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Breastfeeding Myths Perpetuated by Culture, Society and the Health Care System

Jack Newman, MD
Reported by Kathy Kerr
Arlington, Virginia, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 5, October-November 1999, p. 107

Jack Newman's humor, experience and point of view made him one of the most popular speakers at the Conference. Here are some of the points he brought up at the Luncheon session on July 4.

We all know that breastfeeding is wonderful. So why is it so difficult to convince other people?

In the United States and Canada, bottle-feeding is the norm. We are a bottle-feeding culture. We begin teaching our children at a young age. Dolls come with baby bottles. Most children's books show babies with bottles. The idea is perpetuated that animals breastfeed and humans do not. Dr. Newman showed slides of Canadian children raised in families where breastfeeding is the norm. Little boys and girls nursed their dolls. An Australian aboriginal child was shown wearing a strap with clay breasts to breastfeed her doll.

For many mothers, breastfeeding information comes from formula manufacturers. Breastfeeding mothers pictured in the pamphlets are usually plain with dark hair and appear to be depressed. Bottle-feeding mothers are blond, prettier, happier and the photographs are brighter.

Many mothers are fearful of nursing in public. A breastfeeding pamphlet picturing both breasts exposed gives a subliminal message that breastfeeding mothers must be immodest, making bottle- feeding mothers appear somehow more virtuous.

Professional, medical and pharmaceutical companies use baby bottles in advertising to represent babies. In Norway, where breastfeeding rates are among the highest in the world, a baby at the breast was used in an advertisement with the caption "only one food is better for you than sardines."

Many mothers fear that they will not be able to breastfeed because there is something wrong with their nipples or breasts. They believe their nipples must be as clean and tough as bottle nipples. If a mother has flat nipples, how could she breastfeed? But what woman has nipples that look like any of the artificial nipples on the market? A mother may offer her baby a squeezed breast to try to make it look more like a bottle. A mother with a breast infection is frequently advised not to breastfeed because no one would use milk from a container known to be infected.

Scientific studies, data and progress impress us. At the end of the 19th century advertisers stressed that the baby's intake could be accurately measured with a bottle. Today formula companies emphasize the constant refinement of their products. This is progress. They use scientific language and graphs to demonstrate how similar their products are to human milk.

Our society simply does not know what a truly normal baby is like. Babies are breastfed in the context of bottles and formula. It is assumed that mothers do not have enough milk for the first two or three days. In the past it was shown that formula intake was a shock to the baby's system so it was recommended that the baby have nothing, or perhaps just water, for the first 24 hours. Since formula always looks the same, it is assumed that thin, yellowish colostrum must not be important and that there is a need to get to the "good milk" as soon as possible. Many health care practitioners have no idea how long a baby should stay at the breast or how often to feed the baby. If it takes a baby 10-15 minutes to take a bottle, that should be long enough at the breast. Currently there are many health care practitioners who do not believe in "nipple confusion."

Health care professionals may be looking more at growth charts than at the babies they care for. A breastfed baby may lose weight at first or may not have regained his birth weight by 10 days, but it's much more important to assess that the baby is eating well.

Many breastfed babies become jaundiced. If the baby is gaining well, the jaundice is probably normal. In fact it may be that bottle-feeding mothers should be advised that their babies' bilirubin levels are too low!

Our culture values the concept of being civilized. Civilized upper class women do not breastfeed because they are not as close to nature as women in developing countries. And babies need to be civilized as well.

Many parents feel most comfortable with schedules and avoiding such practices as comforting the baby and nursing the baby to sleep.

As a breastfeeding mother in a bottle-feeding culture, it was fascinating for me to learn from Dr. Newman how the beliefs of our society have been shaped. Our values include modesty, science, progress and civilization and these have a profound impact on breastfeeding in our culture.

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