There are three key factors that distinguish mammals from all other species. According to the Oxford dictionary a mammal is "a warm-blooded vertebrate animal of a class that is distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for the nourishment of the young, and (typically) the birth of live young."(1) Humans are animals. Women secrete milk to nourish their offspring and this has happened since the start of the human civilization. One could argue that this lactation, our ancestors only form of food as infants, is the very foundation for all human life to flourish and is thus the reason why we are alive today.
In the last century we have seen incredible technological advances that have revolutionized our world for the better....and in some ways, for the worse. the supposition that baby formula is superior to a mother's breast milk is one of the greatest catastrophes of our time. This belief in and of itself that has been pushed by large food manufactures(2) and is paving the way for a silent genocide. In this blog we will discuss the culture of breastfeeding in America by exploring the history of breastfeeding, the health impacts of breastfeeding, and the policy around breastfeeding in our nation today.
To begin, it is essential to understand the history of breastfeeding. Mothers have always breastfed their children and a few alternatives have arose in light of both need and choice for not breastfeeding. Wet nursing was the first alternative form of breastfeeding which began as early as 2000 BC when a woman who was not the biological mother was given the task of breastfeeding an infant that was not her own. This form of wet nursing originated from a place of need and transformed to an occupation of choice in 950BC-1800AD and continued until the feeding bottle was created in the 19th century, which led to the decline of wet nursing careers. This alternative form of feeding has recently been largely replaced in the 20th century with infant "formulas" to help support women who choose not to breastfeed or couldn't breastfeed for personal health/work reasons. (3)
There have been many reasons throughout time as to why women would not breastfeed their own children. There are a variety of modern day Reasons Why Women Do Not Initiate Breastfeeding according to a Southeastern State Study published by Woman's Health Issues such as, "work-related issues, personal preferences, having an unsupportive partner, feeling embarrassed, concerns about pain, and physical/medical problems."(4) In ancient times the royalty among the Greeks and Romans would most often hire a wet-nurse because it was common among the higher class to not breastfeed your own children. On the opposite spectrum the most tragic reason why children are not breastfed by their mothers is due to the mother dying at childbirth.
To support the need for more breastfeeding in the USA the Surgeon General listed the following issues as addition barriers to breastfeeding in the study titled Barriers to Breastfeeding in the United States the added reasons of lack of knowledge, social norms, poor family and social support, lactation problems, embarrassment, employment and childcare, and barriers related to health services.(5) As we can see from both of these studies mentioned above, "embarrassment" was a common theme that arose in both which illustrates the lack of cultural support around breastfeeding in America. In our American Society today, we are still facing many of these challenges to breastfeeding however there is an increasing amount of research supporting the health benefits of breastfeeding which is helping to gain support and awareness for this issue.
There is an increasing amount of research available that is explaining the importance of breastfeeding in today's culture to support the greatest health for your children. The Surgeon General put out a call to action in 2011 listing many of the health benefits of breastfeeding to encourage the American public to engage in this most natural act. The benefits are many including: protecting babies from infections and illnesses such as asthma, diarrhea, ear infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and pneumonia.(6) In addition, children who are breastfed for at least six months are less likely to be obese when compared to their non-breastfed counterparts and even mothers have a health benefit of decreased risk of ovarian and breast cancers. These benefits and more are essential for the best emotional and physical health for both the mother and child.
Fortunately, with the rise in education around the importance of breastfeeding we are starting to see political changes on the federal level and in legislation around national health goals as well as business policy. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention have a set of health goals out for Healthy People 2020 in regards to breastfeeding. The CDC has a goal of 81.9% of babies being breastfed ever and they state "74.0% of infants born in 2006 were ever breastfed as reported in 2007–09."(7) The Healthy People 2020 goals are also working to reduce the amount of breastfed newborns who receive formula during the first 48 hours of life. Currently the CDC states that a shocking "24.2% percent of breastfed newborns born in 2006 received formula supplementation within the first 2 days of life as reported in 2007–09."
Furthermore, the public policy around building a breastfeeding friendly culture has continued to grow in mainstream society. The Surgeon General even recommended some ideas for the workplace such as, "start and maintain high-quality lactation support programs for employees, provide clean places for mothers to breastfeed, work toward establishing paid maternity leave for employed mothers."(6) This parallels the work of many legislators and advocates that are fighting for greater policy support for breastfeeding mothers. For example, the US Breastfeeding Committee is a non-profit organization fighting to coordinate national breastfeeding initiatives along with the Surgeon General's recommendations and they have listed the current existing laws. Some of which include: Breastfeeding Promotion & Support within the WIC Program, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), TRICARE Moms Improvement Act, Safe Medications for Moms and Babies Act, Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening Act (BABES Act), and many individual state laws as well.(8) While all of these policies have helped to improve conditions for breastfeeding mothers, there needs to be more policy support in order to support the mothers who are not breastfeeding and the babies who are not getting access to the breastmilk that they need.
Overall, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we as mammals need to have breastmilk as young children for the best health possible. There are endless benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child for physical, emotional, social, and economic health. Understanding the history of breastfeeding from wet nursing to bottle feeding to formulas helps us to see the pivotal difference between these alternative feeding methods and how there is truly no replacement for genuine mother to child breastfeeding. There are indeed valid barriers that are blocking mothers from breastfeeding be that educational, social, political, health, or death at birth. However, we need more policies to support the mothers and children who are able to physically breastfeed to have the societal and workplace support to encourage them on that healthy path. The culture of breastfeeding in America is on an ever evolving spectrum between judgement and praise for breastfeeding, depending on your zip code. Regardless of history and current culture, there is no debate as to the health benefits of breastfeeding. Therefore if we are to support our nation in the healthiest way possible, it is essential to have political and workplace support in order to ensure the vitality of future generations.
If you agree that we need more support for breastfeeding in our American culture today, check out this non-profit and sign their petition: Fed is Best (9)
(1) "Mammal - Definition Of Mammal In English | Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries | English. N.p., 2017. Web. 24 May 2017.
(2) "Domestic Infant Formula Market". Ers.usda.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.
(3) Stevens, Emily E, Thelma E Patrick, and Rita Pickler. "A History Of Infant Feeding". N.p., 2017. Print.
(4) Ogbuanu, Chinelo A. et al. "Reasons Why Women Do Not Initiate Breastfeeding". N.p., 2017. Print.
(5) (US), Office, Centers (US), and Office (US). "Barriers To Breastfeeding In The United States". Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.
(6) "The Surgeon General’S Call To Action To Support Breastfeeding | Surgeongeneral.Gov". Surgeongeneral.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.
(7) "Healthy People 2020 Objectives For The Nation | Breastfeeding | CDC". Cdc.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.
(8) "USBC : Existing Laws". Usbreastfeeding.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.
(9) "Sign Our Petition". The Fed is Best Foundation. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.