Forget the ‘Mommy Wars’ – Breastfeeding Inequality is the Real Issue

Too many heated words and firey tweets are being spent on the breastfeeding ‘mommy war’. It needs to stop.

Whether or not a well-educated and well-off mother chooses to breastfeed is not the big issue. The real problem – one impacting tens of thousands of lives – is breastfeeding inequality. Too many mothers are NOT getting equal opportunity to breastfeed.

Did you know that in the US, breastfeeding rates vary wildly from state to state? In Louisiana, 57% of infants are ever breastfed. In California, it’s 93%. That’s a huge difference.

It’s no surprise that Louisiana is one of the poorest states while California is one of the wealthiest. In fact, socioeconomic forces drastically affect breastfeeding rates. This visual guide by WeTheParents brings the shocking reality of breastfeeding inequality into focus.

Women born into socioeconomic hardship tend to have lower family income, lower level of education, and lower breastfeeding rates.

It’s not fair for the baby or the mother.

Some of the reasons for reduced breastfeeding are:

  • Less access to paid maternity leave
  • Lower paid jobs that are less likely to allow for pumping breaks
  • Inadequate maternity and lactation support in hospital
  • Less effective family and community support
  • A culture that doesn’t treat breastfeeding as a desirable status symbol (in contrast to the ‘crunchy mommies’).

The problem is intensified because babies born into conditions of hardship are less likely to receive adequate healthcare, parental involvement, and nutritious supplementary food once weaning begins.

This means that the babies who would benefit most from breastmilk are the ones least likely to get it.

Mothers Unite

This week is World Breastfeeding Week organized by World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). It is the perfect opportunity to begin reframing the debate.

The mommy wars are a distraction. Let’s not waste valuable energy debating whether or not a well-off, middle-class mother is right to breastfeed her child. Yes, breast is best, but it’s likely her child will get a good start in life either way.

Mothers, let’s all come together and fight for breastfeeding equality. Surely we can all agree, that if a woman wants to breastfeed, she should be given the best possible chance to do so. The fact that less well-off mothers often don’t have the same knowledge or opportunities to breastfeed their babies is simply not right.

Instead of dividing along tribal lines, let’s unite and push for all mothers to have the same access to breastfeeding information, support, and workplace lactation programmes. It’s this that will really drive up breastfeeding rates and improve health outcomes for mothers and babies.

And so, the next time you find yourself caught up in breastfeeding guerrilla warfare taking place within the comments section of some blog, remember the real issue: breastfeeding inequality.

Neve is a mother of two, writer and breastfeeding advocate. You can find her trying to simplify parenting and empower new moms to meet their breastfeeding goals over at her blog WeTheParents.

 

U.S. Opposes Global Breastfeeding Resolution

If it seems like the world is crying over spilled milk right now, I promise it’s much more than that. In May this year, a global breastfeeding resolution was passed at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, but not without a fight.

What Happened?

As recently reported by the New York Times, the proposed World Health Organization (WHO) resolution aimed to limit the marketing of breastmilk alternatives, and to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding”. An American delegation attempted to block the resolution, and made threats of trade measures and cuts to military aid to countries planning to introduce the measure. This, naturally, made other nations hesitant to support the resolution.

Ultimately, Russia proposed the final resolution, though U.S. delegates successfully had language removed stating the WHO would support nations discouraging misleading promotion by formula companies.

Why It Matters

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding as the optimal source of nutrition through a baby’s first year of life. Breastfeeding provides benefits for both baby and mother. In fact, breastmilk could lead to lowered risk of asthma, type 2 diabetes, and obesity in babies and lowered risk of breast and ovarian cancers in moms.

A joint investigation by the Guardian and Save the Children in poorer regions of the Philippines found four large formula companies (Nestlé, Abbott, Mead Johnson and Wyeth) to be enticing health workers to promote formula in addition to distributing pamphlets disguised as medical advice to mothers. Although this is an explicit violation of the WHO’s international code, formula promotion persists in poorer countries where mothers are less informed about breastfeeding benefits.

Soon after transitioning in 2017, the new American administration re-enacted the global gag rule, prohibiting international non-profits receiving U.S. government funding from sharing abortion service information. Now the U.S. is supporting pro-formula companies over policies promoting global childhood nutrition.

This is not just another example of prioritizing private profit over public health, but rather, yet another infringement upon women’s rights.

While there are, of course, circumstances where choosing formula over breastmilk may be the best option for mother and child, every mother deserves to make her own informed decision, and country delegations should support that globally.

World Breastfeeding Week 2017 – Sustaining Breastfeeding Together

“Breastfeeding for me was synonymous to giving life” – Felogene, mother, Kenya

Breastfeeding is a core part of many new mothers’ lives, and it is an experience that is different for everyone. Yet the benefits of breastfeeding are universal and the barriers to breastfeeding are many, persisting across cultures and communities around the world. Women need partners to make breastfeeding work – partnerships ranging from close family to the health workforce, to workplaces and the public sphere. Furthermore, multi-level partnerships are necessary to ensure that breastfeeding is a central component in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.

In line with the Sustainable Development Agenda, World Breastfeeding Week, led by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, covers four Thematic Areas, which are reviewed in detail in relation to essential partnerships and paired with key action points to help us all get engaged and working together to reach our common goals by 2030.

NUTRITION, FOOD SECURITY AND POVERTY REDUCTION

“In 2016, the United Nations placed nutrition at the heart of sustainable development by declaring 2016-2025 as the UN Decade for Action on Nutrition. Breastfeeding is a non-negotiable component of this globally intensified action to end malnutrition.” – writes Mia Ydholm.

SURVIVAL, HEALTH AND WELLBEING

“Breastfeeding is a fundamental driver in achieving the SDGs as it plays a significant role in improving maternal and child health, survival and wellbeing. One year into the implementation of the SDGs, we must work together to level the playing field.” – Every Woman Every Child.

ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE

“Like in so many other areas of our lives – especially as women – we are bombarded by marketing telling us how to look, how to behave and what life-changing decisions to make. Breastfeeding is not excluded from this. The detrimental environmental impact of breastmilk substitutes is a responsibility for all of us to bear – not mothers alone.” – writes Julia Wiklander.

WOMEN’S PRODUCTIVITY AND EMPLOYMENT

“Full equality will not be reached at home or in the workforce until men and boys globally take on 50 percent of the unpaid care and domestic work.” – MenCare

“The reason why I am breastfeeding is, first of all, because I can, and because there are so many benefits for my baby and for myself.” – Kristina, mother, Sweden

Girls’ Globe is committed to ensuring that all mothers have the information, support and protection they need to breastfeed, if they choose to do so. Throughout the month of August, we will be sharing posts, videos and more in line with World Breastfeeding Week’s main objectives. Find more on our campaign page and follow on social media with #WBW2017.

Midwives Made Me Feel Like Not Going Home

I have met both considerate and not so considerate midwives. Without a doubt, the majority have belonged to the first category, and to those who haven’t been as caring – I don’t blame you. I admire the work that you do, the long hours you spend in the delivery rooms, the paperwork you need to put up with. I admire all of it.  

I have nothing but respect for midwives and I feel tremendously grateful to live in Sweden, a country where healthcare is equally accessible to all. Not once during my pregnancy nor the delivery did I feel fear, in fact I felt quite the opposite. I really did feel that I was in safe hands all the way through – from planning the pregnancy to the postpartum period.

I had quite an uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, more or less, but I won’t deny that I was exhausted (to say the least) when our daughter was finally born.

The midwives made be feel so comfortable in the patient hotel right after delivery that I almost did not want to go home. Home – which is otherwise the only place I want to be in times of exhaustion, insecurity or stress.

Knowing that they were right there, only a few footsteps away, gave me a strong sense of security. When my husband left the patient hotel for the first time, I recall the feelings of nervousness and insecurity that started to creep up on me. I was carrying our daughter in my arms when suddenly one of her legs turned completely blue. I panicked. I ran out in the hallway and screamed for help, and a midwife in her late 50s quickly came up to me: “You’re just holding her a little bit too tight, dear. Don’t you worry, she’s perfectly fine.” Her humble smile and reassuring stroke on my shoulder calmed me down in an instant.

On our second (and last) night in the hotel, the breastfeeding marathon was real. My breasts were crazy swollen, lumpy and aching and my daughter did not want to latch on properly. It was the middle of the night, I hadn’t slept for 48 hours and the tears seemed unstoppable. I felt inadequate for not being able to calm my daughter down when she screamed as if I was hurting her, while all I was trying my hardest to do was to please her.

This time, another midwife came to our room and, again, told me not to worry so much. “Let me hold her for you, and just try to relax for a moment. It’ll be alright, this is absolutely normal.” Then she helped me finding a comfortable position for breastfeeding while lying down, and put my daughter to my breast. The screaming party was finally over, and at last I felt as if I was able to breathe properly again.

Midwives provided me with their invaluable knowledge, skills and help, and I am forever thankful for the time they spent taking care of me and my family.

Obviously, we did eventually leave the patient hotel, but I’ll admit that I would’ve gladly stayed longer – in the safe hands of the midwives there. 

Girls’ Globe will be present at the 31st International Confederation of Midwives Triennial Congress – bringing you live coverage from Toronto, Canada via our #ICMLive hub. To keep up to date with all the action, use #ICMLive to engage online. 

Raising Black Girls: an interview with Vanessa Stair

New York native Vanessa Stair’s experience as a woman of color, raising a child of color, in a non-traditional family is one not documented in the largely white, heterosexual context of the mommy blogger sphere. So she created her own space – www.ChocoLACTmilk.com is a testimony to the roses and thorns of colored parenting, being a feminist mother of a young girl, and raising our girls right.

Grace Wong: What inspired you to start chocoLACTmilk?

Vanessa Stair: My senior year I was pregnant with Peyton and wrote my senior thesis on breastfeeding in the black community. Since I was invested in the topic and was myself breastfeeding Peyton, I started inviting a small group of moms to come over once or twice a month to talk about their experiences of being black and breastfeeding. It naturally evolved to talking about other issues: how we felt as moms, some of us young mothers, our blackness, how we navigated our race and care for our children.

Life got in the way and some moms went back to work or moved, but I really held onto that space where women of color could talk about the intersectionality of being a mother of color to a child of color, and creating a space where we can talk about issues that uniquely affect us.

GW: You just mentioned that mothers of color face unique issues, what are some of the most challenging aspects of colored parenting?

VS:  I want to be unapologetic in my parenting. I want to live true to myself. But certain times navigating that space and respecting that can be very, very hard. I want Peyton to be a carefree black girl: do the things she wants, act the way she wants, and find her own voice, but often I find myself hesitant to do certain things because of the perceptions around children of color.

There are different life lessons that come with being a girl of color. I have to be very intentional about the kind of things I bring into her space so she sees positive representations of herself in various forms – not always the civil rights leader but a superhero or an astronaut. 

GW: You have been able to convey quite complex lessons like consent to Peyton. I feel like my peers, and even those older than me, don’t understand all of the nuances of consent. How have you been able to teach that to a five-year-old?

VS: To a three- or four-year-old consent can be taught very simply: no means no. When you say no I don’t currently want to be touched, that means no.

What has been more difficult for my partner and I is navigating Peyton’s ownership over her own body while also having the task of keeping her safe. For example, one thing we struggle with is crossing the street. Sometimes she does not want to hold our hand, and we have to say to her, “I understand that, but in this instance because there is a safety concern we need to hold your hand, and when we finish crossing the street and you don’t want to hold my hand anymore that is fine.”

As a four-year-old, Peyton has more awareness of her body than most kids and great at saying no to people. Peyton has an afro, and a lot of times people just want to touch it, and for us we say, every part of your body is your own – that includes your hair, your shoulders, your fingers – that is your body and the moment you feel uncomfortable you have right to say “no thank you.

Recently, we are walking down the street and this older woman puts her hand on Peyton’s hair and I am just about to go off at her and Peyton just goes, “Do not touch my hair” and the woman goes “Oh but I just wanted touch it,” and Peyton replies, “You wouldn’t touch my vagina, so don’t touch my hair.” This woman was mortified, but for me I was proud that Peyton recognized that every part of her body she has ownership. I think another part of the struggle is that it applies to everyone.

What is your hope for the chocoLACTmilk?

VS: Reaching a larger audience and creating a space where I can cathartically journal my experiences and create an outlet for other parents, with similar experiences, to have a dialogue. The dialogue is already out there so it is about harnessing that and bringing it to another, larger space, and creating community and support.

Babies are Born. Then they Breastfeed!

The baby let out a wild cry the moment it came out. We felt triumphant. After a four week period of intensive supervision, the mother had finally delivered a healthy baby. I was a resident doctor in obstetrics and had stayed up for several long nights, struggling to help this woman to complete her nine months – complications constantly threatening to sabotage our plans. But now there was relief and joy as it had all turned out ok.

Or so I thought.

The next day, I found the new mother anxious. Desperately, she said: “I am unable to breastfeed. I don’t know what to do.” I tried giving her some tips but immediately realised I was as unable to get this baby to breastfeed as she was. Giving out a few customary instructions I moved ahead, knowing I had hardly made any difference to her anxiety.

The following day, the baby was in the Intensive Care Unit, having convulsed due to low sugars. I knew that meant potential for future intellectual disability. I glanced through the glass windows of the ICU and saw the mother standing besides the incubator. I had a sick feeling which I could neither deny nor escape; I had failed her. We had all failed her. Our moment of triumph was now no more. We had poured in all our collective efforts pre-delivery to bring forth a ‘healthy’ baby, but had ignored her post-delivery struggle with breastfeeding. We all assumed that it just happens naturally; every mother just knows how to do it. But this is far from true. They all need personal support and guidance.

I was suddenly acutely aware of my deficient skill set. As resident doctors, there had been more important things to update ourselves on; the newest infertility treatments and best ways to deliver high risk pregnancies. Breastfeeding was not something we were told to consider actively in our rounds or spend hours training ourselves in. Our singular focus as obstetricians had become to help deliver a ‘healthy live baby’ and as neonatologists, to ace resuscitation protocols when babies weren’t breathing at birth and then get busy with the incubators. With doctors’ alternative priorities and nurses’ preoccupation with injections and clerical work, whose job was it to look at breastfeeding?

The void in lactation support was glaring. I was restless. How can we make breastfeeding a breeze for mothers; a joyful journey of bonding and nourishment rather than a nightmare? That’s when our lactation consultant asked me to try ‘Breastcrawl’, a term I had never heard before.

Apparently, just like newborns of all animals, our babies have an innate capability to seek out the breast and feed; if left undisturbed and ‘skin-to-skin’ with the mother for the first crucial hour after birth. This is called ‘early initiation’ through Breastcrawl. I felt stunned by the potential behind this beautiful miracle of nature. It seemed to have all the answers for a successful start and continuation of breastfeeding! I attempted it in our labour room and sure enough, the baby crawled up from the mother’s abdomen to the breast, latched on its own and smoothly drank its first precious drops. Its reflexes were the only coach it needed. What a perfect start it was!

Breastcrawl has deep implications on health of newborns. As I started following up these ‘Breastcrawled’ babies in the wards, I saw that even the first time mothers breastfed with the confidence of a woman who had just had her third child! Science supports the impact of this technique way beyond just nutrition – sensory-neural development, immune priming, bonding, temperature control and more.

Photo credit: Dr Taru Jindal
Every mother and newborn deserve this experience. But in our hurry to complete paper work and protocols, we had been thoughtlessly separating the mother and baby in those critical first moments and preventing this beautiful miracle from manifesting itself. Our support had been inconsistent and ill-timed. We were either getting in the way of mothers when we needed to step aside or we were simply too far away for help when mothers were desperately seeking us.

The experience with breastfeeding in my residency taught me how ‘lactationally illiterate’ I was. I learnt that supporting mothers in breastfeeding is as critical as doing a perfect caesarean surgery. Ensuring a ‘live birth’ was indeed just the first step.

As WABA keeps reminding us so rightly, babies are born, what do they do next? They breastfeed!