Research suggests that the benefits of breastfeeding are numerous, and benefit the child well into adult hood. Breast fed babies’ are reportedly protected from ear infections, often prove to have strong immunity to infection, and are less likely to be affected by infant sudden death syndrome. In 2015, Sarah Bosley, Health Editor from the Guardian reported that Brazilian researchers had recently conducted a study which concluded that there is a correlation between breast feeding and IQ.
Brazilian researcher’s followed 6000 babies from birth, for three decades. Thirty years later, approximately 3500 of the 6000 babies accepted to be interviewed by the original researchers, and agreed to sit an IQ test to support the original study. The children whom had been lucky enough to have a mother fortunate enough to breastfeed (not everybody is able to) proved to have high intelligence, had spent longer at school, and were earning higher incomes than those not breastfed.
Of course, this evidence could be disputed or debated. However, the above evidence is why a lot of mothers, ones like myself decide to feed their babies’ for as long as possible.
Chair of the Royal College of Peadiatrics and Child’s Health and Nutrition Committee, Dr Collin Michie, reiterated that everybody must ensure that mothers’ are properly supported to continue to breastfeed for long as they are able to.
There simply is not enough support from the general public to make breastfeeding a comfortable, stigma free, humiliation free experience. From what I have observed, there are those people and organisations that welcome breastfeeding mothers’ with open arms, and will even go so far as to place in their shop windows, the familiar sign, ‘Breastfeeding mothers welcome here.’ Than there are those people and organisations who behave in a very unwelcoming manner towards breastfeeding women. Unfortunately stigma is still very much attached to breastfeeding – even in 2017.
The baby’s view on breastfeeding
For my children, my breasts have meant more to them than milk, breakfast, lunch or dinner. Instead, the breast itself has officially represented to my children a place of comfort, of nurture, and complete peace and solidarity. My attachment to my children has grown and developed while breastfeeding. My children have fallen asleep while feeding, snuggling deeply into my skin. They have stopped crying with such immediacy, and relinquished all of their fears while breast feeding; and when all else has failed, my children have crawled onto my tummy and lay down for a feed.
Breastfeeding was a time in my life where I felt so much comfort while nursing my children. It was our special time. A time when their distress would suddenly just stop, and comfort, and relief would instantaneously result.
In the mind of a newborn baby, milk will save the day; and a good feed will conquer all. However, the stigma attached to breastfeeding often prevents a newborn baby from comfortably accessing their primary source of food, when in public spaces.
Breastfeeding is often considered by the more rigid, or conservative human beings in society, (women included) as an act which should be hidden, covered up by a shawl, done behind closed doors, in another room, or out of public viewing, so as not to make others feel uncomfortable.
In the eyes of many, breastfeeding is a form of nudity, or indecent exposure, rather than a human right, and an absolute necessity for a newborn baby. Many people simply do not understand the difficulties which can arise for women, and their babies if a woman feels uncomfortable about feeding in public. If a baby wants food, they want it now, and they will not stop crying until their tummy is full.
This is exactly why it is so disheartening when individuals not in favour of breastfeeding consider their needs above those of the baby or the mother – who is under a considerable amount of pressure from her baby to provide regular feeds, regardless of whether or not she is at the supermarket, in a cafe, or at home. The people who make the mother’s breastfeeding experience difficult do not have the empathy enough to put themselves in the shoes of a breastfeeding mother, or her baby. These people knowingly increase the stigma already attached to breastfeeding.
A mother who attaches her baby in public, and refuses to take adequate steps to cover her breasts while feeding is often seen as a female without boundaries, a problem, and a rude woman because she refuses to cover up.
Oh the stigma
When I first began to breast feed I somehow felt that it was expected of me to cover up while breast feeding my children. I took a shawl wherever I went; and if I accidentally forgot the shawl I would feel terribly uncomfortable breastfeeding my children in public. I knew that there would almost always be somebody in my surroundings who didn’t particularly like me breastfeeding.
I’ll never forget the day I went to the nursing home to visit my grandma. I was sitting down in the dining room having a chat to her, when my son started to cry, and to reach out for my top. I immediately attached him to my breast, only to have an elderly man go out of his way to have a perve, and to say something highly inappropriate.
Dementia meant that my grandma had lost control of her tongue long ago. She sang out across the room, ‘you dirty old pervert.’ Than she told me to go out into the corridor and breast feed in private. She was the authority – so I laughed it off, was grateful that she had stuck up for me, and I did as she requested.
However, when I think back to that day, I still wonder why the nurses didn’t intervene, and try to make me feel comfortable and supported in this instance. Instead, because of the lack of support from nursing staff, whom of course were well aware of the comment, my grandmother decided that it was better that I leave, to save me from further embarrassment.
The second incident wasn’t as light hearted.
In April of 2011 my son and I became a victim of breastfeeding stigma
It was April of 2011. My dad had suddenly become ill, was placed in an induced coma, and was rushed off to a suburban hospital to the intensive care unit. I thought she was going to die.
The Intensive Care Unit was quiet, and all walks of life walked in and out of the unit daily. My daughter often became quite irritable while in ICU, and desperately wanted to feed. He would pull at my top, and nestle in and suckle. From time to time I would simply forget to bring a shawl, or some form of cover to the hospital – not that I should have needed one anyway.
I had unwanted attention, and I was desperately trying to cover myself up by pulling my top up even higher over my breasts as my son suckled away. I could feel the disapproval from those around me. However, I honestly thought my feelings of discomfort were all in my head. So I shrugged these feelings off, believed in the hospital system to nurture the rights of breastfeeding women, put it out of my mind, walked out of the hospital with my head held high, and travelled home.
On the next visit to the hospital I was publicly humiliated for breastfeeding in a public hospital by a nurse, who had purposefully kept a baby wrap underneath the counter for me, for when I came in next to visit my friend.
Half an hour into my visit I pulled down my top, attached my son for a feed, and tried to cover my self up as best as I could. Almost immediately a nurse walked over to me with a baby wrap in hand, and told me I had been complained about for breastfeeding in the Intensive Care Unit.
The nurse handed me a white baby wrap, and told me that I needed to cover up while I fed my child. At this point I felt publicly humiliated. I immediately stood up, and was about to complain about this disgusting action, and act of public humiliation which had just taken place, when my dad, who still couldn’t speak at the time, shook his head, and signalled for me to let it go. I sat back back down completely stunned.
I remember thinking to myself, ‘but I don’t want to let it go! I shouldn’t have to let it go. Why do I have to let this go?’
Should we say something? Or should women just give up, and accept the unacceptable?
A lot of women like myself can feel pushed into accepting the stigma attached to breastfeeding, even by well meaning family members who just want to keep the peace. I applaud the women who let their breasts show, and feed their baby their mid day meal without a second thought. I only wish I could have been that brave. In both of the above incidences the people around me, who just so happened to be my family, had also accepted the stigma attached to breastfeeding, and preferred that I breastfeed either outside, or covered up – just to avoid the confrontation.
If we as women keep letting it go when other people feel uncomfortable by what has always been a natural act, than breastfeeding will always be seen as that one natural act with stigma attached to it. When in fact, the only honest way to address the stigma attached to breastfeeding is to question the rigid values and perceptions surrounding breastfeeding.
I look back on that day in the hospital often, and I still wish that I had’ve rejected that baby wrap. I look back on that day and I wish I had’ve asked that nurse for a complaint form. I look back on that day, and I so desperately wish that I had’ve told that nurse that she was in fact responsible for standing up for myself, and my son – his right to feed in public, and my right to attach her in public, without being looked down upon, or approached.
When instances such as this one occur, the breast feeding woman often can’t help but feel that she must have done something wrong – when in fact, it is society’s rigid values that are wrong, incorrect, and way outdated. It amazes me how rigid some people still are, even in 2017.
This post has been written to support a project organised by honest.com designed with the aim of reducing stigma around breastfeeding, and feeding choices.