I was the lone passenger in the Super Shuttle van as it careened from the airport through heavy California traffic towards my hotel. The young driver asked me why I was in town.
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When you are a lactation consultant and answer that you are going to a breastfeeding conference, you never know what kind of response you are going to get.
Nonetheless, I dove right in, "I'm here for a Breastfeeding Conference," I explain gamely. There is the usual moment of silence, and I wonder what he is going to say next.
He responded puzzled, "Is there a wrong way to do it?"
I smile. There will be no awkward comments from this young man. Breastfeeding is, of course, natural and easy for most mothers. However, as we are humans, things go wrong. Babies are born early, mothers have birth complications that affect breastfeeding, etc.
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"No, there isn't a wrong way to do it, but sometimes mothers and babies need help" I explained.
"I see," my driver, replied.
A bus pulled out in front of us, and I sharply took a breath in, as he smoothly changed lanes as though he did that all day long, which of course he does.
"Well," he said, "Why is there such a big deal? Why don't people just do it?"
Why not indeed? He was on the right track of why breastfeeding needs an "awareness" month and community support.
I explained that our culture does not always foster breastfeeding, that sometimes women are made to feel uncomfortable or inadequate when breastfeeding their babies.
"Well, if someone is uncomfortable watching a woman breastfeeding, then they shouldn't look" he exclaimed, as we narrowly miss colliding with a semi truck as we pulled onto yet another freeway in route to my hotel.
"Indeed," I replied, gripping the armrest, as he asked me, "How long are babies supposed to breastfeed?"
I reply with the U.S. and World Health Organization's recommendations: "Ideally infants are exclusively breastfed for 6 months, and then continue breastfeeding with gradual introduction of solid food over the next year with continued breastfeeding for the next 6-18 months or longer."
He nodded and wondered aloud, "Are most people aware of this?"
My driver asked an excellent question. Breastfeeding needs "awareness" to normalize it, and to increase our awareness, as individuals, of our need to support it.
We are of course, designed to breastfeed. We are mammals. However, we are humans, with feelings, insecurities in our new roles as mothers, and we are very vulnerable.
If we are criticized, even subtly, or with well-intentioned concern, "Are you still breastfeeding that baby?" "Are you sure you have enough milk for her?" "You aren't going to breastfeed are you?" "Why is she feeding so often"? "He is just using you as a pacifier!" "I'll give him a bottle for you" we can easily lose confidence.
Additionally, breasts are highly sexual in our culture, and women can feel uncomfortable about having their babies feed from the breast, especially if others act uncomfortable around them.
Our discussion continued through red traffic lights, as we pulled off the freeway and near my hotel. My driver asked an amazing number of thoughtful questions about why breastfeeding is not more common and what can be done about this.
I answered as best I could, amid the cars and trucks zooming around us,. I shared some of the following information:
Breastfeeding is important to our community. We all know breastfeeding has health benefits, which means, of course, that formula feeding has health risks.
Even with this knowledge, breastfeeding needs our support. Women are most likely to start and continue breastfeeding if their culture encourages them to do so.
When you see a mother breastfeeding, smile at her. If you do know someone who is breastfeeding, tell her what a wonderful thing she is doing. If you know someone who is having a hard time, praise her efforts and refer her for help. (Bartlett Regional Hospital has an outpatient Breastfeeding Clinic and knowledgeable OB nurses, call for help: 796-8424. If she is eligible, call WIC 463-4096 for breastfeeding assistance.)
If you know someone who breastfed and weaned, compliment her for the days, weeks, months or years she did breastfeed. If you are close to someone who is breastfeeding, tell her how proud you are that she is breastfeeding. Your support will help her continue breastfeeding.
Finally, if you are uncomfortable watching a mother breastfeed, consider taking my driver's advice and "just don't watch." Do your best not to make the mother feel uncomfortable.
We need to support mothers to sustain breastfeeding for many reasons. For a start, lack of breastfeeding costs this country in excess of $3.6 billion annually in health care costs alone, increases infant post-birth mortality by more than 21 percent, lowers intelligence by six to eight IQ points and produces untold tons of garbage for our landfills.
So, the next mother you see breastfeeding her baby really is helping to save the world.
As we arrived safely at my hotel, my driver handed me my suitcase and said, "You know, my sister is breastfeeding my niece. Next time I see her, I'm going to thank her."
Debi Ballam is a registered nurse and board certified lactation consultant.