By now, most of us understand the numerous health benefits of breastfeeding. Regardless of your location, the scientific evidence and historical proof continue to reiterate, that breast milk is the best choice for both mother and baby. Incredibly, social restrictions, religious viewpoints, and cultural restraints continue to pose incredulous barriers against the most natural aspect of motherhood. A mother should never fall under the scrutiny of her peers or of the public, but she does. The choice is hers alone, yet so many people offer unsolicited advice and criticism, that mothers are often left feeling pressured and confused, and unable to decide for themselves. Outsiders are quick to judge, and often do not understand the personal, emotional, social, or religious factors that a mother may be facing when she makes her decision. The world has a long way to go before we conquer this battle, but change begins with just one act. Be the person who refuses to judge, and instead, be the one to offer support and encouragement to mothers everywhere, even if her choice differs from your own.
Below, we offer some of the most shocking and controversial examples of the barriers faced by today’s women of child bearing age. Some of the examples have been remedied and resolved, but not all. It is clear that the controversy remains at its peak, with little reprieve in sight.
17 Atlanta, Georgia, USA
In 2011, Atlanta issued a new law that banned public breastfeeding for children over the age of 2, citing public indecency. The public was outraged, and many displays of public “Milk –Ins” emerged throughout the state. Milk-Ins are staged public protests that exhibit large groups of women openly breastfeeding in public. These protests are often used to promote the rights of women, and are usually organized by lactation activists. Conflicting views continue to spur ongoing debates between the public and women’s rights activists. Many women feel that the choice for prolonged breastfeeding is between the mother and her child, while the people of the public feel that such displays are inappropriate and they should not be subject to viewing them.
The largest breastfeeding study to date was performed in the late 90s in Belarus. More than 17,000 women and babies were studied for 6 years. Participation in a breastfeeding intervention program provided breastfeeding support and encouragement to nursing mothers. Unfortunately, the studies found less health benefits for nursing, than were expected. In a nation that already viewed public breastfeeding as socially unacceptable, as a result of the study, women are less inclined to nurse their babies, now believing that the social scrutiny is not necessarily worth the minimized health benefits. Without the backup that was hoped for from the study, the public continues to balk at mothers who choose to nurse. The information from the study revealed that breastfeeding is not nearly as beneficial as was once believed.
Breastfeeding in Russia is often viewed as controversial, socially unacceptable, and even taboo. Despite laws that protect the right to nurse, as well as numerous organizations that attempt to spread support and awareness, women are hesitant to breastfeed. Unfortunately, the Russian police and the negative media attention don’t help matters. In 2013, authorities arrested the director of a pre-natal health center. The director, who was teaching seminars on breastfeeding and natural births, was accused of being a cult leader. The woman was charged with 2 counts of felony and faced up to 7 years in prison. The charges were related to creating an organization the encroached on the rights of citizens, and for the incitement of hate and hostility. The center only had 14 members, who were being encouraged to disobey the social norms, like rejecting the restraints set by their families and husbands, and refusing medical care against their desires. The story quickly caught world-wide media attention, and was even covered by TIME magazine. The director was eventually released pending trial. With such strong, negative attention, it is no surprise that many Russian women have social fears about breastfeeding.
The breastfeeding agenda in Tanzania isn’t one of controversy, but one that has resulted from lack of knowledge and false information received through tribal superstition and mythology. Many women in this region do not breastfeed because they are not aware of the health benefits, or because they believe traditional myths that are not true. The Gogo Tribe bans breastfeeding women from having sex with their husbands, during the time when she is nursing her child. This culture believes that the mother must remain pure and celibate to provide quality breast milk to her young. This creates a very real struggle for a woman to choose between her husband and her child, as the husband is not expected to remain celibate as well. The women feel that they must choose between keeping their husbands happy or their babies happy. Large efforts between the government, UNICEF, and other women’s health organizations are working to improve upon the availability of information and support on the topic.
Less than 18% of babies in Ukraine are exclusively breastfed, the problem is that health care professionals in Ukraine do not actively promote this natural part of motherhood. In this country, breastfeeding is a foreign concept and is viewed as socially unacceptable. Newborns are not put at the breast after birth, unless requested by the mother. When mothers ask for help with lactation consultation, they are urged to supplement with formula. Mothers have very little resources for education and support on nursing, and are often discouraged from proceeding when they can’t find the help they need. The number one reason that mothers do not breastfeed in Ukraine is lack of support from their physicians.
Talking about the cultures and customs of the world wouldn’t be complete without making a mention of the social media world. Facebook has taken on a life of its own in the past decade, and could probably be considered its own planet in some regards. This atmosphere is no more exempt from the scrutiny of the public, than any other realm. Even the creators at Facebook are guilty of posing intrusive and controversial bans about public photos of breastfeeding mothers. From as far back as 2008, mothers cried outrage when precious photos of them nursing their babies, were deleted by Facebook administration, claiming violation of community policies and indecent exposure. In 2012, the company’s policies were made public, and the mother of all social media, was put her in place. The company has since revised the policies, and claims to support the breastfeeding community. However, they seem to be lazy or lacking in their monitoring techniques, as complaints still continue to file in over unfairly removed photos. The administrators tread carefully though, often apologizing and sometimes re-instating the posts or photos that were removed. Typically the photos that come in to question are those that are reported as offensive by other users, when the areola or the nipple is exposed in a photograph of a nursing infant.
In this country, breastfeeding is a relatively new tradition, and many women do not have previous generations to look up to for support. Women that do practice breastfeeding, say that it is because they understand that the breast milk has more benefits than formula feeding. Canada, along with the USA, is one of the only industrialized nations that do not provide paid breastfeeding breaks at places of employment. Most women say they are forced to stop nursing due to work restrictions, or due to lack of understanding about sufficient milk supply. While 72% of the population does initiate breastfeeding, most women do not nurse beyond 3 months.
America is one of the only economically advanced countries in the world that does not require employers to pay a mother for her maternity leave, and does not give a mother paid time during their work shift to nurse or pump milk. There are still two US States that do not protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public; those states are West Virginia and Idaho. These states offer no laws to protect a woman’s right to nurse her child in public, meaning that a woman who choose to nurse in public in these states, can be arrested for public indecency or may be rightfully asked to leave an establishment for doing so against the premise owners wishes.
In 2003, Kirstie Marshall, an employee of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, was ejected from the Parliament for the breastfeeding her baby in the Chamber. It took almost 5 years, but finally the Parliament remedied the situation, by seeking accreditation from the Australian Breastfeeding Association. Two small breastfeeding rooms were made available in the building, on each side of the Parliament House to allow occupants to nurse or express milk. It has been illegal to discriminate against a breastfeeding mother in Australia since 1984. Australia continues to show lower than expected rates for breastfeeding, but the country is making strides. As many as 96% of Australian women are currently initiating breastfeeding, but few are sustaining this beyond a few months. Research is still being conducted to fully understand why women in Australia don’t continue to nurse after initiation. It is believed that lack of social support is a big factor, as well as the prominence of baby formula companies in the country.
8 Saudi Arabia
This culture forbids women to expose their breasts in public for religious reason, even for nursing. But, the Islam religion is very clear in its encouragement of women to breastfeed for 2 years. In recent years, the country has been showing a steady decline in breastfeeding rates, and it’s a bit confusing to understand how this strongly traditional population has come to turn away from nursing. Some say that big formula companies are largely to blame for the dramatic decline of breastfeeding in recent decades. Following the oil boom of the late ‘70s, big formula companies began marketing to this previously unexposed region. It is believed that the strong advertising campaigns of these companies, convinced women that the breast milk they produced was not sufficient for their babies, and that they should instead provide them with processed baby formula. Another viewpoint says that the change has come with the urbanization of the nation. As more women earn a college degree and work outside the home, they face significant social barriers as a nursing woman. Women are forbidden from nursing in public, are given short maternity leave, and have a lack of nursing facilities available to support them outside the home.
With no laws in place, that express either support or prohibition of public breastfeeding, business owners in Germany are at liberty to make their own choice about supporting nursing mothers. Recent times have shown a stronger lack of support, and the apparent decreasing public acceptance is leading to a dip in the number of breastfeeding mothers. This year, there have been several news catching incidences related to breastfeeding women being banned from public locations. German women are currently petitioning for changes to these laws, to protect every woman’s right to breastfeed in public.
Although there are no legal statutes for breastfeeding in India, public breastfeeding is not normal in higher economic sections of society. Most women here are not educated about the health benefits of nursing, and are encouraged to supplement with formula and baby food products. Middle and upper class women, often believe that breastfeeding is something reserved for the poor people. In Karnataka, India, cultural beliefs bans most infants from receiving breast milk within the first 48 hours. The people believe that the first milk or colostrums is “dirty, but after this initial waiting period, mothers are encouraged and often become passionate about exclusive breastfeeding. Still, only about 41% of women in India initiate breastfeeding to begin with.
the Irish have the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world! It is not normal or socially accepted for the vast majority of Irish residents to nurse their babies. When asked, most women say that the Catholic Church is to blame, but some also say that body shaming is a factor in this society. Others mention, that it simply isn’t a trendy thing to do, and that the prominent baby formula companies make it easy not to. Even for women who do breastfeed, doing so publicly is a big no-no. The social stigma associated with breastfeeding causes most women to feel isolated and uncomfortable. They say that if they don’t tuck themselves away in a corner, away from public view, those passing by will stare and create an awkward scene. Even though the Pope has recently spoken up about his support for breastfeeding, women remain hesitant, stating that the catholic community is prude and doesn’t view it as a publicly appropriate. Women say that breastfeeding is viewed as something reserved for the poor, and for the hippies.
The number for breastfeeding rates is shockingly low in France. Women here are taught that breasts are for husbands not babies. In addition, mothers are expected to jump right back into their normal roles after giving birth, rather than devote extra time at home to their babies. Many modern women are reluctant to nurse, likely due to the prevalent presence of women’s rights activists throughout the country. There is a significant feminist movement in progress throughout the entirety of France. As part of this movement, many women feel that to breastfeed would be go to against women’s liberation. To nurse an infant in France is to be seen as participating in an arbitrary act of motherhood. This society associates breastfeeding with a demeaning persona, of a woman who is a slave to her children, and who is being exploited for her breast milk.
Until recently, Kenya had shockingly low breastfeeding rates. Some of the reasons for low breastfeeding rates were due to poor education on the subject, and belief in cultural myths and misconceptions, as well as poor social and professional support. For example, some women are strongly advised not to nurse their infants after arguments, as their culture believes that the mother will pass “bad blood” to her infant if she does so. Some families also believe that if a woman’s husband has an affair, that she can no longer breastfeed their children without killing them. Women in this culture are also taught that if a woman is having sexual intercourse, she can no longer breastfeed, as the milk will become toxic. With so many fears that breast milk is a bad thing under the wrong circumstances, many women have previously avoided nursing completely. Fortunately, this country has made commendable progress in the past decade with implementing a strong breast feeding culture through education and social encouragement. The public has seen nearly a 50% increase in the number of mothers who exclusively breastfeed for 6 months.
Breastfeeding is viewed as socially unacceptable, and women are often told by their physicians that long term breastfeeding is only intended for the poor people in underdeveloped regions. The doctors and nurses push women to use milk-replacement formulas instead, believing that substitutes are better for infant development than a mother’s milk supply. But, some informed women know better, and claim that the doctors are not prescribing what is best for the baby, but what is best for the doctor’s pockets. Many pediatricians are known to promote the formulas for specific companies, who are likely supplying a kickback. Unfortunately, most women trust their doctors, and follow their advice. Sadly, this had a led to a continuing decline among breastfeeding women. Expert says that today, only 15% of Lebanese women are choosing to nurse their infants. Today, there are active petitions in the country to try to change the prevalence of the marketing for formulas. It is believed that if mothers have better information, less pressure from marketing campaigns, and more support for breastfeeding, that social attitudes may change.
1 World Breastfeeding Week
This week, from August 1-7, we are celebrating the 24th annual World Breastfeeding Week. This year, the focus is on how breastfeeding is a key element of wellbeing from the start of life, and how to respect each other and the world we share. This annual celebrations is being acknowledged in over 120 countries around the world, with more than 500 events being held worldwide. The week is organized by World Alliance for Breast Feeding Action, World Health Organization, and UNICEF, with the goal of promoting exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life, worldwide.