America's Relationship with Breastfeeding Is Complex

America’s Relationship with Breastfeeding Is a Complex One

The United States has had a complex relationship with breastfeeding for more than a century. With rates plummeting in the 1970s, they’ve been on a steady or stagnant incline ever since.

I, like many, had heard stories from family, friends and strangers about the breastfeeding woes in this country. From family members being told not to breastfeed by their doctors in the 1960s to the lack of operable breast pumps that was best described as “having your soul sucked out in pain” during the 1980s. And support for breastfeeding at work? I’ve heard plenty of stories of women pumping in a supply closet or choosing to not breastfeed at all because they knew their workplace made it too difficult to support it.

As I learned more about this country’s relationship with breastfeeding, I have more empathy for women deciding whether they should breastfeed or not, in the past or today. It’s already hard enough to breastfeed a baby, but when you’re inundated with opinions like breasts are meant for the bedroom (more on evolving that narrative here), “cleaner” alternatives to breastfeeding are better, or the notion that pumping at work isn’t an option – well that’s a recipe for an even more contentious and difficult relationship with breastfeeding that we can all give more empathy toward.

By diving into these rises and falls in breastfeeding rates in America, and the stories behind those numbers, we can better understand the watch-outs we can’t repeat and the great things we can build upon.

To start, let’s take it back to the start of the 20th century when more than two thirds of mothers breastfed (The Journal of Nutrition). In the early 1900s, options were much more limited in how to feed a baby compared to today. The main options consisted of a mother breastfeeding or using a wet nurse: a woman who breastfeeds young not her own.

Breastfeeding in America

So how, exactly, did numbers drop so rapidly to a 25% breastfeeding rate by the 1950s?

According to the book, Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet, author, Amy Bentley, believes that advances in technology during the early 1900s paved the way for processed baby food alternatives. As more baby food alternatives grew the market, society viewed breasts as less functional. At the same time, breasts became more sexualized. The more sexualized women felt their bodies become, the less breastfeeding happened.

This all gave way to a steady decline in breastfeeding rates in the U.S. until they hit their all-time low of 22% in 1972, according to The Journal of Nutrition.

The 1970s not only marked the lowest breastfeeding rates in America, but it also marked a major turnaround in the numbers. Breastfeeding rates rose from 33.4% in 1975 to more than 54% in 1980, for the first time in decades.

“Increased societal interest in more natural childbirth, including childbirth education classes and early maternal-child contact, may be responsible for much of the upward pressure on breastfeeding rates in the 1970s,” according to The Journal of Nutrition.

But, after a “dramatic increase in the 1970s, breastfeeding rates remained relatively static from the early 1980s to 1995,” according to The Journal.

What’s ironic during this time is that while women were making major strides joining the workforce with participation for women professionals growing from 27% in 1972 to 50% in 1996 (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the same growth could not be said for breastfeeding rates.

Support for breastfeeding women in the workplace during this time was virtually unknown. It wasn’t until laws and practices were put into place to help support women breastfeeding at their workplace, that numbers would begin to rise again.

Today’s numbers prove America is making more strides in helping to support women and breastfeeding with 84% of women initiating breastfeeding, according to the CDC.

Enhanced maternity care practices, provider training, increased insurance coverage and family leave policies along with policies that support breastfeeding in places like workplaces, child care facilities, and public spaces all contribute to an increase in breastfeeding rates, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

What we see from America’s past relationship with breastfeeding is that with support from laws, practices and society as a whole we can make a lasting and positive impact for women, but the work here isn’t done. Until all women are supported across this country, these practices and policies need to continue to grow.

We learn that when all women are given unrelenting support, viable options and equal opportunities, they are afforded the freedoms in making the decision that’s best for them and their family. And whether women breastfeed or not, all women deserve support in the difficult decision they’re making.


Founder of Leaxy

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