August 7, 2013

Natural Foodie: Breastfeeding should be accepted wherever baby says 'now'

By Avery Yale Kamila

I'm walking down Congress Street in Portland when the cries start. It's my 5-month-old son, and he's hungry.

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Look for this logo in public spaces that welcome breastfeeding moms.

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.

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