Breastfeeding is a perfectly natural, healthy human function, some might even call it beautiful.
Mothers have been breastfeeding their offspring since the dawn of humankind, but modern societal pressures place undue burden on breastfeeding mothers.
The majority of new mothers want to breastfeed. Seventy-five percent of U.S. mothers start out breastfeeding, but after six months, rates fall to 43 percent, with only 13 percent of babies being exclusively breastfed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
OBSTACLES TO BREASTFEEDING
The process of breastfeeding is hampered by many things, not the least of which is social stigma. Despite the fact that most mothers manage to nurse with dignity and little fanfare, many feel the need to slink away to public restrooms in order to avoid negative reaction or downright confrontation.
Learning to breastfeed can be mysterious and confusing without guidance by experienced female relatives or family support. For the most part, the workplace has not been breastfeeding/pump-friendly, discouraging mothers from continuing after maternity leave.
Society's message is that breastfeeding is nothing more than another bathroom function, one best shrouded secrecy.
BENEFITS TO BREASTFEEDING
According to Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, breastfeeding protects babies from infections and illnesses that include diarrhea, ear infections, and pneumonia. Breastfed babies are also less likely to develop asthma, and those who are breastfed for six months are less likely to become obese.
Mothers who breastfeed have a decreased risk type 2 diabetes and certain breast and ovarian cancers.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics said the nation would save about $13 billion per year in health care and related costs if 90 percent of U.S. babies were exclusively breastfed for six months. One year of formula and feeding supplies can cost more than $1,500 per family.
Dr. Benjamin also believes employers can save money by accommodating nursing mothers, thereby reducing their company's health care costs, absenteeism, and employee turnover.
THE SURGEON GENERAL'S CALL TO SUPPORT BREASTFEEDING
Earlier this year, the Surgeon General issued a "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding," asking communities, health care professionals, employers, and families to support mothers who breastfeed.
"Many barriers exist for mothers who want to breastfeed," Dr. Benjamin said. "They shouldn't have to go it alone. Whether you're a clinician, a family member, a friend, or an employer, you can play an important part in helping mothers who want to breastfeed... I believe that we, as a nation, are beginning to see a shift in how we think and talk about breastfeeding, With this ‘Call to Action,' I am urging everyone to help make breastfeeding easier."
BREASTFEEDING AND THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide break time and a place - other than a bathroom - for employees to express breast milk until the infant reaches their first birthday. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, as are businesses that would suffer undue hardship.
MICHELLE OBAMA ENTERS THE FRAY
"One thing we can think about is working to make sure that our kids get a healthy start from the beginning, by promoting breastfeeding in our communities. One thing we do know is that babies that are breastfed are less likely to be obese as children."
When First Lady Michelle Obama casually encouraged breastfeeding as part of her anti-obesity campaign, who would have guessed it would cause a firestorm of criticism from political opponents?
Merely encouraging breastfeeding is not the same as telling Americans what to do. American mothers can certainly use more information and encouragement in the breastfeeding department.
Her remarks are being used to drive a wedge between stay-at-home mothers and those who work outside the home. All this because new IRS tax rules would allow mothers to use pre-tax dollars to pay for a breast pump, interpreted by some as a slight to at-home mothers.
CBS's Money Watch makes the case for the write-off: "Why were vasectomies and weight-loss programs considered allowable medical expenses, but not equipment to support breastfeeding?"
Breasts used as objects of sexual desire are abundant in advertising and mass media, so the problem is certainly not with the female breast. It's using the breast to feed an infant that has our collective shorts in a knot.
If we truly are the nation of family values we claim to be, supporting mothers in their efforts to breastfeed their babies should be a given. Rather than scold nursing mothers, let's embrace and support their efforts. Let's make breastfeeding a normal part of everyday life.
Mothers who choose to breastfeed, or not... those who would prefer to breastfeed, but cannot... mothers who work outside the home, those who do not... the reasons for our situations are as varied as we are. All should be respected and valued.
We are being nothing short of hypocritical when we acknowledge the health benefits of breastfeeding while simultaneously creating a hostile environment in which to do so.
Until we manage to create a climate where breastfeeding can come out of the shadows, that 'family values' thing is nothing more than catchy political rhetoric.
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Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer covering a wide range of issues, most notably multiple sclerosis patient advocacy, health care policy, and healthy living.