Elle, her grandma and I spent the weekend in Denver, where we did the typical Tellurider-in-a-city things: We went to the mall and we visited the zoo. My new noticing newborns habit couldn’t have been better fulfilled than at the mall on a blustery Saturday, or at the zoo on a sparkling warm Sunday. There are, as it turns out, a lot of new moms going to the mall and visiting the zoo in Denver on a May weekend.
My newborn-noticing is a preparatory response, I’m sure: I notice how small they are. How much stuff they require. That they stay in one place, and sleep a lot. I notice how different they are compared to what they’ll be like just two years later.
What I also observed in my weekend of baby watching was that I never once saw a baby breastfeeding. Any baby-feeding I saw going on was from a bottle.
Perhaps it was just an anomaly that in the most infant-riddled places in all of Denver there would be no women breastfeeding in public. They probably were tucked into hidden corners, where no creepy nine-months-pregnant ladies like me could “notice” them.
Yet the complete absence of any out-in-public nursing moms struck me as strange. Is there some kind of unspoken rule about not settling onto a bench overlooking Bird World, or into a cushioned chair near the mall waterfall, to nurse? Meanwhile, there were plenty of newborns happily sucking from bottles in places like these.
Breastfeeding has in recent decades been heartily defended, thanks to organizations like La Leche League. The reason is simple: There is no better food for a baby than its mother’s milk. Babies are born with underdeveloped immune systems, and the bulk of immune-boosting antibodies they lack come directly from mother’s milk. Breastfeeding has been shown to protect against common childhood illnesses like ear infections, respiratory ailments, allergies, intestinal disorders, and even colds and flu viruses.
Studies have also shown that breastfed babies tend to have fewer health problems later in life, and are at lower risk for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.) Not to mention that breast milk is free and virtually always available.
The benefits of breastfeeding over formula-feeding are no secret. And yet it seems, being as well-armed with this information as I believe the national mothering community to be, there should be more evidence of breastfeeding taking place in malls and zoos and other public places.
My purely empirical observations on the breastfeeding matter has led me to believe that many moms either didn’t breastfeed, or only breastfed for a short period, because they were convinced they couldn’t – not because they didn’t want to.
One friend was told by her hospital’s lactation specialist that her baby’s mouth wasn’t big enough for her nipple, so he wasn’t getting a proper latch – and that’s why he was so fussy at night. Another was told by her doctor that her baby, born full-term but two-and-a-half-weeks before his due date, probably didn’t have the sucking instinct down yet and would likely need to be fed by bottle until he did. Yet another was convinced that she simply wasn’t producing enough milk, making for a cranky and hungry newborn.
All of these mothers ultimately gave up on the continuous pumping, consuming expensive milk-boosting supplements and frustrating feeding sessions recommended to them as a means to get their babies to breastfeed. And I see why. Why, when you’re already battling the stresses of having a newborn in your life, would a new mom subject herself to something as seemingly hassling and difficult as breastfeeding?
I breastfed Elle for one year, and despite having a cesarean (one of the leading causes of early breastfeeding difficulties) never had a problem with breastfeeding. Perhaps I was just lucky that I had a kid who so soon after birth was raring for lunch.
But maybe there were other, more ambiguous matters at play that ultimately made it easier for me to breastfeed than it has been for many of my friends.
When Elle was born I was living in France. European culture, by and large, views ordinary body parts like breasts and natural instincts like sex in a more open and accepting light than we do here in America. By this I mean that the French aren’t shocked to catch a glimpse of a nipple while watching a shower gel commercial on television. Or while a mother is nursing her baby. In fact, sex is far less awkward a subject in France than it is here in America, where graphic violence tends to be a more acceptable focus of prime-time television than fooling around.
I believe our sex-scared (yet equally sex-obsessed) culture has over-sexed the breast, transforming it from a body part designed to feed a baby to a symbol of sexual intimacy. And our weird relationship with sex, seen as a mostly taboo activity and not a natural instinct, has made us uncomfortable about things related to sex – like breasts.
Thus our culture seems to have greater control over whether a woman breastfeeds than the medical establishment and its recommendations. We’ve been led to believe that breastfeeding isn’t necessarily a natural, physiological process perfectly designed to feed a baby; that there are all kinds of problems a mom could run into when attempting this endeavor; and that formula-feeding is, generally, a more convenient and socially acceptable (although less beneficial) means of feeding an infant. Especially when at the mall or the zoo, where someone might (heaven forbid) catch a glimpse of your nipple.
I am not suggesting that real, physical impediments to breastfeeding don’t exist. They do. But I believe more American women aren’t breastfeeding simply because they have not received enough support, from their doctors – or their communities – to feel comfortable with fulfilling what is ultimately one of all mammalian species’ most heartily ingrained instincts: To seek out and be nourished by a mother’s milk.