Sunday, June 26, 2011

Breastfeeding in Public: The Irish Edition

The current received wisdom is that breastfeeding is best for baby and mother. The benefits are numerous and include: Safe, healthy food for the child since you don’t have to worry about baby bottle contamination; Convenience and money – no weekly purchase of formula required, and you don’t have to bring prepared bottles around town with you; reduced colic; a perfectly adapted food source for the infant; reduced ear infections for the child; weight loss aid for mothers post-partum; decreased risk of obesity for children who were breastfed; and I could go on.  

photo by Koratmember
Despite this being the message people like American First Lady Michelle Obama are spreading, modern society is not really doing a huge amount to support breastfeeding mothers. If babies should be breastfed for their health, the health of the mother and the health of society, then they’re going to have to be breastfed in public on occasion. Mommies have to get out of the house sometimes, you know. We need to go shopping, run errands, stop by the post office, take baby to Gymboree class and so on.  And when we go out, so do our babies. And they need to eat. Often.

While I’m sure we would love to be able to squeeze our errands into 90 minute slots between feeds and be comfortably seated on the sofa before baby starts to howl for a suckle, it rarely works that way.  So, often, we are in the coffee shop or the playground with our older kids or maybe out shopping and, boom, feed time comes ‘round. Or, maybe the kid just wants to eat early – they’re not robots, you know. So, we feed them. This may have to be done, as a friend did recently, in the dressing room of a clothing boutique, or as others have done, in a toilet stall. Sometimes, though, you just have to feed them in front of others in a restaurant or city park.

I’m done with breastfeeding, but back when I was breastfeeding, I never cared what anyone thought. Once, my baby started howling during a doctor visit so I just picked him up, pulled down my top, stuck him on the breast and kept talking. Once I was at a pub lunch in the Southwest of Ireland with some visiting Americans. Zach – about a month or two old at the time – started howling for a feed. I picked him up and breastfed as long as I needed to. The waiter came and went, staring at my boob out of the corner of his eye. I didn’t care. And I didn’t care if anybody else cared.  Zach needed to eat. Babies are part of society. They get to eat while out mixing with society.

Some women would like to be more private about it, and I totally understand this. They’d like to sit comfortably not in a toilet stall but perhaps on a chair with a cushion and feed the baby. There are rarely any such conveniences available when you’re out and about, though. Even if you want to be discrete (not me, mind you, I couldn’t care less) but you, you well bred, polite and discrete lady – even if you wanted to be discrete, you couldn’t be half the time. You have to feed in a corner of the cafe.

Breastfeeding rates in Ireland are still amongst the lowest in Europe. According to a 2010 article in the Irish Medical times, “If breastfeeding isn’t considered the culturally accepted method of infant feeding and not perceived traditionally as the norm, then it tends not to be the highest rate of infant feeding. This is the generally accepted situation in Ireland.” Let’s face it: You do feel really awkward trying to get your baby to latch on in public. The whole vibe and atmosphere around here is that it should be done behind closed doors. But if you want breastfeeding rates to increase – and all the doctors and midwives and public health nurses say this – there has to be a cultural change, not just more clinics as suggested in the article.  In order for the culture to change, more women have to get out there and breastfeed in public, as needs dictate. If you’re willing to warm a bottle in a cafe, you should be willing to breastfeed. Use a shawl or large t-shirt or a baby blanket to cover up while you’re helping the child latch on. Once you’re both comfortable, you could consider opening your shawl a bit or adjusting the baby blanket so that the child’s face is visible to you.  Turn away when you’re putting the baby on the breast. Have a friend or husband stand up and cover you both while you settle in. Like most things, it’s the beginning and the end that can get awkward or embarrassing – the latching or the buttoning up when you’re done.

If you choose to bottle feed, you’re set. Society loves you. As long as your baby doesn’t make too much of a fuss (though you know she will) you’ll have an easy ride out in public. But, if you need to use your breasts to feed the baby, as has been done since the dawn of time, you may be in for an awkward ride. But stick with it. It’s worth it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Breastfeeding in Public, or How to Become Socially Unacceptable

I've done a post swap with Marilia of Tripping Mom. Marília is a surfer-single mom of a 4-year old girl. She writes about our common values system, how to find a relevant education and ways to keep your sanity around a kid. Her single mom blog has lots of unconventional parenting ideas. 

Below, she writes about breastfeeding in public in metropolitan Brazil - apparently not as socially acceptable as you might think.  I'll be posting about breastfeeding in Ireland over on her site, soon.


Breastfeeding in Public or How to Become Socially Unacceptable

 If you decided to breastfeed your baby on demand, or even if your child is on a schedule, it´s hard to avoid doing it when you are out of the house. If you have a young baby, say up to 6 months, people are tolerant to breastfeeding in the big cities. But if your baby is a bit older, then you get all kinds of negative reactions from people looking at you disgusted to outright telilng you that you could be doing it elsewhere  (like the bathroom, go figure), to asking silly questions about your toddler like ¨Isn´t she too big to breasfeed?¨

We know there is no such a thing as too big to breastfeed and La Leche League has tons of articles about the benefits of extended nursing (beyond one year).

Back in my home in the northeast of Brazil, a small beach village, breastfeeding is more of the rule. But when my daughter was 2.5-years old we went to visit my family in São Paulo, a big metropolis with over 20 million inhabitants. There, I felt really judged for doing this wonderful nurturing thing. Even my family felt awkward too see a ¨big¨ child breastfeeding.

I felt so bad about this, and breastfeeding was still so central in my relationship with Luísa, that I decided on not going back while I was still nursing. I went back to visit my family only last January, when Luísa was closer to 4-years old and free from the boob.

For me it was easy to solve the problem just by staying away from the big cities (where crazily people avoid so many natural things). But the women living in the big cities have to face people´s unfounded criticism no matter what.  La Leche League advises us to do it anywhere anyway, instead of hiding, to encourage other women to do so, to make this more common place with time.

 If you live in a big city, you can use humor when people ask you stupid things like: ¨Why are you still breastfeeding her?¨  You can try something like this:

¨I decided to be socially inacceptable.¨

¨My child is not very keen on the hormones injected in cows.¨

¨We have an incestuous relationship, as you can tell.¨

The important thing is to keep the answer short and not engage in too much of a discussion. First because this would mean turning yourself into a breastfeeding advocate, publicly trying to get people on our side (and although there´s nothing wrong with that, I think it´s better to do it by example than by engaging in polemics with narrow minded people). Secondly, because no matter what you say, those people will most likely keep thinking you are an aberration.

 Instead of discussing the important topic with people that clearly have no idea, get inspired by people who are also doing it.

If you don´t know anyone in your physical world doing it (I didn´t), get online support, read stories and rest reassured of the fact that breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do for your baby. Remember that besides the weird looks, there might be silent curious looks from women who will get encouraged by you.

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