Thursday, January 16, 2014

To Feed or not to Feed: Breastfeeding is the Question

What do you think of breastfeeding in public? Is it acceptable? How about at home? Did your opinion charge based on where the baby is fed? If so, why did it change?

Culture is one framework that constructs our view of breastfeeding as appropriate or inappropriate based on the place of feeding. What does the view of breastfeeding say about the culture that constructed it?

To answer the question, let’s examine the view of breastfeeding in two countries, The United States of America and Mali. What does the view reflect about American and Malian culture in general?

The American View of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding in public is not widely accepted in America. Mothers are told to go to the bathroom to feed their babies and pump milk. In a recent NBC News article, “Pumped up:Breastfeeding mothers fight for rights at work,” Allison Yarrow, a NBC News contributor, writes about one mother’s experience going back to work after having a baby. Bobbi Bockoras “planned to pump breast milk during breaks so she could continue nursing her infant daughter…” The Affordable Care Act (ACA) gives mothers the right to pump at work “in a clean, private, non-bathroom space,” but her supervisors told her to go to the bathroom instead. She ended up pumping in a dirty locker room and with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) filing a law suit…. To make a long story short, the locker room got tidied up, giving the mother her “clean, private, and non-bathroom space.”

While breastfeeding mothers encounter opposition, advertising from clothing stores, several magazines, and countless films that show much more skin then a  covered woman nursing are readily allowed. Somehow the media is welcomed, while the mother and baby are frowned upon and sent away. Apparently showing skin is not at the heart and core of the issue as this ironic cultural juxtaposition points out.

So why does American culture view breastfeeding in this light? Are people just uncomfortable seeing it? Naturally inclined to think against it? Why such the avoidance?

Perhaps the rejection of breastfeeding in public reflects how American society may tend to view family – more specifically infant family members. They are regarded as an inconvenience, as something that gets in the way and takes up time that could be spent pursuing a degree or career. 

The Malian View of Breastfeeding

In her article, “More Than Nutrition: Breastfeeding in Urban Mali,” Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler studied the cultural and social contexts surrounding breastfeeding in Farimabougou, Mali. Dettwyler points out, “[w]omen take babies and young children everywhere – to the market, to the fields, on visits to friends, to rural villages, even to work… the infants nurse, sleep, and play while their mothers sell food or other market items.” Dettwyler continues saying that, “even in the formal sector, returning to wage employment does not necessarily mean giving up breastfeeding.” That Malians view public breastfeeding as a culturally accepted norm is demonstrated by the lack of friction mothers encounter when feeding their babies in social and work environments.
What is it that makes public breastfeeding so accepted at the cultural level? What does this acceptance indicate about Malian society?

Maybe the acceptance of public breastfeeding shows how Malian society as a whole view babies and family. Dettwyler says the babies go wherever their mother does, and they are “welcome in almost any situation.” They are not seen as a bother or a time-depriving inconvenience.

Putting it all Together 

Now that we have explored the views of breastfeeding from two entirely different countries and contexts, and seen what the views reflect about each society as a whole, what do we think could be done to provide American mothers with an environment to breastfeed their babies free of discrimination from the workplace and society?


  1. I think it's interesting that as a country we value babies (look at Babies R Us and all the products we make for babies' safety and comfort and as a sales market). Yet, we make it so difficult for mothers to reproduce (maternity/paternity leave, breastfeeding) which suggests we don't really value her reproduction that much from a structural level.

  2. I like how your blog ended with questions because this is what your blog is supposed to do, provoke thought. As for answering those questions, I just have my opinion about what we can do. First off, I believe breast feeding is the only way to go. There are things in breast milk that I don’t think can be replicated in powered formula. For example, there are sugars, oligosaccharides I believe, that the baby can not digest, but they are not for the baby. These sugars are meant to nurture the bacteria growing inside the baby’s digestive tract. Coming from a pro-breast-feeding-mind, I believe that any public building required to have a bathroom should have a small room that is separate for the baby to feed. Personally, I don’t see why anyone has a problem with breast feeding in public though as long as the mother covers herself.