One of the best lines in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich” is when Brockovich — the legal clerk portrayed by Julia Roberts — is asked by her boss, attorney Ed Mabry, “What makes you think you can just walk in there and take whatever you want?” And she says: “They’re called boobs, Ed.”
Brockovich — at least the big screen version of the real-life California woman — understood that when it comes to Western civilization, breasts are a big deal. If they weren’t, Hooters wouldn’t be such a successful restaurant chain.
There have been articles, papers and even books written about men’s obsession with women’s breasts. From a biological standpoint it’s weird because that same obsession isn’t replicated anywhere else in the animal kingdom. There’s actually a lot of science — or, at least, scientific theories — behind this fascination. If you Google it you’ll be fascinated, or blush, or both.
But here’s the thing about all the attention that is placed on breasts: it leads to a very big stigma, one that has a very real effect on new mothers. Almost every mother who has breastfed in public has a story to tell. If they haven’t been asked to leave or cover up outright, they’ve gotten hateful looks and sneers from those around them.
That’s odd, too, when you think about it. After all, a woman who is breastfeeding her infant is doing the very thing her breasts — these biological objects that so much attention is paid to in Western civilization — are designed to do. And it’s not just men who are put off by it. Many other women, too, are offended by mothers who breastfeed in public.
Of course, many mothers who breastfeed their babies exclusively aren’t comfortable breastfeeding in public, for a variety of reasons. It’s entirely possible to breastfeed without doing it in public. But the stigma surrounding it leads many mothers to stop breastfeeding their babies entirely.
That’s why the month of August is declared National Breastfeeding Month by the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. And last week was World Breastfeeding Week, as declared by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action. The goal of these twin observances is to break the stigma surrounding breastfeeding and to teach expectant mothers the benefits of breastfeeding.
Perhaps the most important thing to know is that it’s legal to breastfeed in Tennessee — anywhere, any time. Sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room? In an airport? At the ballgame? At church? If you want to, you can breastfeed your baby. In fact, it’s illegal to ask a woman to leave or cover up in any of those locations. State law guarantees women the right to breastfeed without repercussion in any place, public or private.
Similar laws are on the books in 46 other states. Only Idaho, Virginia and South Dakota don’t have similar laws, and two of those states — Virginia and South Dakota — have other laws that provide explicit protection for mothers who breastfeed in public.
So for those who work up the courage to speak out against a woman who is breastfeeding in a public place, whether to ask her to cover up or simply to chastise her, just know that it is you — not the mother — who is in the wrong.
Still, it’s not the actual confrontations that leads to the stigma and causes many women to decide breastfeeding just isn’t worth it. It’s the quiet looks that do the most harm: the rolling of the eyes, the audible sighs, the head-shakes. For this reason — and, almost certainly, the very real inconvenience that breastfeeding causes — most mothers start out breastfeeding but few stick with it.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 84% of infants in this country are breastfed at some point. By three months of age, just under half are breastfed exclusively. By six months of age, that number drops by almost half, to about 1 in 4.
That’s unfortunate, according to advocacy groups like the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. And their goal, especially during this month, is to change attitudes.
It’s beneficial to babies
Most pediatricians recommend breastfeeding your baby exclusively for at least the first six months of life, and many recommend breastfeeding for much longer.
There are real reasons behind the recommendations. For starters, the colostrum that is produced by mothers’ breasts in the first few days after birth are rich in protein, low in sugar and contain many beneficial compounds that aren’t entirely replaceable by formula. Doctors say colostrum helps newborns’ digestive tract develop.
Breast milk also contains antibodies that help babies ward off infections and sickness. As mothers are exposed to viruses and bacteria, they develop antibodies to help their body fend off future infections. When they produce breast milk, those antibodies go into the milk and are passed on to the baby, who then gets the same benefits from them as his mother. (And, yes, that includes antibodies to coronavirus.) Science has shown that babies who are not breastfed are more susceptible to illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhea.
It’s not just pneumonia that formula-fed babies are more vulnerable to. There’s a long risk of early life illnesses that breastfed babies have a reduced risk for, including ear infections, respiratory tract infections, allergies and the common cold. Exclusive breastfeeding is even linked to a reduced risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), and experts say that studies have shown breastfeeding leads to a lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes and childhood leukemia.
The health benefits continue to pile up. Studies show that babies that are breastfed for more than four months have a reduced chance in becoming overweight, and they also have more leptin in their systems than formula-fed babies. Leptin is a hormone that regulates appetite and fat storage.
The benefits are more than just physical. Although the science isn’t conclusive, multiple studies suggest that breastfeeding makes children smarter. These studies have shown that breastfed babies have higher intelligence scores and are less likely to develop behavioral problems as they grow older.
It’s beneficial to mothers
It’s not just the babies who benefit when mothers breastfeed. Breastfeeding has health benefits for moms, too.
The fact that most women are most familiar with is that breastfeeding can help you lose weight. That’s not an across-the-board truth; some women gain weight during breastfeeding. But other women lose weight, and doctors say that’s because breastfeeding burns calories.
Breastfeeding also continues the production of oxytocin, the hormone that all mothers produce throughout their pregnancies. Oxytocin is especially important during labor, as its helps with the birthing process and reduces bleeding. Breastfeeding helps promote less bleeding and a quicker return to normal of a mother’s body after pregnancy.
Like babies, mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of many diseases. There have been studies that suggest women who breastfeed obtain long-term protection against cancer — particularly cancers of the breasts and ovaries. And women who breastfeed also have a lower risk for high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Breastfeeding sometimes prevents ovulation and menstruation. Women everywhere can appreciate a pause of periods, but this can also mean that there’s a lower risk of becoming pregnant again right away.
And, like babies, the benefits of breastfeeding to a mother aren’t just physical. Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk for postpartum depression, the type of depression that is common in women shortly after childbirth.
The benefits of breastfeeding don’t stop with the health of a mother and her baby. There are also financial benefits to consider. Formula isn’t cheap. In fact, according to one study by the U.S. government, parents who formula-feed exclusively can expect to spend at least $1,200 and as much as $2,000 during the baby’s first year of life. Specialty formulas, which are sometimes recommended by doctors, cost even more.
Of course, breastfeeding isn’t necessarily free. That’s especially true for women who don’t want to breastfeed in public, which includes almost all women who breastfeed. While most insurance plans cover breast pumps and accessories, those can cost several hundreds of dollars when they aren’t covered. And even women who don’t mind breastfeeding in public need those essential tools if they work or are otherwise separated from their baby for periods of time.
Any way you measure it, though, breastfeeding is significantly cheaper than formula-feeding.
It’s not always best
Sometimes, of course, a mother’s breast milk isn’t the best option for baby. Some mothers don’t produce enough milk, for a variety of reasons. Others are required to take medications that can be harmful to the baby. And mothers who ingest a lot of alcohol or caffeine can pass harmful substances on to their baby, as well.
There are also matters of convenience to consider — and that’s not a selfish approach, given all the responsibilities that new parents juggle. Simply put, formula-fed babies don’t need to eat as often as breastfed babies.
At the end of the day, though, medical professionals are quite united in their take on a subject that’s still surprisingly controversial: Breastfeeding is almost always best for mother and baby alike.