Breastfeeding is a contentious issue in the media. Photographs of breastfeeding mothers or celebrities on social media, breastfeeding videos that go viral, and breastfeeding-related incidents that hit the news bring out strong emotions and opinions from men and women alike, whether or not they are breastfeeding, or have breastfed before.
Why does breastfeeding attract so much attention and divided opinion? We discussed this with two women who work with breastfeeding mothers everyday.
Ginny Phang is a birth and postpartum doula trainer, HypnoBirthing practitioner, entrepreneur, life coach, and energy worker specialising in fertility, pregnancy, postpartum, depression and relationships.
Mythili Pandi is the President of the Breastfeeding Mothers’ Support Group (Singapore) (BMSG), a doctor, and mother to two breastfed babies.
Why the Confusion About Breastfeeding?
Our Perception of ‘Normal’
Ginny feels that the problem lies with what people see as normal. “Breastfeeding is normal, yet society does not perceive it as normal. In a similar twist, underweight models in advertising campaigns are not normal yet they are portrayed as normal. Creating awareness, education, and support for breastfeeding mothers are crucial to bringing about the shifts necessary for people to see breastfeeding as normal.”
Mythili adds that many see bottle-feeding, not breastfeeding, as the normal way to feed babies. Children learn this from a young age through television shows and toys that allow them to give a baby doll a bottle of ‘milk’ to drink.
Mothers’ Unresolved Feelings
Mothers often have conflicted and unresolved feelings about their own breastfeeding story. They may have weaned their babies prematurely because of inadequate support or bad advice. Or they may be struggling with feelings of inadequacy or regret.
Mythili believes that the guilt many mothers feel about breastfeeding is responsible for the backlash surrounding breastfeeding in the media. “If a mother was unable to breastfeed (whatever the reason), her negative emotions tend to pervade her thoughts. If breastfeeding was difficult or painful, she may wonder if breastfeeding is necessary after all. Or she may project her sadness and regret when she sees another mother nursing her baby out in public.”
Ginny has an interesting take on a mother’s feelings. “As a new mother, you are subjected to a lot of well-meaning advice from people around you. Every mother gives meaning to the stories she tells herself to support what she believes. So if a mother succeeds in breastfeeding, then the pro-breastfeeding stance she takes is simply a defense mechanism for the meaning she attributes to her story. Similarly, if she did not succeed at breastfeeding, her anti-breastfeeding stance gives meaning to her story.”
Mixed Messaging in Society
Women’s bodies are objectified and breasts are sexualised in advertising and in the media. For many people, the topic of breastfeeding cuts directly to their inner conflict about breasts being objects for sexual gratification versus their role in nurturing and nourishing babies.
Mythili feels that this translates into difficulty breastfeeding in public or many mothers. “Breasts have always been sexual objects and our culture feels the need for them to be covered up. We see this in the idea of bras and the appeal of cleavage-baring tops. In societies where breastfeeding is normal, such as in parts of India, Vietnam or Africa, it is common to see a mother breastfeeding her baby with her breasts exposed.”
Is Breastfeeding an Erotic Act?
In his book, Birth & Breastfeeding, French obstetrician, researcher and breastfeeding advocate Michel Odent explains that the hormone oxytocin is secreted in love-making and other intimate acts, as well as during breastfeeding.
However, he explains that a hormone is never secreted as a single element but rather, as one part of a hormonal complex.
When a woman breastfeeds, her body secretes oxytocin as well as prolactin. Her body is in a hormonal state that is directed toward her baby. This hormonal equilibrium is different from the one that is secreted while a woman is making love or giving birth.
As Mythili puts it, “Breastfeeding is all about nourishing a baby, there is nothing sexual about it!”
Normalising Breastfeeding in Society
The first step in normalising breastfeeding is changing society’s attitudes, whether through breastfeeding-friendly cafes or by reducing bottle-feeding images in the media.
Ginny suggests implementing pro-breastfeeding policies and initiatives, such as offering incentives to companies to support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. She lends her support to the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) to encourage breastfeeding-friendly practices in maternity hospitals. Such an initiative has a good objective, and it can be implemented on a large scale, she says.
Normalising Breastfeeding for Women
Mythili explains that many young women have never seen breastfeeding mother-baby pairs. Seeing other women breastfeed in public helps you accept and grow confident that breastfeeding is normal and can be done in public discreetly.
Ginny describes her role as helping women discover their in-born abilities. She encourages women to believe in themselves when it comes to breastfeeding: “Giving birth is your superpower, just as it is baby’s innate superpower to know what to do when placed on your chest. He will instinctively look for the breast. Feeling whole is also your superpower. Cut out the noise surrounding what you are innately born to do.”
Navigating the Controversy with Empathy and Gentleness
Whichever side you find yourself on, or whether you find yourself somewhere in-between, you will come to understand that breastfeeding or not breastfeeding, is not simply a black-and-white issue.
Mothers’ breastfeeding experiences are emotion-laden, confusing, and come in all shades of grey. It would help to extend your empathy and kindness to mothers who may be facing personal struggles you know nothing about.
Ginny concludes: “As if we already do not have enough to deal with in our day-to-day lives. Why add more stress and judgement? Breastfeeding or not, mothers need as much compassion, support and encouragement as possible as they go through the journey of birthing themselves into mothers.”