Mother's Milk

The benefits of breastfeeding are widely acknowledged, but few people see this as relevant to anyone but the parents of babies. In fact, there are advantages directly related to larger concerns, particularly food and the environment. Human breast milk is one of our most valuable natural resources.

It boosts infants' immune systems. It is designed to meet their specific volume and nutritional needs, with no additives or supplements. It eliminates the waste of formula's packaging and discarded leftovers.

While formula requires fossil fuel for its production and distribution, every nursing mother has a fresh, locally produced food ready to serve to her infant anytime, anywhere. Rather than relying on multinational companies, breastfeeding mothers empower themselves -- and, thereby, their home communities also -- to nourish their children.

Breastfed babies are also less likely to suffer from obesity later in life. And exclusive and frequent breastfeeding can work as birth control, limiting population growth.

Breastfeeding should be of interest to anyone concerned about landfill waste, global warming, agribusiness, multinational conglomerates, obesity and overpopulation.

But despite its large support in the medical community and positive coverage in the media, the culture of breastfeeding continues to face troubling challenges. Like the canary in the coalmine, it reveals systemic problems that bode ill for effectively addressing more complex and controversial food and environmental concerns.

The steady decline of breastfeeding during the first three quarters of the 20th century resulted directly from industrialization's move toward large-scale food production and the subsequent overproduction of cow's milk. The dairy industry's search for new markets led to development and promotion of infant formula, with devastating results for the culture of breastfeeding.

By 1972, only 25 percent of American women left the hospital nursing their newborns. And of these women, virtually unsupported in a society that had lost the experience and knowledge necessary to sustain the practice, very few continued nursing beyond the first two months of their children's lives.

The good news is that breastfeeding has made a remarkable comeback during the past 25 years, due in large part to the organization of breastfeeding support groups, encouragement by progressive doctors and the perseverance of individual mothers. Now, 70 percent of women leave the hospital nursing their infants, a marked improvement in one generation.

Still, the culture of breastfeeding is undermined and compromised. It is sobering to realize that despite stacks of supporting scientific studies, universal endorsement (or at least lip service), and an army of local volunteers, lactation consultants and support groups, only 16 percent of American mothers nurse their babies for the full year recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. surgeon general.

The formula industry is alive and well in both rich and poor countries. It is standard for companies to give mothers in U.S. hospitals gifts and free cans of formula. Now the manufacturers are fighting an Advertising Council public service announcement for breastfeeding.

Although the inability to breastfeed is extremely rare, too many women, faced with the large presence of formula in the maternity ward and supermarket, assume supplementing or replacing their breast milk is desirable, even necessary. This belief undermines confidence in their bodies, which hinders their breastfeeding success.

Additionally, social and economic forces in the United States discourage extended nursing. While no one objects to a baby being fed with a bottle in a restaurant, park or church, nursing remains taboo in many public places. And although it benefits employers to support breastfeeding since breastfed babies are sick less, which means their parents miss fewer work days, many businesses fail to give mothers the flexibility to realistically fit breastfeeding into their working lives.

We live in a society where our domestic lives are severed from our educational and economic activities, commercial agendas take precedence over the natural world, and profits are prioritized over health. These dichotomies exist at the expense of women and babies.

We would do well to examine the economic, political and cultural forces hindering the complete success of something as straightforward and compelling as breastfeeding.

Kristin Van Tassel is a mother who teaches English at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan., and Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kan. She is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at The Land Institute, Salina.

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