The XX Factor

Hospitals (and Topic Overkill) Fail Nursing Mothers

Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

Breastfeeding women need more support from hospitals and medical professionals.

Living where I do, that seems like a ridiculous statement. Our local hospital supports nursing and other natural practices to a point that many would argue stretches beyond “support” and into pressure (I remain the only person I’ve ever met to have been tricked into natural childbirth). But my hospital is in the minority. The Center for Disease Control and Research has found that “most U.S. hospitals do not fully support breastfeeding; they should do more to make sure mothers can start and continue breastfeeding.”

Among other practices the CDC deems not “baby-friendly,” many hospitals routinely give formula to breastfeeding babies. They don’t encourage “rooming-in” (mothers and babies remaining in a room together 24 hours a day), don’t help women initiate breastfeeding within an hour after birth, and fail to encourage nursing on demand or to teach mothers who are, of necessity, separated from their babies to breastfeed and maintain lactation. Some of those hospitals may even “push” nursing through posters and awareness campaigns. But they don’t actually do much to help women get there. 

I’m not sure I agree with the CDC that more “baby-friendly” hospitals would have a big impact on the number of babies who are breastfed exclusively for more than their first week of life, and thus on the childhood obesity epidemic. I think some of the issues raised by commenters to Rachael and Kate’s recent debate on health insurance and breast pumps (for example, the difficulty of pumping when doing shift work or other non-white-collar jobs) have far more impact than whether a hospital has a “written breastfeeding policy.” But at least the CDC is pushing hospitals to go beyond promotion to action. The dichotomy between my hospital experience and others is beginning to have an unintended effect: Among the upper-middle class, in particular, the sanctimonious “breast is best” trumpet has been sounded so loudly that it’s deafened our sympathies to the need for actual breastfeeding support of the kind that speaks more loudly than the often sanctimonious words.

Last week, when some of my XXFactor colleagues and I heard about the Big Latch On (next Saturday, at 10:30 am, women across the country will gather to “celebrate World Breastfeeding Week and try to break the record for most women breastfeeding simultaneously”) several of us shared one simultaneous reaction. “Does breastfeeding really need an awareness campaign?” Jess asked. We mocked the oh-so-cutesy name of the shop promoting the event in Manhattan (“Yummy Mummy”) and digressed into a discussion about how infantilizing the product names that surround nursing can be: the “My Brest Friend” nursing pillow; nursing “covers” called the Hooter Hider, the Peek-a-Moo, and the Bebe Au Lait. 

Meanwhlie, only Libby came up with the correct answer to Jess’s question: “yes, but not among the women they’re aiming this at.” Breastfeeding does still need promotion, but promotion that focuses on mothers rather than on the rest of society is beginning to sound like just so much noise. Breastfeeding isn’t the only choice (and I’m not forgetting that for some women, it’s not a choice at all) but it’s a good choice, and one that should be fully physically supported by hospitals, employers, family, and insurance companies. This CDC campaign, all the studies and discussion around nursing, the “Breast Milk Baby,” even (maybe) the Big Latch On—nursing women need all of those things not to promote nursing among mothers—most women who can do try breastfeeding. We need them to continue the ongoing process of changing our cultural relationship to the breast and to demand external support for something that really does, to pick up Rachael’s phrase, take a village. What nursing women don’t need, though, is an “Udder Cover.” I hope I don’t even have to explain why.