Milch, latte, lait…no matter how you say it, babies were born to drink milk.
In the 1950s scientists in the United States pushed an infant formula that medical professionals believed was more complete than breast milk. Although experts now know that nothing competes with mother’s milk, infant formula marketing and societal pressures have left American breastfeeding mothers confused and embarrassed.
I am a firm believer that “breast is best” and nursed my two boys for a combined total of three and a half years. With my first, I was quite shy and would use a cover, leave the room, or find a dark corner.
When my second arrived, we lived in Florida, where I was a card-carrying member of the milk club. This card stated that I could legally nurse my baby in public and if someone tried to tell me otherwise, I could pull it out and lay down the law.
Why would a mother need this sort of reinforcement? Sadly, out of 50 U.S. states, only 46 have laws that protect a mother’s right to breastfeed in any location, public or private. Only twenty-nine of those exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws.
Naturally, when I moved to Europe with a five-month-old, I was eager to learn the social etiquette for breastfeeding. Nursing him was my highest priority, but my desire to culturally blend in was also on the list. Instead of a Google search for accepted protocol, I asked around. My German neighbor thought the question was odd. With typical German honesty and a straightforward demeanor she answered, “Of course you can feed your baby in public. No, you don’t need to wear a cover.” I could tell by her tone she wasn’t aware of the stigma present in the U.S.
When I asked my Italian cousin, she shared that her country’s culture is family friendly and that she had never seen anyone “getting itchy at a woman for breastfeeding.” Why are we, as Americans, so uncomfortable with the idea of feeding a baby with our breasts? Not enough exposure to Europe’s wealth of Madonna and child portraits perhaps?
Americans, unlike Europeans, have extreme sensitivity to nudity. In fact, while in London at the National Portrait Gallery some years ago, I witnessed children on a field trip discussing a painting with a nude subject matter. The students, dressed in smart-looking uniforms, were attentive and asked probing questions.
This is something that would never be witnessed in the U.S. because anything involving the naked body is seen as sexual. This view sadly translates to a mother feeding her hungry baby or toddler from her breast.
After learning that my European friends didn’t share the American hang-ups with breastfeeding, I gained further confidence. Out of practicality, I proudly nursed when my son was hungry, no matter where we were or what we were doing. Europe was the place where I refused to hide in a corner, leave a room, sit in isolation or drape a sheet over my baby’s head. Yes, I decided to just cradle him in my arms while on a train, in a museum or while eating lunch in a restaurant with no cover whatsoever.
Do you know what happened? Absolutely nothing. No one batted an eyelash. In fact, I’m sure that everyone was happy that I could effectively and efficiently calm a crying baby.
I began to call myself a “nursing ninja” for how discretely I could openly feed him. In fact, while nursing him on a flight back to Florida, the young man seated next to me high fived my son. Either he was unaware that my baby was drinking milk, or my travel companion decided we could use a dose of positive reinforcement.
I now participate in online breastfeeding support groups and help encourage mothers to feed their babies in a more European way, without a negative stigma attached. Perhaps the pendulum will swing away from infant formula and more American mothers will have the confidence to participate in this healthy, natural, bonding experience. Have you high-fived a nursing mother today?