It’s the final day of World Breastfeeding Week, and it seems the annual celebration intended to spread the practice of nursing is departing with controversy in its wake.
Breast-feeding has been both enjoying and enduring intense publicity in recent months. We’ve seen new public campaigns to encourage it while the American publication of a European bestseller inspired a philosophical debate over the burdens breast-feeding places on mothers. And, who could forget, we witnessed a graphic display of extended breast-feeding on the cover of Time.
All of this has led us to a point where an ages old practice is suddenly a hot topic.
Just looking at this week alone: There were several mass nurse-ins to coincide with the World Health Organization designated World Breastfeeding Week, including one on the National Mall that drew hundreds. These were intended as both a celebration and as a political statement that public breast-feeding must be normalized.
Rachel Papantonakis, who organized the DC nurse-in, did so in reaction to several recent stories of nursing women being told to button up and push off for feeding their baby in public.
“We’ve all been told that breastfeeding is the ideal way to feed a child, but still many people regard the breast as something purely sexual (and therefore indecent.) No one would take a second look if I pulled out a bottle to feed my crying baby, and I’d love for breast-feeding to be just as commonplace,” she told me when she first began organizing the event.
Unfortunately, that post drew several comments from readers who said that Papantonakis was, like other publicly breast-feeding mothers, an exhibitionist. The responses suggest that it will take more than a few mass gatherings to convince some not to sneer at a nursing mother.
And then there was the policy unveiled in New York City last week, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on hospitals to strictly control the use of formula. His plan, which is set to go into affect in September, will have hospital staff keep baby formula locked up and only available when signed out, like medication.
If a bottle is requested, the city suggests that hospital staff explain to the mother why breast-feeding is a healthier option for a baby.
Even though the guidelines are intended to head off a common complaint for new mothers in hospitals — that staff too frequently feed babies formula without parental consent — it’s has drawn howls of protest.
Combined with the mayor’s earlier initiative to ban the sale of large containers of soda, Bloomberg’s critics have seized on the idea that he’s creating a nanny-city.
Worse, critics argue, is that the plan will further stigmatize bottle-feeding and vilify mothers who choose or need to go that route.
“Sucking the choice out of parenting,” was the title of Lenore Skenazy’s reaction in The Daily News.
“The mayor’s idea, of course, is that since breast-feeding seems to be the healthiest choice, why not discourage the alternative? But then maybe he should discourage women from having babies at a later age. After all, those kids are more likely to have health problems,” wrote Skenazy, the founder of Free-Range Kids.
“Or maybe he should discourage parents from ever driving their kids anywhere? After all, that is the No. 1 way kids die — as car passengers. Or maybe he should just stop us all from ordering a large soda . . .Oh, wait.
“For many women, breast-feeding makes sense. But there are moms who have a hard time breast-feeding, or have to rush back to work, or simply don’t want to do it.”
So, as World Breastfeeding Week concludes, the questions remain. What role should public policy play in encouraging the practice? How can greater acceptance of public breast-feeding be achieved? And, how can the medical community’s goal of increasing breast-feeding be balanced with the rights of mothers who choose or don’t have the option of breast-feeding?
Where do you come down?