I’m walking down Congress Street in Portland when the cries start. It’s my 5-month-old son, and he’s hungry.
I could just plop myself down in Monument Square, hike up my shirt and give him the food he needs. But I hesitate. I survey the crowd: Teens lounging on the monument, office workers hurrying through, scruffy folks lingering by the hot dog cart, a preacher shouting Biblical verses at the other end of the square.
I chicken out.
Instead I head across the street to the public library, hurry into the children’s section and settle myself in one of the window seats. It’s clean, comfortable and exudes a welcoming vibe, but I feel like I’ve let myself down.
Before my son was born, I was sure I’d be a bold breastfeeder proudly nursing my baby whenever and wherever the need arose. What I’ve discovered is more complicated.
I have no problem breastfeeding in private homes or in certain public spaces, such as in restaurants, along the Portland Trails system or at the Portland Museum of Art. But the real test comes when I’m in a highly visible location, like a grocery store, an outdoor festival or Monument Square. This is where I want to publicly walk the talk by feeding my baby the ultimate health food, yet too much modesty makes me hesitate.
Turns out, I’m not alone.
“I’m always paying attention — am I seeing moms nursing in public?” said Zoe Miller with the Communities Promoting Health Coalition, which helped launch the aptly named Whenever, Wherever breastfeeding campaign in Greater Portland last summer with other Healthy Maine Partnership organizations. “I’m not seeing it that much. You still see a lot of bottle feeding and sometimes you can tell it’s pumped breast milk.”
And this lack of exposure to breastfeeding — even when the babies are drinking breast milk from a bottle — is a problem for our society. It means the brave mothers who do boldly breastfeed wherever they go stand out and catch our attention. If everyone was doing it, hardly anyone would take notice and, so the thinking goes, more mothers would feel comfortable nursing their babies wherever and whenever the need arose.
“Until we start seeing it more and until kids grow up seeing breastfeeding, we haven’t made that leap,” Miller said.
Miller points out what every breastfeeding mom knows — despite all the baby blankets and chic cover-ups: “There are moments when you’re nursing your child when someone may catch a glimpse of your breast.”
Or your nipple.
And this is both what can make nursing mothers and those around us uncomfortable.
Intellectually, I know that breasts were made for feeding babies. But I grew up in America and was bombarded since an early age with the message that breasts are highly sexual parts, especially those pesky nipples.
Unfortunately, this is bad news for all of us.
On this final day of World Breastfeeding Week, it’s time we as Americans resolve to mature beyond these junior high notions. If more moms don’t feel comfortable breastfeeding and therefore give it up and switch to formula, we’ll continue to waste money and imperil our health.
Study after study has shown breastfeeding improves the health of both mother and child and saves taxpayers and those paying insurance premiums boatloads of cash.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates we would save $3.6 billion a year in healthcare costs if more mothers breastfed their babies from birth and stuck with it longer. Since the USDA’s estimate is more than a decade old, these potential savings have no doubt risen even higher.
Breastfed babies get sick less often and have fewer incidences of asthma and allergies when compared to babies fed formula. And mothers who breastfeed for at least a year reduce their chances of developing a host of diseases, including breast cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.
According to emerging research, formula, like all processed foods, starves the digestive system of the micronutrients needed to maintain healthy levels of beneficial bacteria, which have been shown to do everything from maintain our immune systems to help regulate our digestion.
In contrast, breastmilk is designed to feed these microorganisms.
Despite the abundance of information showing the benefits of breastfeeding, Maine moms, like moms across the country, breastfeed at lower rates than recommended by health organizations.
Jackie Rogers, with Healthy Casco Bay, helped launch the Whenever, Wherever campaign and told me the initiative was motivated by statistics showing how fast rates of breastfeeding decline in Maine.
“As reported on the (Centers for Disease Control’s) Maine Breastfeeding Report Card, three out of four Maine mothers start off breastfeeding,” Rogers said. “At the end of six months, Maine breastfeeding rates fall to 48 percent, and only 18 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed. Lack of support in the community and workplace causes one of every three breastfeeding Maine moms to stop before six months and this campaign aims to change that.”
Miller said the big driver of the drop off in breastfeeding by six months is clear: mothers returning to work.
While the Portland Press Herald provides an extremely family-friendly maternity leave of six months, most Maine workplaces offer significantly less, in the range of six weeks to three months, according to the local moms I know.
Calling workplaces “the final frontier,” Miller said, “there is so much to be done with employers being supportive of breastfeeding moms.”
The funny thing is that encouraging breastfeeding is in employers’ best interests, since babies who aren’t breastfed suffer from more illnesses, increasing the company’s healthcare costs and causing parents to miss more work.
Another challenge to achieving better breastfeeding rates is the cultural prejudice against breastfeeding older children, particularly in public.
“Once your child is age 1 and up or looks it people have a harder time (seeing breastfeeding in public),” Miller said.
Never was this more clear than in the uproar that ensued after Time magazine ran a cover image last May of a petite mom breastfeeding a boy who was big for his age.
But as Mercy Hospital childbirth educator and lactation nurse Linda Higgins pointed out, successfully nursing a child in public also depends on the mother’s attitude.
“Think positive,” Higgins said. “More times than not, other people in public will look away, not towards you, and the longer you breastfeed the easier it becomes and you feel more confident with positioning your baby at breast.”
As for me, I’m working on being bolder. Maybe some day you’ll see me breastfeeding in Monument Square. And if I’m really brave, I’ll do so when my very big son is 2 years old.
Avery Yale Kamila lives in Portland, where she breastfeds and writes about health food. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org