cuddly too. ;0) So many babies lose out for this reason. :0(

  10. imanewmommy

    I had not heard the “six weeks to establish breastfeeding” advice. That is an excellent point! I will be sure to pass that on as my friends and family join me in motherhood. :-)

  11. Oh yeah, the first six weeks are the hardest. For us it still hurt until about 9 weeks and then suddenly, clicked. It was so worth it.

  12. People have such varied experiences; i had one son ‘born knowing how’ and with one it never really became easy. Can’t remember where the six-week rule of thumb came from (antenatal class? midwife or health visitor? or someone who actually knew the stats?) but it seems close to a realistic average, imo.

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