When Did Breastfeeding Become a Choice?
A Message from Jennifer Ustianov, RN, BSN, IBCLC
Project Director and Perinatal Content Lead
Years ago, a moment was forever etched in my memory. As a young student nurse, I watched as a new mother wiped aside her tears of happiness and relief in those first few precious seconds after the birth of her first child, gathered her inner strength, and then quickly and lovingly moved her child to her breast. It was natural. It was beautiful. It was timeless. I knew much less then than I know now. But I knew one thing for sure in that moment—I knew when my time came, I would breastfeed.
When does the decision to breastfeed first form in the consciousness of a young woman’s mind? What influences that decision? Is this decision made prior to becoming pregnant, during the first months of a pregnancy, after giving birth? Or is it made as we grow and absorb everything that influences us in our day-to-day lives?
As a maternal child nurse who has practiced for over 30 years, I have come to appreciate the challenges that families face and the many conflicting messages and demands on their time. We live in a modern world with modern world pressures and modern world technologies. I get it! The decision to breastfeed (or not) is complex these days. And it carries with it burdensome social stigmas and judgment. Expecting mothers can spend hours reading about, discussing and contemplating which method of feeding a newborn is best for child, mother, father, family and lifestyle.
In just a few decades, we have seen a notable shift in our cultural perceptions about breastfeeding. What was once the only way is now one of the options. Our choices have evolved over years of social influences that have encouraged and challenged us to consider alternative approaches.
These choices are now real and viable for individuals. But at the societal level, these individual choices are contributing to poorer long term outcomes for our next generation. We now have strong evidence to prove what was never a question for our great and wonderful grandmothers. Breast milk is our most perfect food, and it is almost always best from a health perspective.
I know the tides are beginning to turn. Recent reports show breastfeeding rates are increasing in the US. The journey back to a more supportive breastfeeding culture has begun in this country. But I wonder whether there is more we can do to accelerate this process, so that from this generation forward there is no question and no need to choose.
I believe two elements will drive this change: influence and knowledge. Influence is the door; knowledge is the key.
As health professionals, our power to influence is clear. We can change attitudes and perceptions one person at a time and we can influence practices and systems to make the healthy choice the easy choice. It is our duty to question practice, change the status quo and improve the outcomes of an entire generation.
But influence is adrift without knowledge. When a mother and father truly understand the health benefits of breastfeeding, or the functional need for skin-to-skin time, or the amazing miracle of a baby’s self latch, they get it! Once health professionals witness and re-learn the power of the uninterrupted stages of newborn behavior in the first minutes and hours, the amazing and inherent responses of a mother’s body, the magic of the quiet skin-to-skin responses between a mother and her newborn as the infant searches and finds his mother breast unaided, they get it! They remember, re-engage and renew a commitment to participate in nurturing the next generation of healthy, happy children, parents and families.
I dream of the day when there will be no need to improve the breastfeeding rate in our country. Until then, I challenge us all to share our influence and knowledge about breastfeeding with one person, one mother, one teenager or one family. Together, we can restore breastfeeding to its proper place in ours and any society.
Happy Breastfeeding (this) Month and always.