Family Matters

What the U.S. Can Learn from Indonesia About Breastfeeding

Denying new mothers the right to breastfeed can land you in jail in Indonesia.

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Lisa Spindler / Getty Images

Not too long ago, much clamor arose when supermodel Gisele Bundchen called for a “worldwide law” requiring that moms breastfeed their babies for six months.

“Some people here [in the U.S.] think they don’t have to breastfeed,” she told Harper’s Bazaar UK, as published in the Daily Mail, “and I think, ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.”

Bundchen, who credited breastfeeding with helping her speedily ditch the baby weight after her son was born, just as speedily backpedaled, claiming on her blog that her comments just reflected her “passion and beliefs about children.”

But her vision of legislation that mandates breastfeeding is indeed playing out — in Indonesia, where malnutrition is common and breastfeeding is not.

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Since 2009, Indonesia has had a law promoting exclusive breastfeeding, but it was recently strengthened. Anyone who stands in the way of a mother nursing her baby for the first six months of life — an employer, for example, or a relative — is subject to a year behind bars and $11,000 in fines. What’s more, the law bars formula manufacturers from advertising to mothers of babies who have yet to reach their first birthday.

According to PBS Newshour, Indonesia hopes that its legislation will slash mortality rates for children under 5:

The government does not intend to lock up mothers who don’t breastfeed according to Minarto, director of nutrition for the Indonesian Ministry of Health.

“This law is intended to provide support to them,” said Minarto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. “Women should be able to breastfeed in public areas — in an airport, an office. Owners should provide rooms for the mothers.”

In Indonesia…breastfeeding rates have been falling in recent years. Minarto says the government has set a goal of having 80 percent of babies exclusively breastfed by 2015.

It’s worth noting that breastfeeding is much more of a public-health concern in countries where there’s not easy access to clean water to mix formula. In the U.S., breastfeeding is more a question of lifestyle as opposed to life-and-death; such a law would be a long shot here, where infant feeding is — and should remain — a personal decision. What could be helpful stateside, however, is Indonesia’s emphasis on supporting a mother who decides she wants to breastfeed. “Mandating breastfeeding in the U.S. without adequate cultural and institutional support is like pouring hot sauce on a gaping wound,” emailed Danielle Rigg, co-founder of Best for Babes, a non-profit committed to eliminating barriers to breastfeeding — what they whimsically call “booby traps” — and making sure women aren’t harassed regardless of how they choose to feed their baby. “Instituting a national law like Indonesia’s that would provide breastfeeding moms protection from harassment, humiliation and discrimination for nursing in public and at work, now that would be a giant step in the right direction! “

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While breastfeeding certainly conveys health benefits to both baby and mom, it’s also worth considering the impact of pressuring women to breastfeed. French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, for example, considers extremely vocal breastfeeding advocates like Bundchen “a holy alliance of reactionaries.”

On Yahoo, Sylvia Cochran explained Badinter’s take on forcing women to breastfeed:

This group, according to the French feminist, unduly pressures women into the role of perfect motherhood through preparing organic meals and suckling babies “to exhaustion.” She goes on record stating that natural living choices do not equate [with] moral wisdom and the artificial superiority of having a child naturally does little but aggravate unneeded guilt in women who chose otherwise. She sums up this mode of thinking as “rejecting all the others as bad mothers and egoists, and this is just not possible.”

Still, news of the law was met last week with glee on the Facebook page for The Breastfeeding Center, an Ohio-based breastfeeding boutique. Stephanie Shaeffer Zahler enthused, “Love it!” Commented Tessa Houze: “Now if only the USA would follow suit.”