This article is by guest writer and regular commenter, Amy McCabe. Amy alerted us recently to the radio show in which the radio “personality” announced that he would murder his wife and dispose of her body by putting it in a suitcase in the basement if she was still breastfeeding a child when it was three years old. She is passionate about the topic of breastfeeding for reasons she explains within the article.
The recent Times cover and related articles seemed to spark a debate that puts breastfeeding in direct opposition to feminism. As a feminist and nursing mother (of a 20 month old!) this baffles me, particularly since I see many ways in which breastfeeding helps mothers, as well as a number of ways feminism can help breastfeeding moms.
The two main reasons I’d argue breastfeeding is good for mothers are:
- It is so much cheaper than formula, which can easily cost in the thousands of dollars for some families.
- Breastfeeding has been proven to improve the immunity of the nursed infant, which not only means healthier children (the most important part) but also cost saving for mothers in terms of medical expenses that you just don’t have.
- Breastfeeding *can* be a form of birth control. For some women (not all) breastfeeding stops menstruation and thus prevents fertility. It can be used as a form of birth control and, in some societies (and relationships) where women are barred access to birth control, it is the only form of birth control women have access to. It is also relied on by some women that respond poorly to other forms of birth control. (It is important to note that while this works very well for some women, it doesn’t work at all for others. It seems to depend on individual women’s bodies.)
The three above are the most proved benefits to breastfeeding. Some research has also suggested that breastfeeding decreases a women’s risk of cancer, increases infant IQ and emotional intelligence but, in all fairness, more studies need to be done (particularly to rule out other possible causes, since women who breastfeed tend to be richer and have higher IQs).
On a personal note, I’ve also found breastfeeding to be easier than formula feeding. I can have my son nursed and back in bed long before I would have been able to heat the water and put together a bottle. It means I didn’t need to worry about packing bottles, finding a place to warm a bottle or any of those concerns when I went out with him as a small baby. Despite the idea that nursing makes you “chained to your child/home” I found it made it easier to go out of my house with him and I didn’t come across any hardships going out without him. I nurse for many reasons, but the biggest factor is how much easier it makes my life as a mom with a career.
Many of the common goals of feminism help nursing mothers. They are:
- Paid maternity leave. In the US many mothers return to the US before their Federally protected 12 weeks because they simply can’t afford to not return to the workforce. Close contact with your infant is needed in those early months to establish a milk supply. Mothers who return to work at 6 weeks post-postpartum are much more likely to lose their milk supply and thus their ability to nurse their child.
- Improved protection for pumping at the workplace. One of the reasons I’m still nursing is because I was able to pump at work. New York State has some awesome laws and my workplace was supportive. Not all states protect women’s right to pump. Women need to pump not just for milk to feed their child when they’re with other caregivers, but also to keep up their milk supply. Also, nursing mothers who don’t express milk routinely become engorged, which is very uncomfortable, and risk infection. (At 12 months, I was able to phase out pumping at work because my son was on solids and able to drink cows milk at this time).
- Better protection for nursing in public. Again I’ve benefited greatly from New York state law, which not only has strong protections for breastfeeding mothers, but women are legally allowed to go topless (though they rarely do). By allowing women to nurse in public, you encourage women to both have the freedom to do what they wish while also being able to feed their child when needed. Asking mothers to use rest rooms to nurse is…well would you want to eat in a public bathroom?
- Counter the idea that breasts are only for sexual (male) pleasure. This argument leads to the perception that breastfeeding mothers are pedophiles and that breastfeeding is shameful, embarrassing and must be hidden.
- Finally, advocate better post-postpartum care for women, particularly (as far as breastfeeding is concerned) better trained lactation consultants, midwives, obs and pediatricians. Breastfeeding may be natural, but it doesn’t always come naturally. In many hospitals, lactation consultants are poorly trained or, worse, trained by formula company reps who have a financial interest in preventing women from breastfeeding. There are a variety of issues that can arise early on with familiar simple solutions, but without enough properly trained medical professions, these often problems go unaddressed forcing women to abandon breastfeeding.