Choosing whether to breastfeed is difficult:
“Do I have time?” (You can do it at work!)
“Won’t people be weird if I nurse at the brunch restaurant?” (Embrace the weird.)
“Oh, gah. Will I end up socially trademarked Saggy-Boobs™ forevermore?” (Time to make new friends.)
While there’s no wrong choice here, if you make the decision to let ‘em latch, surely you and your breasts can count on boundless support to ensure you’re doing it correctly, right? Ehh…
In fact, no single nation is adequately assisting its breastfeeding moms, says a joint report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
These two teams actually released a Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, right in time for World Breastfeeding Week, to track how well countries adhere to their breastfeeding recommendations. Guidelines from the scorecard include 1) nursing newborns within an hour of birth, 2) breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months, and 3) introducing foods alongside breastfeeding until the child is two years old.
And the stats are grim. Fewer than 44 percent of babies are breastfed within an hour, and the list of countries reporting exclusive breastfeeding until the six-month mark includes only 23 names. The United States is not one of them. And what’s worse, the U.S. received "a lot of red marks” with "considerably lower than average” rates, said WHO technical officer Dr. Laurence Grummer-Strawn to USA Today. More than 75 percent of American mamas do not exclusively nurse for half the infant’s first year, and only 18 percent of hospitals in the data reported satisfactory breastfeeding counseling for patients.
We asked Grummer-Strawn why one of the most progressive countries in the world is falling '"drastically short."
First of all, our hospitals tend to have procedures that immediately separate mother and child. "There’s an assumption that they should give formula so the mother can rest,” says Grummer-Strawn. "But that first hour is a critical time." What’s more, if mothers then have difficulties establishing milk supply or baby latching, most hospitals don’t know how to help.
Speaking of critical time, Grummer-Strawn says most medical schools devote only an hour or two over the course of four years to breastfeeding. "We need more courses and counseling about working through problems," she says.
Another challenge: Paid maternity leave isn’t really a thing. Grummer-Strawn says the United States is one of only two or three countries globally that don't have a paid-maternity-leave policy. Meaning, it’s up to the employer. While the Family Medical Leave Act protects against firing, that doesn’t help salary- or wage-dependent workers. Most workplaces also don’t have on-site day cares and frown upon women asking to bring their babies to work.
We can’t deny the stigmatization women face—still, in 2017—when they breastfeed in public because of schedules, because of engorged breasts, or simply because their child has shriek-inducing hunger pains on the bus right then and there. (PSA: It’s way easier to ignore a lump of flesh than a blood-curdling screech.)
"Women often get negative looks and comments, so they feel like they have to do it in secret,” says Grummer-Strawn. "It becomes inconvenient, and a ‘I’ll quit as soon as I can’ mentality instead of a mutually positive experience."
As with most cases, exposure and explanation are the quickest paths to destigmatization.
Encouragingly, we’ve noticed a few nods from pop culture in the past few years attempting honest and humorous portrayals of breastfeeding challenges, both private (showcased by Jane the Virgin) and public (as seen on The Mindy Project). But should we really be relying on Hollywood mommies for that?
WHO and UNICEF are calling for a worldwide rally, requesting a $4.70 investment per newborn from lower- and middle-income countries. This roughly $5.7 billion will go toward initiatives such as breastfeeding counseling, perfecting hospital practices, and establishing breastfeeding support as a "collective national priority."
The question remains, what can we do as individuals? "First, let elected officials know, ‘Look, we need paid maternity leave in this country,'" says Grummer-Strawn. "In the primaries, both parties spoke about the need, but we haven’t seen any action. Mothers stepping up and saying something needs to change is critical.” Grummer-Strawn also encourages women to insist on their health-care providers seeking better education. If their current doctor isn’t equipped to help, find someone who is—a.k.a. a lactation consultant or specialist.
And finally, "Put in a positive word when you do see someone breastfeeding,” says Grummer-Strawn. "Give them a pat on the back and say, 'I’m so glad you’re doing that here.' That can be in person or on Facebook where all their friends will see. Just creating that positive discussion is something that we can all be working on."
Whether in the United States or any other place on the planet, suckling shouldn’t suck.