Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) introduced an amendment to a House spending bill that would eliminate funding for a peer counseling and support program for low-income women who want to breastfeed. The peer counselor program is run through WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, that serves low-income families, including nearly 3 million children that are living below the poverty line. “These families are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, and less likely to continue breastfeeding,” says Jerry Calnen, president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. “By now it is well-documented that peer counseling does make a difference.” WIC estimates that women who attend its breast-feeding support groups are twice as likely to plan to breastfeed as those who do not.
The amendment was defeated yesterday in the House with a vote of 119 to 306, but the fact that it was even proposed exposes an achilles heel in the breastfeeding cause.
According to WIC president and CEO Douglas Greenaway, the position of Foxx’s staff is that “women have been doing this for millions of years and shouldn’t need any help.”
That statement by Foxx’s staff is very revealing. It underscores the common public perception that breastfeeding is “easy and natural” and that “women shouldn’t need any help,” a cultural Booby Trap that we have observed since founding Best for Babes in 2007. Most non-breastfeeding people think that breastfeeding is as easy as just popping the baby on the breast. In a predominantly formula- and bottle-fed culture, there is little true understanding of breastfeeding as instinctive but learned through social interaction.
Not too many people know the story of the gorilla raised in captivity whose babies nearly died from starvation until a group of nursing mothers demonstrated breastfeeding in front of her. Yes, women have been breastfeeding for millions of years, but it used to be visible and normal. Times have changed, to the detriment of our public health and happiness. Today, mothers are like the gorilla; they are being held captive by barriers that prevent them from making informed, healthy feeding decisions and carrying them out with the approval of their peers. Most moms want to breastfeed, but few are allowed to succeed.
That’s why overuse of the word “support” is not helping the breastfeeding cause. From a marketing standpoint, two-thirds of the widely-used slogan “Promote, Protect, Support Breastfeeding” doesn’t work. Why? Because the word “promote” is a hard sell to a culture that prides itself on self-determination and not being told what to do, and “support” is a soft and vague word that doesn’t resonate with the American culture of “pulling itself up by its bootstraps,” “working hard,” and “overcoming obstacles to achieve the American Dream.” Even among those who have breastfed, we’ve heard women toughly proclaim “I didn’t have any support, and I managed to breastfeed,” demonstrating there is an underlying cultural current that needing “support” is a sign of weakness, and a lack of awareness of the fact that some women face greater barriers than others, a fact that women in power tend to conveniently forget.
The inherent weakness of the words “promote” and “support” is why, in our presentations to thousands of health care professionals and breastfeeding advocates (at conferences hosted by the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, the United States Breastfeeding Committee, Healthy Children, the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Alliance, the International Lactation Consultants Association (ILCA) and others), we’ve stressed that all of us advocates need to change the breastfeeding message.
Instead of saying that moms “need more support to breastfeed” (weak), we urge advocates to say that “moms are being prevented from succeeding.” Advocates’ battle cry should not be that “moms need more help” but that “moms are being humiliated, harassed and discriminated against in their efforts to follow universal health recommendations and exercise their basic human right to feed their child as they see fit, and to do what they already know to be best for their families’ health and survival–breastfeeding.”
Best for Babes tells advocates not to “promote” breastfeeding, but to promote the moms rights to make informed decisions and carry them out . . . and then attract and inspire them to WANTto breastfeed. Moms need to be “inspired, prepared and empowered” to navigate the booby traps, and they need us to put pressure on the booby traps, not moms.
There’s one word of the slogan that does work: “Protect.” Moms DO need to be protected. They need to be protected from the aggressive and highly sophisticated marketing of breastmilk substitutes which causes them to abandon what they know is best under the influence of slick images, messages, and peer pressure.* Moms need to be protected from prenatal care providers, hospital staff and pediatricians that follow protocols that undermine breastfeeding. Moms need to be protected from health care professionals that prey on fears of “I won’t make enough milk” by encouraging unnecessary formula supplementation, which leads to a downward spiral of lowered milk supply and early cessation of nursing.
Moms need to be protected from employers that don’t provide adequate lactation programs and insurance companies that don’t cover breastpumps and lactation consultant fees, and we all need to recognize and reward those that do. Moms need to be protected from well-meaning but ill-educated friends, families, stores, restaurants and public places that give lip service to breastfeeding but reveal that deep down, they are not comfortable with seeing breasts used for the purpose they were designed for. Breastfeeding is so critical to the survival of our offspring and our species that full breasts, symbolizing food, nurturing and evolutionary advantage, over time became attractive to the opposite sex — it’s not a coincidence that they serve a dual purpose of sustenance and attraction, even though our culture has stupidly relegated them to only the latter–but I digress.
Changing the message about breastfeeding and coming up with new marketing slogans won’t happen overnight. But we can start by telling our congress people (listen up, Rep. Foxx constituency!) the truth about the barriers moms face. If breast cancer patients or heart attack victims were being treated like breastfeeding moms are treated, there would be public outrage! If the government doesn’t want to take aggressive steps to beat the booby traps that cause breastfeeding moms and babies to suffer, then they shouldn’t cut the peer counselor program that allows our most vulnerable population to achieve their personal breastfeeding goals.
*If you’re one of the people who think moms are too smart for marketing or peer pressure, see the famous Asch experiment showing that subtle pressure from even ONE person can make someone give the wrong answer to an easy question. Now think about how it might affect a mom when a friend or doctor perpetuates misinformation about breastfeeding–it can completely negate what they have learned to be scientific evidence and know to be best.