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When I started a new job in the early '90s, Something stunning happened at my first staff meeting: A co-worker discreetly pumped her breasts during the half-hour gathering. This was no act of boldness, I later learned--simply business as usual at this particular office. After my son was born a few years later, I knew I could return to work and keep nursing without difficulty, given that pumping would be convenient (extremely so, obviously!) and no big deal to my co-workers.
Not every new mother is this fortunate. Work culture, it seems, often dictates whether a woman quits nursing prematurely. "The working mom who is a lawyer has a place to pump," says Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., a co-author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, 6th ed. (Mosby). "For the woman who works at a fast-food restaurant or on an assembly line, there is no such place." But where a woman works isn't the only dynamic that can affect her breastfeeding options--or whether she chooses to nurse her child at all. Where she lives, the color of her skin, her income, her family's mind-set--all can make a difference. But it wasn't always this way.
Infant feeding in a modern world
Until the 1940s, mother's milk alone nurtured our species. After World War II, family life in the United States changed. Americans, who had been accustomed to living in one multigenerational home, were, for the first time, moving all over the country. Women didn't have their mothers, aunts, grandmothers or sisters around to teach them how to breastfeed. "They had their babies in isolation," recounts Lawrence, who serves as director of the Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Study Center at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York. "All of a sudden, infant feeding became medicalized."
Without the counsel of female family members, women turned to doctors for help with breastfeeding--often with questionable results. Indeed, pediatricians in the 1950s and 1960s often told new mothers they didn't need to bother breastfeeding their babies--not with the formulas that were newly available on the market. It was a brave new world, one where a sitter or nurse could feed your baby with "scientifically formulated" nutrition.
Some mothers saw this as a great advantage. "It was the educated women, who were perceived as wealthier, leading the march," says Lawrence. "They had been lured into thinking that science could do it better, that the formulas could do it better."
Most women took the bait: In 1956, the year the breastfeeding education and advocacy organization La Leche League International was founded, only 18 percent of new mothers were nursing when they left the hospital.