Breastfeeding, Language and Privilege

August 14, 2008

A post at Well this week about a new breastfeeding study provides several lessons in language and privilege — and it also serves as a reminder of the importance of collective action.

The study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Human Lactation, found that while three-quarters of new mothers try breastfeeding, only 36 percent of babies are breastfed through six months. The recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to breastfeed exclusively for six months, with continued breastfeeding for one year or more. WHO recommends continuing for two years or more.

Despite those recommendations, the United States famously lags behind other countries in providing much-needed support for nursing mothers. Factors include the absence of breastfeeding training and support after hospital discharge; the high percentage of hospitals handing out free infant formula samples; the lack of paid maternity leave (only 51 percent of new mothers receive any paid maternity leave, and even among companies considered the best for working mothers [PDF], the statistics aren’t good); and the difficulties women encounter upon returning to work, including a lack of time and privacy to express milk in a safe, clean environment.

One of the first commenters on the Well post described her own experience:

I can tell you why breast feeding drops off before 6 months: Women have to work! As I type, I’m hooked up to a beast pump in my nice office with a locking door. It would not be possible for me to breastfeed if I didn’t have these small perks.

As a prosecutor, I’ve had to make some sacrifices to continue to breastfeed my daughter. For example, I can’t take any cases to trial because I can’t be away from my office for an entire day. Luckily, I have a supportive work environment.

I don’t know what one of my secretaries would do if she wanted to breastfeed. They are all stuck in cubicle land. […]

Which prompted this response a few comments later:

Perhaps the prosecutor – and other women with the privileges and perks she cites – ought to stand up for the secretaries and others who don’t have those perks. Rather than wondering what those in cubicle land would do, she might ask those women what they do, and what the workplace as a whole could do to support them. There must be some space that could be used periodically by any woman needing to pump, and advocating for that would be a nice way for the poster, or anyone else (male or female!) to support working mothers. […]

The commenter makes a great point, but really it’s the responsibility of all of us to advocate for these changes. Here’s another comment from a mother whose workplace seems to offer the ideal supportive environment that should be available to all women:

After returning to work when he was 3 months, I pumped three times a day in my work place’s “Mom’s rooms” which were a couple of small rooms in different buildings where we could plug in our pumps and store milk if needed in a fridge. Now 10 years later, we have more rooms and also company provided hospital grade pumps so Moms can just bring their own attachments instead of carting around the pump. I know being able to pump at work was a huge factor in me staying in the work force and not quitting to stay home. […]

This amenity is available to all workers at our location – both manufacturing technicians in our plants and office (we only have cubes) employees. I will say, it took a lot of work to pump, deal with the bottles, skip outside lunches etc but it was worth it to me and my family. Meeting other Moms who were also pumping was another factor in sticking with it, so now I try to give this info to any new Moms in my group. I try to be non-judgemental when I mention this, just letting them know what is out there and thats its possible.

A number of commenters also took issue with the headline of the post: “Most Moms Give Up on Breastfeeding.” I think this response best sums up the critique:

“Giving up” definitely implies failure by the person doing the giving up — and yes, how you express the fact of abbreviated nursing periods DOES matter, a great deal.

Blame for the failure should be shared by many overlapping systems (and, of course, in some cases, the particular families involved). But when the problem is expressed in terms that frame it as a matter of personal, individual responsibility, the solutions to the problem end up focusing on improving individual behavior.

Even though the evidence of the benefits of avoiding artificial feeding continues to accumulate, we fail SYSTEMICALLY to allow all women and children to enjoy these benefits. So yes, some families “give up”. But this article isn’t about a few individual women or families who choose badly, it’s about the many hurdles faced by breastfeeding women in this country.

If you’re looking for a place to get started, Moms Rising has a statement you can sign in support of the Breastfeeding Promotion Act, which was introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in 2007 and now seems stuck. These are the major provisions:

• amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect breastfeeding women from being fired or discriminated against in the workplace

• provides tax incentives for businesses that establish private, lactation areas in the workplace

• provides for a performance standard for breast pumps

• allows breastfeeding equipment to be tax deductible for families

Rachel has more details about the bill here (along with a smart quibble!). And check out more campaigns sponsored by Moms Rising concerning family leave, health care and fair pay.

Plus: For anyone interested in the history of campaigns to increase breastfeeding rates, I came across this interesting article in the American Journal of Public Health that describes infant feeding practices and public health campaigns in the early 20th and 21st centuries.

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