To kick off World Breastfeeding Week this year, news outlets reminded the public of a recent victory in the pro-breastfeeding field. With Utah and Idaho striking down their former restrictions against it in the spring of this year, breastfeeding in public is now legal in all 50 states.
It is a victory, certainly. But the headlines caught my attention more for the seeming anachronism than their newsworthiness. Can it really be that until as recently as this year, women in certain states were treated as criminals for meeting their infant’s basic needs? The fact is mindblowing. Even with the recent progress touted by headlines, there is still a long way to go. While 48 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws on the books that explicitly establish a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, Pennsylvania’s legislation merely gives women “permission” rather than the right to do so. Idaho’s legislation does not even go that far, but merely exempts women from indecent exposure and obscenity laws, joining only 29 other states who have made a specific exemption for public breastfeeding from their indecency statutes.
Regardless of the myriad reasons why states have been so slow to protect our breastfeeding mothers in the public space, the fact remains that the act has carried with it a sense of shame for decades. Couple this with the failure to decriminalize public breastfeeding for so long; and the ongoing fight to provide for, protect, and expand the rights of breastfeeding mothers in the workplace; and we are left with an important task: to normalize breastfeeding in the public and private mentality. While not all mothers are able to breastfeed their children, they should never be prevented from doing so by public opinion.
Our imperative then, is to shift the cultural perspective surrounding this optimal nutrition source. The health benefits of breastfeeding are patent — every medical and research institute from the American Academy of Pediatrics to UNICEF offers support and encouragement for breastfeeding mothers. But while this support is helpful, like the call to action from the Surgeon General in 2011 to encourage breastfeeding mothers, it is not enough on its own. The transition in mentality from criminal to critical needs to happen across all social networks, and in our day-to-day interactions, not simply in the healthcare sphere. While this might seem like a daunting task, and there’s no doubt that there is a long way to go, there are some simple things we can all do now to normalize breastfeeding in the United States, especially in places where it is newly legal to do so in public.
Mothers: Ask for Help
I’ll be the first to admit it, breastfeeding can feel downright weird at first. Your breasts are doing all kinds of things they have never done before. Sometimes the baby has difficulty latching, or milk does not come in at once, and new mothers can often feel confused and discouraged if things do not go as expected the first few times, which brings us to rule #1 in breastfeeding: ask for help, early and often. Breastfeeding is 100% normal and 100% natural, but without being exposed to other women who breastfeed (and sometimes even if you have been), learning how to manage the complexities of milk production, latch, positioning, comfort, and other foreign things can be overwhelming. Seek the support of local lactation consultants, postpartum doulas, and in-home nursing specialists to help get you and your baby off to a solid start.
Friends & Relatives: Offer a Helping Hand
Even if you never breastfed your own babies, should your daughter, sister, neighbor or friend have the desire to breastfeed, you can support them by offering encouraging words and lending a helping hand. Help her get comfortable in her chair. Bring a pillow. Offer a snack. Tell her how amazed you are at how hard she is working to make this happen. Little acts of support can make all the difference in the world to a new mother who is working hard to manage the complexities of establishing a breastfeeding relationship with her newborn.
Neighbors: Talk About It
If you’re out and about and you have your own kids with you, don’t shy away from talking about what you’re witnessing when you see a mother breastfeeding in public. When your kids ask questions about what they’re seeing, answer them honestly using accurate language to describe the process. If we’re going to change the culture it may take a generation to do it, and it all starts with how we talk about it with our little ones.