In the heart of cowboy country, Renee Cooper has been on a mission for 22 years.
Cooper, Cochise County’s director of the Women, Infants and Children Program and its breastfeeding coordinator, is determined to provide mothers with the support and education necessary to breastfeed. As lead for the Cochise County Breastfeeding Task Force (CCBF), she is paving the way to change public perception about breastfeeding and ensure the safety of breastfeeding mothers.
Ten years ago, a mother breastfeeding in public in Arizona could be charged with indecent exposure and be forced to register as a sex offender. This law has changed, but mothers nationwide are still being turned away by restaurants, asked to breastfeed in bathrooms, and publicly shamed if they don’t cover up, says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, researcher and editor of Clinical Lactation, the U.S. lactation consultant’s journal.
Other Western cultures see breastfeeding as a natural act. So why are so many Americans outraged by public breastfeeding?
Kendall-Tackett says the history of American stigmatization runs deep.
The female breast is revered in U.S. popular culture. Because they are so eroticized, breasts are rarely viewed as an essential source of life, and therefore may still seem “indecent” even if they’re used to nourish an infant, Cooper says.
Cooper says corporations are largely to blame for this stigma.
Formula companies have long had a foothold in the American cultural conscience. These companies produce advertisements that make manufactured formula seem better for babies than the milk a mother produces. Cooper says they also get doctors and scientists to “recommend” certain formulas.
Moms who breastfeed are believed to be choosing a backward and less beneficial lifestyle for their children, Kendall-Tackett says.
Cooper says that the formula that businesses create mimics breast milk. She and others cite scientific studies that show breast milk is uniquely tailored for the health of the individual baby. As the child grows, the milk changes with it to adapt to the body’s changes, whereas formula offers a one-size-fits-all approach.
To educate the public, breastfeeding initiatives are springing up nationwide.
The U.S. Surgeon General calls for an increase for long-term breastfeeding rates from 43 percent to 61 percent by 2020.
Cooper says that while 97 to 98 percent of women are able to breastfeed, 34 percent of mothers in Cochise County’s Women, Infants and Children program, which is a federal program that provides assistance for low-income mothers, choose to breastfeed to some degree. Forty percent of those mothers exclusively breastfeed.
Cooper says a large part of CCBF’s mission is to teach not only the health benefits of breastfeeding, but also how to actually do it.
T.J. Marsh is the co-founder of Mama’s Latte, an at-home support service for breastfeeding mothers in Tucson. She helps mothers create a plan to integrate breastfeeding into their lives, whether in public or at work.
Under federal law, employers must provide breaks and a safe space for working mothers to express milk. Employers cannot discriminate against employees who are breastfeeding.
There is evidence that breastfeeding is good for business.
Advocates point to evidence from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that women who breastfeed are more cost effective for companies. They take less time off to care for sick children, go to the doctor less for themselves and their children, thus lowering company health care costs, and create higher retention rates because they’re more loyal to companies that support their breastfeeding efforts.
Cooper says if more companies create a climate of support for breastfeeding it will influence women’s decisions to do so. If more women breastfeed, she said, this could transform the U.S. from a “formula society” to a “breastfeeding society.”
One such institution is Shepherd’s Fold Daycare Center, which the CCBF recently recognized for being the first “certified breastfeeding friendly daycare center” in Cochise County. The certification is aimed to increase support for breastfeeding mothers outside the home.
Marsh emphasizes that each mother knows best if she should breastfeed. No mother should feel pressured by others to make such a decision, she said.
Kendall-Tackett believes in a different approach. She says the choice to breastfeed isn’t about lifestyle so much as health. Women who feel that breastfeeding is too time consuming or constraining to their roles as mothers are missing the point: being a parent is what’s time-consuming. Breastfeeding is not only about the baby, it’s also about helping the mother.
She cites research that moms who breastfeed sleep better, are less stressed, have less depression and have lower rates of child abuse.
Cooper and Kendall-Tackett both believe that to break the social stigma, Americans need to accept discreet methods of public breastfeeding, and then eventually overt breastfeeding.
Still, it comes down to the mothers. Cooper is confident that reaching “one mom at a time” will make the biggest impact on U.S. breastfeeding culture.
Cali Nash is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.