5 Reasons You Should Care About Breastfeeding Even If You’re Not a Nursing Parent

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

I’m someone who always thought that I didn’t want to have children.

Sure, I always said that I’d “never say never,” but when I thought about the future, I imagined my life being childless.

And as a result, I didn’t really pay attention to reproductive justice issues that didn’t directly affect my reproductive plans.

I’d skim pieces like, Blah blah blah, breastfeeding? Meh, not for me. Oh, access to birth control? Bookmark it!

This kind of selective caring only about issues that affect me is not only selfish, but it goes directly against the tenets of intersectional feminism.

As someone who practices intersectional feminism, I should care about (and fight for) all social justice issues – not just ones that directly affect my life.

This worldview – understanding the fight for reproductive justice in narrow terms that only helped me and those like me – also left me ill prepared for what I faced when my situation changed.

I got married and had an abrupt change-of-heart. Not six months after our wedding, I found myself wanting kids – and wanting them immediately.

I had no idea about many of the struggles I would face – because my idea and knowledge of reproductive justice had stopped with access to abortion and birth control.

But my biggest struggle, and the one I was the least prepared to deal with, was around breastfeeding.

I thought that breastfeeding would literally be a non-issue because it’s natural. How hard could it be? People have been doing it since the beginning of time!

Cut to me holding my two-day old infant and being told that we couldn’t leave the hospital because she’d lost too much weight.

Cut to me being hooked up to a hospital-grade breast pump as I cried because my baby wouldn’t latch on to my breast.

Cut to me having to supplement with formula – and feeling like I’d completely failed as a mother at the one thing I thought was supposed to come naturally (though I know now that it isn’t the end of the world!).

And, let’s be real, I know that I have a ton of privilege. I’m a white, cisgender woman, and I’m married to a man who can afford to support our household on his income (even if it’s tight). I’m educated and have access to information if I want to seek it out.

I’m someone who has all of these privileges and still received inadequate lactation support at the hospital where I delivered – and it almost ruined by ability to breastfeed my daughter.

In a patriarchal world where people – and especially women – are often told they have one purpose and are seen as vessels solely responsible for reproducing, it’s baffling that there’s so little support for people who do have children.

So here are five things I need you, awesome fellow intersectional feminist, to understand about breastfeeding so that when we say we’re fighting for reproductive justice, we really mean it (and we cover all the bases).

1. Breastfeeding Is a Reproductive Justice Issue

I know that this one seems obvious, but I want to double, triple, quadruple make sure that we’re on the same page here. Breastfeeding is a reproductive issue.

And let’s get one thing straight right now: People are entitled to do whatever they want with their bodies. Not everyone wants to breastfeed.

And not everyone can breastfeed, whether it’s because of their own physical abilities, because of a prolonged NICU stay for their baby, because they adopted, or because there’s no parent with the physical ability to nurse in the picture at all.

The decision to not breastfeed is a totally valid one, and each family has a right to make the decision that is best for them.

The problem is that people are not making these decisions in a vacuum.

When we fail to properly educate people about the benefits of breastfeeding, when we fail to provide adequate support and services to allow people to meet any breastfeeding goals they might have, we don’t allow them to make fully informed decisions about what they do with their body and for their child.

Supporting reproductive health doesn’t just mean providing services for people who want to avoid pregnancy, people who want to terminate pregnancy, or people who are experiencing pregnancy.

Though we see cuts to these services and access to them denied and these should be issues that continue to receive our attention and energy, we also need to think beyond pregnancy prevention when we talk about reproductive justice.

The services need to extend to families and the children they’re raising – and that means talking about breastfeeding.

2. We Need to Start with Mythbusting and Education

Hence this article.

Because setting the stage for supporting breastfeeding parents starts while they’re still pregnant.

And it continues with acknowledging that not all parents that breastfeed are women. Trans and gender non-conforming folks can and do breastfeed, and making services accessible and inclusive for them is crucial.

Currently, the United States ranks last in the industrialized world for breastfeeding support.

And while the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding, as well as nursing a child until at least the age of two, by twelve months of age, only 27% of moms were still nursing in the US.

There are many health benefits to breastfeeding.

It can provide antibodies that protect children from illness. Babies who receive breast milk have lower rates of asthma, ear infections, respiratory infections, diarrhea, and type 2 diabetes than formula-fed children.

Other research suggests that breast milk may reduce a child’s chance of developing type 1 diabetes, childhood leukemia, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and atopic dermatitis.

And breastfeeding doesn’t just have health benefits for babies – the breastfeeding parent gets long-term health benefits, too!

Research shows that breastfeeding may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and postpartum depression in the breastfeeding parent.

But many pediatricians and nurses use outdated information.

And the first twelve weeks or so of breastfeeding are incredibly hard. Many new parents are wholly unprepared for the reality of nursing a newborn, like I was.

And when formula companies are sending free samples to all new parents, either in the mail or at the hospital, it becomes easy to make the decision to switch. Because it is easier to give a baby a bottle than to have that baby latched to your breast for twelve hours a day.

If new parents are being given inaccurate and inadequate information by their providers, it’s next-to-impossible for them to make a fully informed decision when it comes to feeding their baby.

And if they’re not properly prepared for what to expect, it’s all-too-easy for them to think that they’re doing something wrong and give up before they’ve ever really started.

Essentially, parents are being set up to fail at breastfeeding right from the beginning.

3. We Need Lactation Support for Parents Who Want to Nurse – Especially Parents Who Are Marginalized

If lactation support in hospitals is bad, lactation support when a parent gets home with their child is dismal.

This is doubly true for people who can’t afford to hire lactation consultants (or who don’t even know that 1) such a thing exists or 2) their insurance might cover it!) – and those people are usually people of color and/or low-income people.

The CDC found that breastfeeding initiation and duration prevalences were significantly lower among Black infants compared with white and Latinx infants. And while the last few years have shown an increase in breastfeeding rates among Black women, who the cited study focused on, they still have the lowest rates among any ethnic group.

It’s no coincidence that infant mortality is highest for Black babies and rates of breastfeeding are lowest.

And the CDC also found that hospitals in predominantly Black neighborhoods do less to provide breastfeeding support than hospitals that serve majority white patients.

And all of this ties into who has the ability to take parental leave. There’s no paid parental leave in the United States, and many people can’t afford to take three months off work.

The CDC report – which covers only cis women – says “low-income women, among whom [Black] and [Latinx] women are over-represented, are more likely than their higher-income counterparts to return to work earlier” – and then goes on to name “returning to work sooner (where support for breastfeeding often is insufficient)” as a barrier preventing those who want to initiate and continue to breastfeed from being able to do so.

So like most issues, the scope of the problem is incomplete without an intersectional analysis.

While we’re failing all parents when it comes to helping them meet their breastfeeding goals, it’s the most marginalized communities that are affected the most negatively.

And that’s simply not okay.

4. Laws Aren’t Enough – The World-At-Large Needs to Be Supportive of Nursing Parents

Breasts are so sexualized by our society that it’s often seen as gross or obscene when they’re used for what they were intended for.

When breastfeeding is seen as something “dirty,” it ends up being done in private.

When we don’t regularly see nursing parents, it becomes hard for 1) people to know that there are parents nursing and 2) children to grow up seeing it as a natural way to feed babies.

And ironically, while I was preparing this article, a Facebook “friend” of mine reported one of my nursing photos as “nudity.” Aside from the fact that breastfeeding photos are allowed per Facebook’s community standards, it’s such a perfect example of how hostile the world can be towards seeing a nursing parent.

I’m someone who’s an outspoken advocate for breastfeeding and I still felt shame and rage (and a sense of betrayal) when my breastfeeding photo was reported.

I can only imagine how something like that might feel for someone who isn’t as confident.

While laws are in place in every state except Idaho to allow nursing in public (and Idahoan advocates are fighting for their own law!), people still often face harassment or discrimination for nursing in public establishments.

I personally know parents that are so terrified to nurse in public that they bring bottles of pumped milk with them when they go out with their child. The problem with this is that when they skip that feeding, the failure to express milk causes them to become engorged which can lead to infections.

Let me repeat that: some people are so afraid to nurse in public that they’re actually willing to risk infection and illness in order to avoid it.

And while places of employment are required to provide a private and sanitary place for parents to pump milk, people still often are denied pump breaks, a private room, or face harassment from coworkers.

I have a friend whose boss told her that if he gave her breaks to pump milk, it was only fair that he give male coworkers breaks to masturbate.

She could have mentioned sexual harassment and legality to her boss, sure. But she couldn’t afford to lose her job and was the only female staff member. Saying something would be risking creating a (more) hostile work environment for herself.

Many people, like my friend, don’t have the time, resources, or desire to pursue legal action. And, worse, some people who do pursue legal action lose their cases.

When the world is unfriendly to breastfeeding parents, it makes it harder for those parents to successfully nurse.

For a world that claims to value children’s lives, we sure have a funny way of showing it.

Until we see a shift in the way our culture views and treats breastfeeding, it’s going to be hard to create an environment that supports parents trying to do it.

5. Activism Around This Exists – And Advocates Are Hard at Work

There’s advocacy happening in many communities right now to bring attention to the extreme lack of support for nursing parents in the US.

Baby Cafe, a network of drop-in breastfeeding support groups, are popping up all over the country. The group at my local health center helped me save my nursing relationship with my daughter when we struggled in the early weeks.

Most of the work being done to close the breastfeeding gap among Black families is coming from within the community.

The Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association is doing incredible work, both in Detroit and nationally. Black Breastfeeding Week launched two years ago, and Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE) provides peer support groups and prep courses for the lactation consultant exam.

Even though, legally, parents are allowed to breastfeed anywhere they are, it can be intimidating and upsetting when an establishment asks them to cover up or leave.

Many people are taking it upon themselves to stage nurse-ins at businesses who discriminate against nursing parents!

People are using the #normalizebreastfeeding and #brelfie hashtags so they can share images of themselves nursing to help break the stigma and the taboo (though the faces on the hashtags are still overwhelmingly white (even though #normalizebreastfeeding was started by a Black woman)!

There’s also an amazing network of peer support groups online. People are seeking to fill the gaps in education and service by stepping up and educating each other.

But there’s still so much more to be done.

So, What Can You Do?

Just because you may not be a nursing parent doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to advocate for the rights of breastfeeding parents!

Educate people in your life about their rights when it comes to nursing. Post articles to Facebook and have conversation with your friends, even if they’re not pregnant yet (or even if they’re not planning to become pregnant).

Support establishments that have breastfeeding-friendly policies, and let them know that’s why you’re supporting their business! Target recently made headlines because of their awesome breastfeeding policy. Small businesses are also likely to be supportive of nursing parents, like Ula Cafe in Boston.

The goal here is to create a world that helps nursing parents meet their breastfeeding goals— a world that allows them to make fully informed decisions about how they feed their child and then provides the support and services needed to help them succeed.

So if you, like me, only pay attention to things that might affect you and your life, you might want to reconsider and not just because you might find yourself having kids one day.

It’s also because part of being a feminist (and a good person) is about caring about folks who are in different situations than you, but that are equally valid.

Because breastfeeding is a feminist issue – and we need more feminists to care about it.

Britni de la Cretaz is a feminist momma, community organizer, freelance writer, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. She’s a founding member of Safe Hub Collective. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.