It's World Breastfeeding Week, a time to celebrate breastfeeding and reflect on how far we've come – particularly since the early 70s, when many new mothers were incorrectly told that formula was as good as (or even superior!) to their own breast milk, and before ethical standards were imposed on the advertising of artificial milk for babies.
So where are we in Australia in 2012?
Thankfully, through good support and education, we have achieved moderately higher rates of breastfeeding here than in the US and the UK, though we still have a long way to go. Although the World Health Organisation, the Australian government and our nation's medical experts recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, only 15 percent of our children receive that protection, up from 14 percent last year. That’s less than half the world average.
And now, with mounting research showing the value of breastfeeding to protect against a range of diseases, and new changes to Australia's safe sleep guidelines that recommend breastfeeding as a way to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, it’s little wonder more than nine out of 10 Australian women want to breastfeed.
But after 96 percent of Australian women initiate breastfeeding, by the age of four months only 27 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed. Crucially, according to the latest Infant Feeding Survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, most women quit breastfeeding before they choose to, indicating that external forces are at work.
While we've become accustomed to seeing the fertile female body used to sell us all kinds of products, we're no longer accustomed to seeing it perform this most natural task
Many women don’t receive adequate support to continue breastfeeding, and unfortunately there are stark socioeconomic disparities at play, with younger mums, those who are less-educated, of a lower income or Indigenous all less likely to breastfeed and more likely to quit early. This is a pattern we see across Australia and the US, despite the fact that families in lower-socioeconomic groups are those who would benefit the most financially from feeding their children for free for the first six months of life.
So what can we do to help women who choose to breastfeed?
Breastfeeding support and education needs to become more consistent and widely available across the country, which is a big priority for the Baby Friendly Health initiative (BFHI) from the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. This program works to ensure the best standard of evidence-based care is provided for mothers and babies, with proven success in helping women achieve their goals of breastfeeding their babies successfully, and for longer.
We also know that returning to work remains a barrier for many mums. A program called Breastfeeding Friendly Workplaces is battling that by encouraging businesses to allow breastfeeding breaks or for women to have a place to pump and store expressed milk at work.
Unfortunately, despite the push to breastfeed, many Australian mums remain nervous about breastfeeding in public. Mums are still frequently told to cover up or "be discreet". And as if the topic isn't sensitive enough, the very sight of breastfeeding remains inexplicably controversial. Take the recent cover of Time magazine, on which a woman was feeding her three-year-old, as an example. The image was hotly debated for a variety of reasons, including the idea of feeding past age one, despite the World Health Organisation recommending all mothers breastfeed to two years and beyond.
But you don't need to be feeding a three-year-old to cause offence. US actor Angelina Jolie's appearance on the cover of W magazine in 2008, in a modest black and white photo of her breastfeeding one of her twins, caused a furore. Her baby was a newborn, the image showed no cleavage, and her child was not standing on a chair, as on the cover of Time.
Similarly, last year a natural-looking photograph of supermodel Miranda Kerr breastfeeding son Flynn caused mixed reactions, while provocative photographs of her in lingerie and swimwear don't cause so much as a whiff of controversy.
Images of breastfeeding are still routinely flagged as offensive and banned on Facebook.
The reaction of many seems to be: "Sure, breastfeeding is fine, but I don't want to see it!" The thing is we have to see it. Babies feed every few hours, and it's not reasonable, healthy or legal to demand that mothers hide away every time they need to give their children sustenance.
Unfortunately, while we've become accustomed to seeing the fertile female body used to sell us all kinds of products, we're no longer accustomed to seeing it perform this most natural task.
Though anti-discrimination laws protect a woman's right to breastfeed, without normalising the sight of breastfeeding in our society we have little hope of making more mothers comfortable enough to engage in the practice, or continue it once life inevitably involves taking a hungry baby out of the house.
Not all women can breastfeed, but the majority can and want to. When mothers make informed choices, let's respect those choices. And for the Australian women who do choose to breastfeed, let's give them our unreserved support in the healthcare system and at work – and also in the community.
As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week 2012, let's look forward to a time when most Australian women are able to wean their children when they choose to, regardless of whether they are working mothers or not, and a time when public breastfeeding is treated as the healthy, normal and utterly uncontroversial thing that it is.
This is an edited extract from a post, taken with permission, from Tara's blog at blog.taramoss.com.
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