Milky Way

Breast-feeding is better for babies, better for mothers, better for society -- so why is the practice shrouded in shame?

The La Leche League took its name in the late 1950s, when commercial baby formula was being promoted by doctors, fewer than 20 percent of new mothers nursed their babies and people in polite society wouldn't say the word "breast-feeding" out loud.

If you're smiling at the quaintness of times gone by, don't. Across the country, only about 22 percent of babies are still breast-fed four months after birth, most people still blanch at the word "breast" (and won't even mention "nipple" or "areola"), and women nursing their babies in public are still asked to go to bathrooms, storage rooms or their cars, anyplace just to get them and their babies and their breasts out of sight.

"I recently spoke to a woman who had to go to court to contest a parking ticket," says Erin O'Reilly, a member of the St. Louis Breast Feeding Coalition. "She had a young baby and was breast-feeding it when the bailiff came up to her and said, 'We don't do that in here.'" She was told that "eating and drinking" weren't allowed in the courtroom and was escorted to a dirty, crowded storage closet to finish.

Other women frequently report that while nursing in public areas of St. Louis-area malls, they are asked -- basically told -- to go to the bathroom instead. One working woman was told to use her car as a place for pumping her milk, even though it was winter, rather than tie up the employee bathroom. And don't forget about the woman several years ago, breast-feeding her baby in a car, who was ticketed by a police officer for "indecent exposure."

Even though it's not illegal for women in Missouri to breast-feed their babies in public, they're often made to feel that it is. So O'Reilly's group and others crafted a bill for the Missouri Legislature this year that would allow women to breast-feed in public without fear of being asked to "go someplace else." It also requires hospitals providing maternity care to offer the services of a lactation specialist to new mothers or to give them information about groups such as O'Reilly's coalition or the La Leche League.

Rep. Patrick Dougherty (D-St. Louis) says he's been asked for several years to sponsor the bill and thinks this year might see its passage. "There are a number of other states that have this protection written into law," Dougherty says. "And while I don't think there are a lot of cases where a woman is ticketed for breast-feeding, one case is too many."

In New York, for instance, the state Legislature passed a law under its civil-rights act that a mother has the right to breast-feed her baby in public without being admonished or subject to indecency laws.

The bigger purpose of the Missouri bill, says Jill Lund, chair of the St. Louis Breast Feeding Coalition, is to help promote breast-feeding as something that should be at least as much a cultural norm as fast food. "We're working to break down the barriers to breast-feeding," Lund says. "Even in a woman's family, breast-feeding is discouraged. The breast is seen as a sexual object, something for the man.

"Well, it's not," Lund says. "Humans should be fed human milk whenever possible."

The statistics regarding formula-fed babies should be enough to scare any new mother into considering the options: Babies on formula are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory or gastrointestinal infections and eight times more likely to contract childhood lymphomas, and they're at increased risk for allergies, diabetes and substantial cognitive defects.

For mothers, the health benefits of breast-feeding are just as important. According to a 1994 study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, "increasing duration of lactation was associated with statistically significant trend toward a reduced risk of breast cancer," and other studies indicate that breast- feeding decreases postpartum bleeding and decreases the rates of osteoporosis and diabetes.

On top of all that, it's cheap. Whereas the cost of formula for one year averages out to about $1,400, breast milk is free. In political terms, a study conducted at the Kaiser-Permanente HMO in Durham, N.C. suggests that for every 1 million additional breast-fed babies, the U.S. would save $1.4 billion a year in health-care costs.

But Missouri statistics show that of the 73,000 women who gave birth in 1995, almost half left the hospital breast-feeding their babies but only 22 percent were still nursing six months later. Among low-income women, only 27 percent are nursing at birth and just 14 percent continue for the next six months, according to information provided by the coalition.

"It's just not a cultural norm," O'Reilly says. "We've gone a couple of generations now without breast-feeding. Our mothers didn't and our grandmothers didn't, because in the 1940s and '50s, formula companies wanted to sell their product and succeeded in getting women to change over. Even pediatricians used to think it was more sterile to use formula, so they were pushing it."

The biggest barriers to breast-feeding these days are embarrassment, social and family pressure, and the workplace environment. Mothers of young babies, for instance, must pump their breasts at least twice a day for about 20 minutes, and if there's no special place set aside, the woman must use the bathroom. In the more regulated workplaces, too, mothers often aren't given extra breaks just for pumping their breasts.

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