Why the Mandatory Breastfeeding Law has Nothing to do with Babies.
The passage by the United Arab Emirates' Federal National Council of a clause in their Child Rights Law requiring new moms to breastfeed their babies for two full years has gone viral. Comments are flying left and right about what's best for babies and about the pros and cons of breastfeeding.
This law is, at best, a case of "Good Intentions, Bad Execution," and, at worst, yet another attempt to control women and strip them of their capacity, right, and responsibility for making choices regarding their families and their bodies.
This Isn't About Babies
If you want women to breastfeed because that is what is best for babies, you offer education, you offer support, and you offer positive examples. You don't criminalize the inability or failure to do so. If you want people to eat healthier, you teach them about nutrition, you provide them access to fresh vegetables and fruits, you put images in the media of people eating kale. You don't outlaw cheeseburgers (though I would actually probably be in support of that for other reasons, ha).
If this were about nutrition for babies, there would be some discussion of milk banks, regulation of formula companies, and the health and nutrition of nursing mothers (though I see another dangerous rabbit hole there). But it isn't about babies, it is about women. It is about control.
This law looks women right in the eye and says, "We don't trust you to make the right decision for your families and yourselves, so we're taking that choice away."
Decisions about whether to breastfeed, how long to breastfeed, and even where to breastfeed are complex and difficult choices that plague women here in the US. I don't really know about the situation in the UAE, but based on this law I might hazard a guess that there are some similarities. People are so freaking obsessed with women's breasts and what we choose to do with them that something that wasn't even a question 100 years ago (and for thousands of years before that), is now a gut-wrenching choice that affects the way women feel about themselves as human beings.
I have known women wracked with guilt over the inability to breastfeed and women who were disparaged and even verbally attacked by their own family members for breastfeeding for "too long," or in public. I personally suffered the indignity of being asked to conceal my breastmilk at the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School because, "no one wants to see that." The speaker was a woman, the milk was in a sealed cup, and she and I were both there in a professional capacity (not that it would matter if we weren't).
When it comes to breastfeeding, there's no right answer. No matter what choice women make, someone will judge them as wrong. And that is the true wrong.
If You Really Want to Increase Breastfeeding
One hundred years ago, a law requiring breastfeeding would be seen as essentially the same as a law requiring that you feed your baby - a bit obvious and silly. So what has changed? Babies haven't changed. Breasts haven't changed. Society has changed. Between the obsessive sexualization of breasts and the aggressive and intentional attacks on breastfeeding by formula companies, we as a society have been reprogrammed. Breasts are for sex and bottles are for babies. '
Except now we know (or re-know?) that "breast is best." So every mother should breastfeed. Except not in public, because that would interfere with our sexual notions about breasts. And not for "too long" because that's just "weird," even if it's anthropologically correct. But not for "too short," either, because that's just selfish. And not if it hurts, or you don't like it, or it's inconvenient. But that's not right, because it's best for your baby. And what about if you eat too much fast food or your breasts are too big or too small or your aunt's sister had mastitis?
If you really want to increase breastfeeding:
Stop obsessing. Stop staring. Stop making such a big deal about it (educating people is not 'making a big deal'). Show women nursing in the media - without making it a focal point. Show it as casually as you would show someone eating lunch (indeed, nursing IS someone eating lunch). Show people in the media accepting and not making a fuss about it.
People are walking through the park. They walk past a woman who is nursing. She nurses, they walk, it's normal. Just like if they walked past someone eating a sandwich. Normal.
Accept it in public. Everywhere. A woman should never feel nervous or ashamed to nurse in public. There should be no "should I or shouldn't I" (and REALLY no "should she or shouldn't she") about nursing in public any more than there should be a question of whether or not I can eat an apple in public. If you see a woman nursing in public, don't gawk, don't point, and don't comment - even positive comments.
"Good job eating that carrot. It warms my heart to see young people eating vegetables in public." Eating vegetables in public is only weird if you comment on it (I know there are a few people out there who love creating awkwardness and now have a new idea - consider it a gift from me). Don't comment on nursing in public.
I have received positive comments while nursing in public which made me happy and started lovely conversations, but not everyone likes being approached in public, and really, if breastfeeding is normal there's no need to comment.
If you're a nursing mom, keep normal and natural as your mantra. I openly nursed in public and there were times when I was torn up with stress about it. I nursed in public with dozens of my colleagues - U.S. Marines, mostly male - around and I was incredibly uncomfortable. But to leave would be tantamount to saying I didn't think it was normal or appropriate to nurse around my colleagues. To go to a restroom would be like saying nursing is dirty or secret (and I don't like the idea of feeding my child in a bathroom). To refuse to feed my hungry child because I was uncomfortable would be selfish.
I am not saying every woman should do exactly what I did or nurse in places that make her uncomfortable. I'm saying that the discomfort shouldn't exist. And, indeed, everyone who knew me (macho male Marines included) got used to seeing me nursing pretty fast. If I didn't act uncomfortable, they didn't feel uncomfortable, and soon what should have been normal (nursing), was normal.
If you really want to increase breastfeeding, then start teaching people about it (not just mothers - everyone: men, women, children, grandparents, everyone). Part of this fits with normalizing.
There wasn't a lot of formalized education about breastfeeding 100 years ago because it was so normal, such an ingrained part of being human, that there didn't really need to be other than tips and tricks from midwives and other mothers. Given the decimation of this cultural knowledge, though, a little mass education - and specialized education for mothers - is probably in order.
It isn't enough to just plaster the words "breast is best" all over pregnancy magazines and maternity wards. It isn't enough for OB/GYN's and Pediatricians to give 60 seconds of lip-service to the fact that breastmilk is the most nutritionally complete food a baby can have.
In the moments when judgy people made me question my decision to breastfeed past one year, it was always the data that kept me going. For me, the data was my support. It wasn't just knowing that "breast is best," but knowing what that meant.It was knowing that breastmilk is not only perfectly nutritionally formulated for human babies, but that as a child grows, the composition of the breastmilk changes to meet the child's needs. It was knowing about all the added illness fighting qualities that breastmilk provides that nothing else can. It was knowing that breastmilk is incredibly beneficial for brain development.
And in the moments when I was worried about the amount of milk I was producing, or the amount my son was consuming, or about the possibility of pain, or about my son sprouting teeth, or a million other things that I hear nursing or pregnant mothers worry and ask about all the time, it was finding the answers that kept me going. But wouldn't it be amazing if I didn't have to search out these answers? Wouldn't it be amazing if women didn't quit breastfeeding for fear that their child wasn't getting enough milk because they knew that, except in very rare cases, their bodies would increase and decrease the amount of milk being produced in order according to their babies' needs?
If you want more women to breastfeed, teach them from childhood that it is a normal, natural part of growing up and of giving birth. Then teach them extensively when they are pregnant and nursing about how breastfeeding works, how to troubleshoot issues, how to trust their bodies, and about the extensive list of benefits for both them and their babies.
If you want more women to breastfeed, stop telling them they can't be trusted to figure it out on their own. If you want someone to ride a bike, you don't threaten them; you help them a little, teach them how to do it and maybe support them until they get their balance, then you just let them do it. Ok, maybe not my best metaphor, but seriously, thousands of years of evolution have been programming mothers to want what's best for their children, so let's stop acting like women are incompetent fiends.
I can probably be called a lactivist. I believe that breastfeeding is incredibly important, and I believe concrete steps should be taken to increase it's prevalence (like, you know, the steps I'm writing about here...). I also disapprove, somewhat controversially, when women don't try, or put only a nominal effort behind their attempts to, breastfeed.
I believe there are a lot of women out there who have been taught by society that breastfeeding is undesirable for any number of reasons and so they just don't want to. I believe there are women out there who "give it a try," just so they can say they tried. But, I also believe that on an individual basis, THAT IS NONE OF MY D*MN BUSINESS.
I can never know the factors that went into anyone's decisions but my own. I may think some women don't try hard enough, but maybe that's because they weren't informed or supported. And I have no way of telling apart women who didn't want to breastfeed from women who desperately wanted to but couldn't. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. What matter is that I know that the vast majority of women would bend over backward to do what's best for their children. That may sound like it contradicts women choosing not to, but if a woman doesn't have enough information or support, her choice is not fully informed or may be so difficult to implement that it would negatively affect her health or that of her child(ren).
I know how much I struggled with not only breastfeeding decisions, but just about every mothering decision I've made. I know that pretty much all of my friends went through the same thing. I know that, across cultures, women willingly sacrifice and suffer to improve their children's lives. Maybe, instead of focusing on punishing women for making the "wrong" decisions, we should trust women to make their own decisions, in light of their own complex and unique situations, and offer them information and support in doing the best that they can for their children. And maybe that knowledge and support will be spread and carried on in a way that is not possible with simple thoughtless force.
If you really want to increase breastfeeding, you need to support women. "If you're medically incapable of breastfeeding, we'll give you a wetnurse" is not support. (And is also not something I would personally want since there is so much bonding tied in with feeding a child - maybe milk donations?).
Normalizing, Informing, and Trusting are all parts of support, but it goes beyond that. Support is giving women access to lactation consultants, especially in the weeks after birth - but also for the next few year. Support is giving working mothers breast pumps and passing regulations to protect them. Support is passing laws making it a crime to discriminate against a nursing mother instead of passing laws that punish women who can't nurse.
Supporting is helping women eat well so they can be confident in their nursing. Support is about making sure that women know that if they are struggling with breastfeeding for any reason there will be someone there that wants to help them, not someone who wants to punish them. Support is about silencing the judges and emphasizing a caring community - and not just one for nursing mothers, but for all mothers.
Support is the most ambiguous of these concepts, but possibly also the most important one because without support, none of the other ideas work. Unsupported, women will never be confident enough to normalize breastfeeding again. Information without support and reassurance is a crutch at best. And support is the best way to demonstrate trust.
I nursed my son for nearly three years. I am glad I did, but I am no more proud than I am of making his lunch today.
This Law is Not About Breastfeeding Of course, none of these suggestions mean a thing in the world of a law like this. Because this law has nothing to do with breastfeeding and everything to do with reminding society that women are dangerous and need to be controlled. Two excellent resources, which include online support, for nursing mothers or anyone who wants to know more are: