This week is World Breastfeeding Week (WBW). The theme for WBW 2011 this is engaging and mobilizing youth through inter-generational learning. The goal is to broaden breastfeeding support and learning outside of the pregnancy/newborn stage. Too often, the first time that women (and men) learn anything about breastfeeding is when they are preparing to have their first child. A large percentage of first time mothers have never seen anyone breastfeed prior to the first time they hold their newborn baby to their own breast.
Breastfeeding is normal and natural, but it isn’t always easy. A lot of mothers find it awkward, difficult, and may even see it as disgusting or off-putting. In large part, this stems from the fact that they haven’t seen women nursing their babies as part of every day life, in the same way that they see women walking their babies in strollers, giving them pacifiers or bottles, or playing peek-a-boo. Men are often concerned about their wives breastfeeding in public because they don’t want them exposing their breasts. Unfortunately, these attitudes come about because breastfeeding is so often hidden away and done only in the privacy of the family home or at best under a nursing cover in a public space. In order for breastfeeding to seem normal and natural, it needs to be visible. It needs to be something that everyone has seen and everyone is familiar with. It shouldn’t be something that people see as awkward or disgusting.
I am the oldest of four children and my mother nursed all of us. My sister, the youngest, is seven years younger than I am. Unfortunately, I have no memories of my mother breastfeeding any of us. I can hardly even picture my sister as a baby and my earliest memories of her are from the time she was about two years old. So when I became a mother 22 years after my youngest sibling was born, I didn’t have any images of my mother nursing them to draw on. How should I hold the baby? Sure, I’d seen pictures in books and online of the different nursing positions, but it seemed so awkward. I simply hadn’t had enough exposure to people nursing their newborns.
As a teenager, I spent a year on an exchange program in Australia. I stayed with a family that had five children, from teens all the way down to a one year old. My host mother was still nursing the one year old and I do have clear memories of her sitting on the couch and nursing him, as well as of him sleeping in their bed (likely to facilitate nighttime nursing). I’m glad that I had this exposure to breastfeeding a toddler and to co-sleeping when I was a teenager, even if they seemed weird or strange for me at the time. I think those memories subconsciously helped me to see those things as normal and gave me a concrete role model as I set out on my parenting journey.
Most women do want to breastfeed, but many of them are not able to meet their own breastfeeding goals due to challenges that they run into on the way. Among younger mothers, the breastfeeding rate is lower than among older mothers. This may be partly an issue of education, but it is probably also because older mothers are more likely to have friends who already have children who act as breastfeeding mentors and role models for them. Younger mothers, however, may be lacking those role models.
If more mothers were to breastfeed in public, especially around teenagers and young adults, it would provide them with important exposure to breastfeeding in the years prior to becoming parents. It would help them to see that breasts are not just sexual, it could give them the confidence to breastfeed and it could give them concrete visual examples to draw on as they hold their own baby up to their breast for the first time. It would give them more places to seek support, make them feel less alone, and give them more confidence.
Have you breastfed your baby in front of teenagers or young adults? Did you see women breastfeeding when you were a teenager or young adult? Please share your stories of inter-generational breastfeeding learning.
Used with permission by Joni Rae Latham