Over Memorial Day weekend a set of beautiful photographs began circulating on Facebook of two Air National Guard women, in uniform, breastfeeding their babies. The photographs were taken as part of breastfeeding campaign designed to help increase the rates of breastfeeding among civilian and military women at Fairchild Air Force base in Washington by the Mom2Mom Breastfeeding Support Group. The coordinator of the group, Crystal Scott and the photographer, Brynja Sigurdardottir, wanted to educate, promote and provide awareness about breastfeeding in and out of the military. The photos were to be a part of a breastfeeding campaign to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week later this summer. The photographs were posted to the Breastfeeding in Combat Boots Facebook Page and were also part of a blog post, asking whether breastfeeding in uniform was acceptable and why the Department of Defense should change the uniform regulations to accommodate military women who choose to breastfeed. The photo went viral over Memorial Day weekend and by Tuesday morning the national media (see the story and pictures in Huffington Post) had picked up the story and it spread like wildfire over the Internet, TV and newspapers worldwide. And with it came controversy.
The photos stirred up the usual breastfeeding in public comments, however the majority of the controversy seemed to revolve around the issue of breastfeeding in uniform, and how it is against regulations (there are no specific regulations concerning breastfeeding in uniform), brings disgrace and dishonor to the uniform, and is unprofessional looking. Officially, the military promoted the ‘real’ problem with the photographs as an issue of whether the women were promoting a ‘cause’ by breastfeeding in uniform (which is a violation of military regulations). That ‘cause’ was the breastfeeding campaign that Mom2Mom had the photographs taken for and that were to be made into posters and other materials for World Breastfeeding Week. The women in the photo had been given permission to take the photos, however the Air Force did not approve or endorse the use of photographs in the media. The women in the photos were not reprimanded, however the coordinator of the breastfeeding campaign has been fired from her civilian job in relation to the media involvement surrounding the photos. (Note from former employment lawyer and Best for Babes Co-Founder Danielle Rigg, JD, CLC: Her employer claims to have terminated Ms. Scott based upon legitimate performance-related grounds, but it is certainly suspicious that she was let go so suddenly, and so proximate to the controversy in the media. )
The Booby Traps
What has been lost in this controversy is the fact that not being allowed to breastfeed in uniform is just one of many Booby Traps that military mothers face in the military. Nearly 43% of women in military are mothers, and 22% of the children born to them are newborn to 2 years old (Defense, 2009). Breastfeeding initiation rates are up in the military, in part due to the push by health care providers in response to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement on breastfeeding (Bell & Ritchie, 2003; Curto, 2004; Pediatrics, 2012; Uriell, Perry, Kee, & Burress, 2009). But those numbers drop off quickly at the six-week mark when active duty moms must go back to full-time duty and face numerous challenges and Booby Traps (see Active Support for Active Duty Babes), such as trying to find a time and place to pump and manage to keep their milk supply up against some pretty steep odds. Seemingly small obstacles, such as denying mothers the ability to breastfeed in uniform while at the childcare center on base, or when at medical for a well-baby appointment, often contributes to mothers weaning their babies when they serve in the military. Something as simple as a policy change allowing breastfeeding in uniform would support mothers and make a huge difference to their success.
Furthermore, photographs such as those posted by Mom2Mom as part of a breastfeeding campaign that promote, protect and support breastfeeding are vitally important for Beating the Booby Traps our breastfeeding military mothers face. Research has shown that exposure to breastfeeding (through photos, stories, and in-person) positively affects and influences women’s breastfeeding intentions and success (Angeletti, 2009; Meedya, Fahy, & Kable). This is of particular importance in the military, where mothers breastfeeding are NOT seen due to the hazy rules regarding breastfeeding in uniform, and far too many women quit at 6 weeks because they think it is not possible to combine military service and breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is an economic and health issue for the Department of Defense that affects mission readiness, retention and recruitment. The DoD needs to Take Action and enforce the existing military policies regarding breastfeeding (each of the services have a policy regarding place and time to pump and deferment from deployment, except the Army) and create a military-wide uniform regulation that provides guidelines for breastfeeding mothers who find themselves in the situation of needing to nurse their baby while in uniform. It’s the right thing to do and will help military mothers Beat the Booby Traps and Give the Breast for Baby and Country.
Do you think the Department of Defense should allow military mothers to be seen and photographed while breastfeeding in uniform, in order to set a positive example for other military mothers, and foster improved health in the military?
Angeletti, M. A. (2009). Breastfeeding mothers returning to work: possibilities for information, anticipatory guidance and support from US health care professionals. Journal of Human Lactation 25(2), 226-232.
Bell, M., & Ritchie, E. (2003). Breastfeeding in the military: part I. Information and resources provided to service women. Mil Med, 168(10), 807-812.
Curto, C. (2004). Evaluation of the Barriers and Enablers to Breastfeeding for Active Duty Navy Women. Bethesda NMC. Washington DC.
Defense, D. o. (2009). Demographics 2009: Profile of the military community. Retrieved from http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/12038/Project Documents/MilitaryHOMEFRONT/QOL Resources/Reports/2009_Demographics_Report.pdf.
Meedya, S., Fahy, K., & Kable, A. Factors that positively influence breastfeeding duration to 6 months: A literature review. Women and Birth: Journal of the Australian College of Midwives, 23(4), 135-145.
Pediatrics, A. A. o. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-841.
Uriell, Z., Perry, A., Kee, A., & Burress, L. (2009). Breastfeeding in the navy: estimates of rate, duration, and perceived support. Mil Med, 174(3), 290-296.