Societal Barriers to Breastfeeding {Guest Post}

When people think of breastfeeding difficulties, the things that probably come to mind are supply issues, bad latch, cracked nipples, constant feedings, and the like. Certainly, there are women who are afflicted by those difficulties and who cannot overcome them. But I believe the societal barriers to breastfeeding (propagated by the kyriarchy)  have a much more significant impact on breastfeeding rates than the medical or technical issues.

What are the societal barriers to breastfeeding?

  • Formula advertising: Everywhere you look, formula is being pushed on new moms. Buying maternity clothes? You can enter a draw to win a year’s worth of formula. Buying a parenting magazine? Expect a few two-page spreads telling you about the latest hype on formula being closer than ever to breast milk. Giving birth at a hospital? Expect to go home with a sponsored bag full of formula samples and coupons unless you are lucky enough to give birth in a baby friendly hospital. Surfing the web looking for breastfeeding advice? The formula companies will try to deceive you into clicking on their ads by pretending they are about breastfeeding. We need to push to make compliance with the WHO International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes into a standard or a law or find some other way to ensure that formula and bottle companies are not acting unethically and unnecessarily sabotaging breastfeeding in pursuit of corporate profits.
  • Insufficient education of medical professionals: Women having trouble with breastfeeding often turn to their pediatrician or to a general practitioner. Unfortunately, the amount of education that these doctors have in breastfeeding is insufficient. It will obviously range from school to school and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but I have heard of some doctors having merely a few hours of training on breastfeeding. In addition, pediatricians attitudes about breastfeeding are declining, doctors whose skills are most lacking are least likely to seek training to upgrade their knowledge and skills, and there are plenty of medical professionals who are just downright not supportive of breastfeeding, either on purpose or out of ignorance. So when I hear people say, the pediatrician said “X” and I trust him, so we followed his advice, forgive me for being a bit skeptical. If you are having breastfeeding difficulties and your doctor does not refer you to a lactation consultant, you should be concerned. Be proactive and build your A-Team before your baby arrives.
  • Lacking access to lactation consultants and breast pumps: People who are struggling with breastfeeding need access to qualified lactation professionals, i.e. International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, and may often need access to a quality double electric breast pump to help maintain or increase supply while working on breastfeeding issues. However, a lot of people who do have access to health care still do not have access to these essential breastfeeding supports.
  • No workplace support for breastfeeding: Whether they are forced back to work due to lacking maternity leave provisions or choose to go back to work, women do not have sufficient support for breastfeeding in the workplace. Some states have laws that protect women’s rights in this regard, but many do not. Even among those that do have laws, employers are known to put pressure on breastfeeding women or make them feel bad for needing facilities or time to pump. There is also not enough support for babies at work programs, which allow women to bring small babies to work with them if they choose. Without the right support, women often find themselves trying to pump enough milk sitting on a toilet without frequent enough breaks to maintain milk supply.
  • Milk banks not a priority: As I explained in my post on blood, milk and profits, there is an entire industry and infrastructure set up to collect, screen, and distribute blood to those that need it. But milk banks are not a priority. There are too few of them and the ones that exist appear to be in it more for the profits than for ensuring every baby has access to breast milk. Making milk banks a bigger priority would allow women with excess milk to provide it to those that need it, thereby reducing the dependency on formula.
  • Attitudes and imagery: People will breastfeed if they see others breastfeeding. Peer pressure, feeling normal, having role models. Call it what you like, it is what it is. If the predominant image in public, in magazines, in movies, on television, is bottle feeding, then people will see that as normal. If it is not, then fewer people will breastfeed and those that do will be ostracized and discriminated against by the anti-nursing-in-public brigade. This is one of the reasons I think it is so important to breastfeed in public. This is why I think we need at least as many breastfeeding dolls as bottle feeding dolls.

We need to keep providing medical, technical and moral support to women who are struggling with breastfeeding. That will always be a requirement. But to truly facilitate breastfeeding, we need to break down these barriers so that all families and all babies can benefit from the health benefits of breastfeeding and the economic benefits of breastfeeding.

Which of these barriers have you faced? Did it prevent you from breastfeeding for as long as you wanted to? Are there other societal barriers that I missed?


Annie has been blogging about the art and science of parenting on the PhD in Parenting Blog since May 2008. She is a social, political and consumer advocate on issues of importance to parents, women and children. She regularly uses her blog as a platform to create awareness and leverage collective empowerment to make a difference in the lives of parents and their children.

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Societal Barriers to Breastfeeding {Guest Post} — 6 Comments

  1. I’m thankful that I didn’t have any barriers to stop me- early on I think I was insecure nursing at our old church because so many moms made me feel like you had to go to the nursing moms room and had to be “modest” and they also were big on not nursing past 1 year. When I left that church, I was free to really see beyond their mothering and was able to settle into my own style. From there, with that foundation, I felt anywhere that I went that I was confident because it was based on what I wanted to do and felt was right. I am saddened when moms don’t get the support they should with breastfeeding in public or with their family. I can see how that would be a barrier to many. I nursed my last 2 until they were 3 yrs old and am thankful by then- even at their age- my experiences were always positive. I think moms also need to hear about the good stories and the good reactions. :)

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    • “I think I was insecure nursing at our old church because so many moms made me feel like you had to go to the nursing moms room and had to be “modest” and they also were big on not nursing past 1 year.”

      I wonder if that might have become a societal barrier for you had you stayed at that church, and how many women that attitude may have affected? I think you, and so many others, are lucky that they are strong women that constantly learn and grow. There are so many that aren’t.

      And I think you are so right that women need to hear the positive stories. There were plenty of times those steeled my resolve, especially with my first when we struggled so at the beginning. I think getting those stories and experiences out there might be a cultural shift that we need now.

    • I have been watching the show Mad Men, even though I am quite behind watching old ones, and watching the culture of those times… it really is interesting to see the attitude toward breastfeeding and children in general! But even long ago the wealthy did not often breastfeed their own children. We know more now about health and the human body that now it should be recognized for the true value it really is for both mother and baby. I am waiting for that!

  2. The biggest challenges I faced came from my little one’s pediatrician. While the pediatricians and nurses I worked with all said they supported breastfeeding and honestly seemed to believe that they were supportive, in practice I was given bad advice there a number of times, especially in the first month. Also, they always seemed surprised to find he was gaining “enough” weight. The air of surprise never failed to irritate me and I think it showed the anti-BF biases lurking beneath the surface support they tried to offer us.

    Luckily I was raised by a very pro-BF mom and had a much-younger sibling so I was around a lot of breastfeeding firsthand as a pre-teen, which I think contributed a lot to my deep inner sense that breastfeeding was natural and not necessarily difficult. I also was a voracious reader and ended up reading my mom’s La Leche League book on breastfeeding when I was 10. So before I had my own little one I did a bunch of reading and was fully prepared for less-than-stellar info I got from my pediatrician including their knee-jerk push to supplement when it wasn’t needed. I’m also lucky to live in Seattle where there are some great LCs and a number of breastfeeding support groups. I got a lot of wonderful support and advice from those resources.

    So I was able to overcome the “booby traps” I encountered despite a somewhat rough start with nursing and am proudly nursing my 18-month-old. Including nursing him in public, and not ever using nursing covers to do so, despite some odd looks. However, I’ve seen many women around me who wanted very much to breastfeed run afoul of similar traps to the ones I encountered. I can gently offer what I consider better information if women I know want it, but I am not going to be one of those pushy know-better-than-you moms who contradicts other moms sharing their own struggles and experience. So I often hesitate about what to say and how to say it when I hear someone saying something I believe is incorrect.

    I hope that someday our culture will better support breastfeeding so that it’s easier for moms. I have seen so many women want to nurse their little ones and struggle so mightily, and much of it seems like it shouldn’t be necessary.
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  3. My children were born during that ridiculous period of doctors pushing bottle-feeding. My mother was horrified that I chose to breastfeed. She said you’d think I was an animal! I told her, I was an animal and that’s how we feed our young, giving them the best start Nature and God intended, in addition to helping the womb get back into place. I didn’t even consider discussing this with my obstetrician — wtf would he know when we’ve been nursing our young since the beginning of time.
    I can’t have been the only woman of my generation capable of breastfeeding my child while all the rest had so many problems that they needed to talk to a doctor about it. Women have to stop assuming they don’t know what to do and just do it. (The woman in the room with me had her milk stopped by her doctor. It turned out her baby was highly allergic to cow’s milk, goat milk, and soya. I asked her why she wasn’t giving her human baby human milk and she said her doctor wouldn’t allow it! This was a perfectly normal, healthy, young woman. They had to get a wet nurse because he’d dried up her milk. Just think about that.)

    Yes, you will always run into the woman who does have a physical problem — but, they’re in the minority not the average — and this should not stop you from the most convenient, safest, healthiest, natural way of feeding your child. If you eat properly, your baby will get enough milk. This shouldn’t even be up for discussion, except for the problems with the work place environment and trying to bring about changes there to make it easier for nursing mothers. I sympathize with the problems working mothers face and wish I had an easy solution.

    Sorry if I’m coming on too strong but I’m having a very difficult time trying to figure out what the problem is with today’s mothers not understanding this most basic point. Human mothers are meant to feed their young with their God-given breasts to give them the best start in life. There’s no secret to it. The baby knows what to do while you sit in a chair and enjoy the bonding. Giving an obstetrician a say in the matter doesn’t make sense, to me, at all, until and unless a problem has surfaced with the actual feeding.
    SharleneT recently posted..Solar Baked Fudge – an Easy Holiday Treat

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