Human Rights

Why Thousands of New Moms Around the World Breastfed Their Babies In Public This Week

Breastfeeding isn't just healthier for infants—it's better for society.

Photo Credit: Tetiana Mandziuk / Shutterstock.com

Women across the world have been busting out their nipples this week to do one of the most natural and life-giving things female animals can do: nurse their babies. Happy annual World Breastfeeding Week.

Thousands of new mothers—and many supportive men—across the planet joined forces August 1-7 to break with taboos on breastfeeding in the open and spread education on its health benefits for both infants and societies at large. Among the biggest actions of the week was a Global Latch-On inviting women everywhere to feed their babies in public as a way of taking a stand for breastfeeding rights.

Women’s breasts evolved for breastfeeding, and mothers have breastfed their babies since before humans walked upright. Still, somewhere along the way, the patriarchal perspectives embedded in societies around the world have twisted this biological impulse into a controversial choice.

Some label it indecent for women to nurse their babies in public, and others take issue with the act of breastfeeding altogether, preferring babies to feed from formula-filled bottles. While it is legal in the U.S. and most parts of the modern world for women to breastfeed anywhere and anytime they choose, there is widespread stigma against mothers who breastfeed freely.

In recent years, women in the U.S. and beyond have been fired for breastfeeding on the job and humiliated for feeding their babies in public spaces. But more women are speaking up for their right to breastfeed in public, like the 13 moms featured in the June issue of People Magazine.

For 25 years, the first week in August has been dedicated to raising worldwide awareness of breastfeeding. The international event began in 1990 after a group of policymakers from World Health Organization and UNICEF met to discuss breastfeeding in Florence, Italy. They made a declaration to promote breastfeeding worldwide, called the Innocenti Declaration.

Study after study has shown breastfeeding to be the most nutritious and beneficial way to feed infantsWHO “actively promotes breastfeeding as the best source of nourishment for infants and young children,” noting that, “If breastfeeding were scaled up to near universal levels, about 820,000 child lives would be saved every year.”

Children who are breastfed have lower rates of SIDS and Type II diabetes, yet to date, only 40 percent of children are solely breastfed in their first six months of life, WHO calculates.

WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that women breastfeed for a longer period than most American mothers might presume appropriate—six months exclusively on the breast, followed by continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond. Breastfeeding into the second and third year of a child’s life has been shown to boost children's immune systems, better develop baby brains and promote overall healthy weight gain and metabolism. There is a growing movement worldwide to normalize extended breastfeeding.

While scientists and health organizations agree breastfeeding is optimal for most babies’ health, there are plenty of instances in which breastfeeding is not the best option for mothers. There are some potential risks: one 2015 Harvard study found breast milk contains toxic chemicals accumulated from the ever-present pollutants of our industrial age. Some mothers choose not to breastfeed if they are unable to produce enough milk or if babies have trouble latching on, a fairly common issue. Some women have trouble lactating.

Parents should weigh the options on an individual basis and choose how they feed their babies. The aim of World Breastfeeding Week is not to promote breastfeeding as the only good option for moms, but to speak up for the right of mothers who choose to breastfeed freely and openly, without the ridicule they sometimes face.

Here are just three of many powerful actions by new moms and their supporters around the world this week.

1. Global Latch-On: Women gathered by the hundreds and sometimes thousands to breastfeed in public at registered locations around the globe. The event's website estimates that more than 18,000 women participated during the designated time, and in a one-minute timeframe, more than 17,000 children were nursing during the event. 

2. Breastfeeding Subway Caravan: Thousands of moms in New York City breastfed at city hall and on subway trains in an organized ride on the A train to Bedford-Stuyvesant to promote the rights of mothers to breastfeed. State Senator Liz Krueger co-organized the city hall event with the NYC Breastfeeding Leadership Council. The event paid tribute to State Senator Kemp Hannon and Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages for their work to ensure Medicaid coverage for donor breast milk, according to a detailed report on the event by Gothamist.

3. Breastfeeding in the Philippines: More than 2,000 mothers gathered to breastfeed their babies in the Philippines to raise awareness. The mothers stood on the sidelines of the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Manila, according to a CNN report. The event was part of the Global Latch-On and ASEAN regional breastfeeding forum.

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April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.