7 Ways to Overcome Cultural Breastfeeding Hurdles

Overcoming the cultural obstacles to breastfeeding.


While the numbers of breastfeeding momsĀ are improving, cultural and other influences conspire to keep us from reaching that goal. Here are tips to help you overcome the hurdles.

1. Get an early education. Experts advise that pregnant women learn about breastfeeding before the baby is born, rather than afterward, when the situation is more urgent. "At La Leche, we have monthly meetings for nursing mothers and babies, but we strongly recommend that women attend support groups while they're pregnant," says Katy Lebbing, an international board-certified lactation consultant and manager of the Center for Breastfeeding Information at La Leche League International in Schaumberg, Ill. Contact your hospital or local La Leche office for their support-group schedule (visit llli.org) to find the office nearest you); and visit the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative website at babyfriendlyusa.org, which lists the hospitals that go the extra mile in helping new moms breastfeed successfully.

Also be sure to enroll in a breastfeeding class--not only will it teach you about the unbelievable benefits of mother's milk, but it will also give you solid, proven tips to help you succeed. Contact La Leche League or your nearest hospital to find a class near you.

2. Get spousal support. While Lebbing says most men are supportive of their wives' decision to breastfeed, some are not. At La Leche meetings, women often discuss their spouses' resistance to breastfeeding, and they learn what has worked for other new moms. Usually, says Lebbing, it's the obvious "little gems" that can convince a reluctant husband: Savings of a few hundred dollars per month (formula and bottles add up!); fewer doctor and hospital visits for breastfed babies (more savings!); and a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer for mom. "In addition to the cost savings of breastfeeding over formula, we tell them that their children will be stronger, better athletes," Lebbing says. "That usually convinces them."

Lebbing also encourages women to share information about breastfeeding with their spouses. "Not a lot of men read about breastfeeding," she says. "We tell women to share the info they read with their husbands, and that's usually pretty effective."

3. Don't be too concerned about others. Breastfeeding is a health issue--not a cultural one. You and your baby both benefit physically and emotionally from nursing, so why should you have any qualms about breastfeeding in the mall, at a park or in the supermarket? Breastfeeding is a healthy choice, and if other people are embarrassed or uncomfortable by your needing to feed your baby, don't apologize. "Don't ask, 'Do you mind if I nurse?'" Lebbing advises. "We don't apologize for wearing a bike helmet or not smoking, do we?"

What you can do is explain that your baby needs to eat, and then be discreet as you breastfeed (see #4, below). Also accept that some people are going to be embarrassed or have reservations no matter what you say or do.

4. Head for cover. Cover-ups are a great antidote to modesty! Make good use of a shawl or sling and most people won't even realize your baby is nursing. "Slings have so much fabric that you can walk through a mall and breastfeed at the same time and nobody will even know," Lebbing says. Other tips from the nursing-in-pubic trenches: Always wear two-piece outfits (doing so makes for easier access), and practice using your shawl or sling at home before trying the cover-up technique at a restaurant.

If you're looking for a great sling, try the New Native Baby Carrier (newnativebaby.com) or the Maya Wrap (mayawrap.com).

5. Be creative at work. Unfortunately, only 11 states have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. So what can you do if you're a pumping mom who doesn't live in one of these states and your employer isn't exactly accommodating?

"If you get a break, pump anyplace you can," suggests Lebbing. "Plug your breast pump into the cigarette lighter in your car, if you need to." Or, if your pump doesn't have such an adapter, use the battery mode (many models offer this feature). If you have access to a private stall in the bathroom--not an ideal spot, hygienically speaking--make sure the area is as clean as possible before getting down to business. (Antibacterial wipes come in handy here.)

Once you're done pumping, be sure to wash the parts with soap and water; or try Medela's Quick Clean Breastpump & Accessory Wipes (medela.com). Then store the milk in a refrigerator or cooler with ice packs.

If you don't get breaks, you may not be able to pump and store your milk, but you'll need to relieve the pressure in your breasts every time you go to the bathroom. You can hand-express for a few minutes, or try a hand-held pump such as the Avent Isis (aventamerica.com) or the Medela Harmony (medela.com).

Some working moms also swear by the hands-free Whisper Wear pump, which is battery-operated and small enough that you can wear it inside your bra--while pumping! "You can even pump while you're delivering the mail," says Lebbing. (For information, visit whisperwear.com.)

6. Avoid the parent trap. How do you respond when your less-than-supportive mom says, "You were formula-fed, and you're fine"? Obviously, she isn't well-versed on the health benefits of breastfeeding--or she probably wouldn't be objecting. "Little by little, share information with her," suggests Lebbing. "Say, 'Let's look at the research,' and be respectful about it."

Many women who had children in the '50s and '60s didn't breastfeed, so your choice to nurse may seem strange to your mother or grandmother. Explain that our generation is lucky: We have so much more information about public-health issues than they did--breastfeeding, smoking and tanning, to name a few. Then communicate some of the positive health benefits of breastfeeding for both you and the baby. Your mom just may come around and applaud your choice. If she doesn't, you may just have to agree to disagree.

7. Do your homework. Accessible, easy-to-digest information will arm you with knowledge--and, as you know, knowledge gives you power. Take a look at the following websites and books:
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services breastfeeding site offers information on why breastfeeding is the best way to feed your baby. womenshealth.gov/breastfeeding.
- Rima D. Apple's book Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890-1950 (University of Wisconsin Press) analyzes the science, medicine and industry that helped trigger the shift from breastfeeding to formula in the mid 20th century.
- The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers, Revised and Updated, by Jack Newman, M.D., and Teresa Pitman (Three Rivers Press), is an all-around great resource for nursing moms.