When it comes to encouraging breast-feeding, advocates usually focus on moms and clinicians — moms for obvious reasons, doctors and nurses because they can provide medical support as women get comfortable with a bodily function that may be natural but doesn’t always come naturally.
August is National Breastfeeding Month, and the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee is choosing to shift the focus, training the spotlight on society in general and the role everyone can play in helping mothers meet their breast-feeding goals. Playing off the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding issued last year, the committee’s new campaign is called “Everyone Can Help Make Breastfeeding Easier”: 20 Actions in 20 Days.
Don’t expect any breast-versus-bottle battles here nor any stabs at inducing guilt in new moms. According to the committee’s executive summary:
The decision to breast-feed is a personal one, and a mother should not be made to feel guilty if she cannot or chooses not to breast-feed. The success rate among mothers who want to breast-feed can be greatly improved through active support from their families, friends, communities, clinicians, health care leaders, employers and policymakers. Given the importance of breast-feeding for the health and well-being of mothers and children, it is critical that we take action across the country to support breast-feeding.
The approach is a delicate exercise in nuance. Although most women are feeding their babies formula by six months, the message about the importance of breast-feeding has penetrated the culture — and it’s rubbing some moms the wrong way.
At Mommyish, Lindsay Cross wrote about how she “felt so guilty at the thought of not breast-feeding” that she says she would have even experimented with prescription drugs to try to increase her milk supply:
Now, we’re seeing a backlash against the extreme pressure that mothers are under. Women are ignoring all that “breast is best,” advice. I think that’s partly because it doesn’t seem like advice anymore, it feels like a commandment.
…I know that I would’ve eagerly signed up for any drug that would’ve made breast-feeding easier. I would’ve ignored the possible risks, like depression, and considered it worth the chance. I think that very fact just goes to show how full of guilt mothers are when it comes to breast-feeding.
But Dr. Kathleen Marinelli, chair-elect of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, thinks the conversation about guilt is misguided. “We talk about guilt-tripping, but I don’t honestly think we make mothers feel guilty,” she says. “I honestly think it’s grief and it comes out as guilt. When you really talk to these women, they have grief that they didn’t understand enough to give it a try or they tried and weren’t supported. Women get very emotional about it.”
The campaign, to be waged largely on Twitter and Facebook, will highlight one of the Surgeon General’s “concrete action steps” each of the 20 weekdays from Aug. 6 to Aug. 31. The tweets are expected to be retweeted by the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reported last year that three-quarters of new moms start out breast-feeding, even if they don’t make it to the recommended six-month mark. “For the 75% of moms who initiate breast-feeding, they should be supported to carry out that decision,” says Marinelli.
Friends can encourage, for example, and strangers can learn not to gawk when a mom feeds a hungry baby in public. Employers can provide ample break time and a clean, private place to pump breast milk. Hospitals can take a stand against formula marketing, following Massachusetts’ lead and banning gifts of free formula or going as far as New York City and locking it up. They can also hire an adequate number of board-certified lactation consultants to help moms get on track right after giving birth. And what about dear old dad? He should also play a part in underpinning a mom’s decision since — according to a tweet from the committee — “most breast-feeding moms say the support that matters most comes from fathers and grandmothers.”
“We are reaching out to dads because so many fathers feel left out or don’t know how to engage,” says Marinelli.
Word about the importance of breast-feeding for the health of babies and moms appears to be making a dent. Last week, the CDC released its annual Breastfeeding Report Card. The data, from 2009, reflect the largest annual increase in breast-feeding initiation rates in a decade — from 74.6% in 2008 to 76.9% in 2009.
The small percentage of women feeding their babies only breast milk at six months — in accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to breast-feed exclusively until “about six months” — also rose from 13% to 16%.
“Our aim is to change the conversation and take the blame away from moms,” says Marinelli. “So many moms feel endlessly guilty about not being able to breast-feed and they shouldn’t. Everyone plays a role.”