A resource to inspire, inform and empower parents.

Normalize Breastfeeding

By Melody Fetterman

I had a conversation with someone recently, someone who I really love and respect. It was a hard conversation, though. If my friends and family describe my parenting, they use one word: breastfeeding. Breastfeeding, more than any other single factor, has influenced my parenting style. It has dictated where I can go and for how long, how I sleep, how I eat, what I wear, and most importantly, how I respond to my son.

That’s what made this conversation so hard. I learned this certain someone was not actually so keen on the whole breastfeeding thing. It came as a bit of a shock, as I’m nearing 2 years of BFing and this was news to me. I cried, I got mad, I criticized, I informed this individual of their ignorance. I was totally uncool about the whole thing.

Melody Fetterman, Le'Mae Photography, breastfeeding in public

Photo credit to Le’mae Photography

Eventually I came to understand that it wasn’t so much breastfeeding that was the issue, it was this cultural obsession with brelfies and nursing in public that seems to be sweeping the nation. And I am totally a part of this obsession. Most of my newsfeed is baby and boob. But what this person did not understand is why? Why does such a movement exist? Why is something so normal and natural being so shared and sensationalized. I barked something about ‘women being harassed’ and how ‘it’s their right to nurse wherever they want’, and something about how ‘society is to blame for sexualizing boobs’, and something about how ‘women are always belittled and cornered into feeling shame about their body while men are able to flaunt around loud and proud.’ You know, the usual breastfeeding rant.

Anyway, it’s been a few days since the conversation, and you know what? I get it now. I still don’t agree, but I get it. It is unfortunate that a movement like “normalize breastfeeding” even has to exist. In this person’s eyes, it just seemed so unnecessary, because breastfeeding is so necessary. Its so normal. It’s a “no big deal” being turned into a really big deal.

And here is why. Maybe you’ve heard this story-

In the early 80s, a female gorilla in an Ohio zoo was unable to nurse and care for her first infant. It was soon realized that this gorilla, who was born into captivity and not an active part of a gorilla community, had never been exposed to breastfeeding. Zookeepers thought that exposure to a nursing mother might allow the gorilla to succeed with her second infant by enabling her to garner the necessary skill set through observation. La Leche League mothers were brought in for the gorilla to observe nursing, and as expected, the mother gorilla managed to successfully nurse her second infant.

Research indicates that rates of breastfeeding success in higher-order primates are largely dependent on visual observation of other breastfeeding duos. In other words, breastfeeding is a learned behavior. In no other primate does this ring more true than humans. It’s theorized that because of our heightened intellectual capacities, humans have an increased reliance on learned, rather than instinctual behaviors. Infants, of course, are born with the suckling instinct, but the mothers response is linked less to instinct, and more to exposure.

This might partially explain why success rates are not that great here in the Western World. At 6 months, the percentage of exclusively breastfed infants in the U.S. ranges from a low of 10.1% in Mississippi to a high of 29.6% in Vermont (2014). These low rates occurred despite the AAP and WHO recommendations of exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first 6 months.

Hearing a recommendation alone is not enough to encourage success. As evidenced by the story of the gorilla, women also need to physically see breastfeeding. If this means plastering brelfies all over Facebook, unashamedly nursing in public, and hosting nurse-ins (whether physically or virtually), then so be it. We’ve got to do this ladies. Exposure is key.

When I look back at the conversation with my loved one, a part of my blood still boils, but another part of me just feels sad. It sucks that breastfeeding is still a social taboo when it truly is such a normal part of life. It sucks that we’ve had to turn it into a movement and shove it down peoples throats. It sucks that we feel defensive, that we are ready to blast a business that harasses a woman, that we want, no, need to share our breastfeeding moments. I wish our society didn’t need a movement like this. But it does.

It doesn’t need this movement so that I can feel comfortable. This isn’t about me. This is bigger than me or you. This is about normalizing breastfeeding now so our kids don’t have to. This is about exposing other women to breastfeeding so we can improve our embarrassing breastfeeding rates in this country. This is about nursing through our discomfort so that someone watching may some day feel comfortable nursing.

I’m actually looking forward to this movement becoming a thing of the past. I’m looking forward to the day when people don’t bat an eye at a breastfeeding mother, and when we don’t have to share and sensationalize anymore because breastfeeding is just a no-big-deal part of life. And we can do it ladies, we can make it happen. We can, for once and for all, normalize breastfeeding.