By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
The World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed exclusive breastfeeding- giving a baby only breastmilk for the first six months of life (no other food or water) - as the “single largest potential impact on child mortality of any preventative intervention.” Breastmilk provides the perfect nutrition for babies, contributes to growth and development, and protects against infections and disease including diarrhea, obesity, asthma and diabetes.
In 1990 the Innocenti Declaration was produced and adopted with a goal of protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding. Part of the declaration was that governments must ensure every facility providing maternity services fully practices all ten of the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding and enact legislation that protects the breastfeeding rights of working women with established means of enforcement. Part of the Ten Steps is to inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding and to not give newborn infants food or drink other than breastmilk unless medically indicated. Despite this, global levels of exclusive breastfeeding remain low. While many countries have laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public including Australia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States (minus one state), discrimination can be an obstacle to nursing mothers.
The 2015 Lansinoh Global Breastfeeding Survey evaluated over 13,000 mothers in ten countries- Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Mexico, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States- to better understand and represent a global view of breastfeeding attitudes and habits. While a majority of the mothers said breastfeeding is the best way to nourish a baby there were disparities in how these same mothers felt about and experienced breastfeeding in public. Some mothers in China (15%) identified breastfeeding in public as a top breastfeeding fear because it is embarrassing while some mothers in Brazil (64%), the United Kingdom (65%) and the United States (66%) said breastfeeding in public is perfectly natural. Mothers in Brazil (47%) and Canada (41%) said they had been openly criticized or experienced prejudice while breastfeeding in public.
In Argentina, where the rate of exclusive breastfeeding is 33%, a female MP breast fed her daughter during a parliamentary session. Reactions over social media and news outlets have been mixed, with some praising her behavior and others indicting her for an “inappropriate” public act.
A mother in Germany started an international photography project to shatter the stigma attached to breastfeeding in public. While breastfeeding in public isn’t prohibited, it also isn’t protected. Nursing mothers have been ejected from stores, cafes, and even had cops called on them for feeding their children in public.
Women throughout the United States have shared their experiences of being discriminated against in public while breastfeeding including being asked to leave stores and restaurants. Recently, a picture of a store’s breastfeeding policy went viral because of the overwhelming support for breastfeeding on demand.
Another obstacle could be accessing the right information about the benefits of breastmilk. For instance, in China, a company was just fined for bribing health-care professionals in China to recommend formula to expectant and new mothers. As a result, many women throughout China feel that their breastmilk is inadequate for fulfilling their child’s nutritional needs.
Beyond discrimination in public and inadequate or biased information, women can struggle to support breastfeeding in their professional lives. The focus of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week is on enhancing support for breastfeeding at work. Some great examples of work-level support of breastfeeding can be found in the Netherlands, Germany, and the Philippines. In the Netherlands, the Work and Care Act (Download Netherlands_en (5))allows an employee to take up to a quarter of her working time to breastfeed or express for the first nine months of the child’s life. Additionally, the employee must be paid during this time and have a room available for breastfeeding. In Germany, mothers are paid during their two 30 minute breaks per day to breastfeed or express. The Philippines Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009 allows for mothers to take paid time during the day to breastfeed or express in lactation stations free of promotion of breastmilk substitutes. While maternity entitlements and reinforcing laws and practices have been improving, there is still much to be improved to support universal breastfeeding.
When met with encouragement to use breastmilk-substitutes in a health-care setting, or being asked to leave stores, restaurants, buses, or other public places while nursing, it isn’t a surprise that exclusive breastfeeding rates aren’t higher. To truly support women and children’s right to breastfeed, it is first and foremost that the importance of breastfeeding be promoted. This should be followed by the elimination of barriers like discrimination and promotion of ill-informed or biased knowledge. Only when a universally hospitable environment has been created for breastfeeding will rates of exclusive breastfeeding increase.