More effort needed to dispel breastfeeding stigma

I recently came across a video on YouTube that was a clip from Sesame Street, circa 1977.  In the video, one of the characters, Buffy, is discreetly breastfeeding her baby and Big Bird asks what she is doing. She simply explains breastfeeding in a few sentences. It is a sweet and very preschool age-appropriate segment. 

Sadly, I doubt it would make it on the air today.  Using the word “breast” on a program directed toward children would cause an outcry from many parents, despite the beautiful and natural depiction of a mother nourishing her baby. 

Often when I discuss breastfeeding with pregnant patients, they express discomfort with the idea. They use words like “gross” and “unnatural” and explain that they will use formula to feed their baby for convenience and ease. 

Somewhere along the line, breastfeeding has become disgusting, inappropriate and inconvenient to a large part of the United States. Most states have had to pass laws so that mothers nursing their babies in public could not be cited for indecency.   

Formula companies are largely to blame. Pregnant women and new mothers get bombarded with free samples, gift bags and constant advertising from formula companies. But we as health care providers have to take some of the responsibility.  Many of us are compliant in our silence.

Are we really taking the time to educate women and their partners on the myriad benefits of breastfeeding to both mom and baby? Or when a pregnant mom states that she plans to formula feed, do we just accept that answer and move on to the next question? 

If you had a pregnant patient said she planned to continue smoking throughout her pregnancy, would you accept this? I think most providers would do everything in their power to educate the patient about the risks to the fetus and support available for maternal smoking cessation. Why then do we shy away from strongly endorsing breastfeeding as the best choice with each and every patient? 

Choosing whether or not to breastfeed is certainly a very personal decision and one that ultimately must be respected by the provider. But many women are making the decision without all the evidence in support of breastfeeding. It is the provider's responsibility to educate, advocate for and support breastfeeding — the easiest, cheapest, most natural and healthiest way to feed most babies. 

Share your suggestions for improving women's perceptions of breastfeeding in the comments box below.

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