Originally published on Huffington Post.
1-7 August marks World Breastfeeding Week, this year celebrated under the slogan of “Breastfeeding: A Winning Goal – For Life!” Those of us who are pregnant or have children have most likely heard the phrase “breast is best”, and many of us have come across information about the undeniable benefits of breast milk to a newborn’s health and development. According to the World Health Organization, if all children were breastfed within an hour of birth and given only breast milk for the first 6 months with continued breastfeeding up to the age of two, up to 800 000 child lives would be saved annually. Breast milk delivers infants with all the nutrients they need for healthy development, and it contains antibodies that protect babies from illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. In addition, breastfeeding is free – at least if you don’t count the opportunity-cost of time spent nursing.
Breast milk is without a doubt the mother of all superfoods, but despite all the evidence, according to the 2014 Breastfeeding Card, only 49% of infants born in 2011 in the United States were breastfed at 6 months and 27% at 12 months. In developing countries, less than 40% of children aged 0-6 months are exclusively breastfed and in my native country, Finland, shockingly only around 1% of mothers meet the recommendation of exclusively breastfeeding their baby for the first 6 months.
The reasons behind low breastfeeding rates are many. Especially in developing countries, mothers often lack access to information about the importance and benefits of breastfeeding and many misconceptions exist around infant feeding, (i.e. babies need water in addition to breast milk during first months of life). Poor women, both in developing and developed countries, rarely have the option of staying home after giving birth. Mothers often return to work soon after delivery, and babies are left in the care of relatives and family members, making breastfeeding simply not possible. Breast may be best – but it isn’t always a realistic and viable option for mothers, no matter how much they would like to nurse their babies and even when they are aware of the benefits of nursing.
For some mothers, breastfeeding just doesn’t come easily – and can be a painful, scary journey, ending in the feeling of failure and guilt. I am currently expecting my first baby, and have no firsthand experience of breastfeeding – but I’m already worried. What if the baby doesn’t latch, or there’s not enough milk and he isn’t gaining enough weight? What if it hurts too much? What if I fail with breastfeeding – the most natural thing in the world – and fail my baby? I know I am not alone with my worry – millions of mothers around the world want to breastfeed, but just can’t make it work. Stigma, shame and fear are also associated with breastfeeding, and while we happily erect billboards of half-naked women to sell everything from cars to alcohol, a woman exposing her breast to feed her child is still considered controversial and in some places unacceptable. Women’s bodies, when exposed for the purpose of celebrating birth or nursing, are censored – while over-sexualized images of half-naked women are considered normal and acceptable.
If we really want to enable women to succeed with breastfeeding, it is time to recognize that this cannot be a journey the mother has to embark on alone.
We have to create a supporting, enabling and judgment-free environment to give mothers the best possible starting point to successfully breastfeed their babies. This includes access to reliable information about the importance and benefits of breastfeeding, lactation support immediately after birth and throughout the first months of an infant’s life, and workplace policies and legislation that enable women to stay home for long enough to properly establish breastfeeding, and then continue it after they return to work. In developing countries, providing access to quality and affordable health care services throughout pregnancy and during the postpartum period is essential for ensuring that women are informed about the benefits of breastfeeding and have access to support after giving birth.
We also have to stop shaming and blaming mothers –pressuring mothers to nurse through guilt is never the right approach. This shouldn’t be a war between breast feeders and formula feeders, and the important thing to keep in mind is that nearly all mothers strive towards one shared goal: a healthy, happy child. That is a goal we can all agree upon, and do our best to strive towards. We should aim to ensure that no mother has to give up breastfeeding because they didn’t get enough support or information to make it work – and that all mothers feel they can talk about their challenges, fears and experiences without being shamed or shunned. There’s also no such thing as being pro-breastfeeding, but against women’s right to breastfeed in public. If you want to support nursing mothers, then you have to also support and promote their right to feed their children in public and not expect them to nurse in bathrooms or alleyways. How would you feel about having to sit on a toilet seat while eating your lunch?
The stigma and hypocrisy around this issue must end — and the responsibility of enabling mothers to succeed with nursing is not just on the shoulders of mothers. It’s time to recognize that when it comes to breastfeeding, it takes a village to make it work — and we, whether mothers, fathers, partners, co-workers, employers, law- and policymakers, friends or bystanders, are all a part of that village.