Breastfeeding Stigma – What Can We Do About It?

Breastfeeding Natural but Stigmatised

What can each of us breastfeeding Mum’s do to ditch the stigma of breastfeeding? Talk about our breastfeeding experiences openly, acknowledge fellow breastfeeding Mum’s, educate ourselves so we can teach others, be assertive and confident in what we are doing. This blog post offers more details on how to reduce the stigma around breastfeeding, breastfeeding toddlers, or tandem feeding.

Let’s remember that there are stigmas associated with whatever type of feeding method you use for your baby. Mothers who bottle feed feel stigmatised by some people for not trying harder to breastfeed longer (see this article link for more information). This blog post discusses the stigma associated with breastfeeding, particularly longer term breastfeeding, or breastfeeding through a pregnancy and beyond (known as tandem feeding). What is breastfeeding stigma and why is it so prominent in our developed world? Why is it important to try and reduce the stigmas received during our own breastfeeding journeys? What are some healthy responses to the stigmatic responses to breastfeeding our babies?

Definition of Breastfeeding Stigma

Our society has strong views against certain types of breastfeeding. There is no mistaking that. Whether it be some people’s views of a mother sitting in public and struggling to breastfeed a newborn, to simply hearing that a confident Mum continues to breastfeed their toddler beyond the typical timescales in society. Why should it affect anyone, other than the Mum, about whether they are feeding via breast rather than bottle?

Research, such as found in this article link, has concluded that the breasts in the developed world are viewed as sexualised rather than nurturing body parts. This defaults any sight of a breastfeeding Mum, or awareness that it is happening in private, as being exhibitionist or can even view the Mum as a sexual aggressor. Such a perspective puts pressure on Mums to hide when breastfeeding, deny that they breastfeed, or to resort to bottle feeds in public. In turn, this continues the commonality of locals not seeing the act of breastfeeding to get familiar with how natural and normal it is for mothers and babies.

The first fellow Mum I saw breastfeeding a toddler was a Mum at a local homeschool event. My daughter was around 2.5 years old at the time but I had already limited my breastfeeds to only twice a day, at home. This lady seemed like a magnificent Mum to me. Then I saw her discretely breastfeeding her 3 year old at the picnic tables. I was quite surprised, and wondered if it was just a common thing for homeschooling Mums to do. Reflecting on my own reactions, obviously I thought we’d get on really well as we were both breastfeeding our toddlers. I thought I could learn a lot from her as she had the confidence to continue breastfeeding in public. I realised what a different world it would be, and perhaps how differently I would have felt about my own breastfeeding journey, if it had been commonplace to see mothers breastfeeding their older toddlers more. It certainly would help reduce the stigma. I immediately felt less stigmatised, without any conversation with this lady about being a fellow breastfeeder, but just knowing that someone else was going through the same thing as me and would naturally support me doing what I was doing with a slightly younger baby. It was a nice feeling.

Although breastfeeding is biologically normal, the stigma around extended breastfeeding or tandem breastfeeding comes from what society view as culturally normal. See more about this in the attached link. In developed countries, such as the UK, it is so uncommon for a mother to breastfeed beyond infancy that the society can put emotional pressures on mothers or young children to stop before they personally made the decision to.

Why Is It Important to Help Reduce the Stigma?

If the above lady gave me so much confidence and indirect support for my breastfeeding journey, this alone is why it is beneficial for each parent who does breastfeed to feel comfortable discussing it with others Mums. The problem we fear, is that most fellow Mums are not going to be long term breastfeeding… so the reactions may not be too welcomed. That is why many of us keep our journeys to ourselves.

Since seeing that lady breastfeed in public, I decided not to feel shameful that I was continuing to breastfeed my 2.5 year old. At Mum and baby groups, when I was publicly feeding my baby twins, other Mums tended to be shocked and would ask when I stopped breastfeeding my toddler. I decided to tell the truth and confidently said “I haven’t, just not so much anymore, it works for us at the moment.” I had very positive responses when I did be honest about my journey. Hopefully some of those new breastfeeding Mums may have gained a bit of confidence to continue on their journey if they felt pressurised not to.

It is important that each baby and mum has the opportunity to continue breastfeeding as long as they choose. Why? There are many reasons for the benefit of both mother and child. One reason is to reduce Mum guilt (see my earlier post about guilt). If we follow what our aims are with our own children, we will feel less guilt in the longer term. My aim was to set my children off on the best path I could health-wise. I have type 1 diabetes and there is a significant reduction in type 1 diabetes the longer a baby is breastfed. If I stopped before it felt right for me or my children to stop breastfeeding, and if they were to get diabetes, I would have felt serious Mum guilt. Instead, I could imagine all the antibodies my body was gifting to my children in the hope that their bodies would be strong enough in the future to fight off any virus which might increase their risk of developing type 1 diabetes. It was important, therefore, that our society’s pressure for me to stop breastfeeding ‘as you are selfish’, or ‘because it is weird’ or ‘you need to stop – happy mum happy baby’ comments washed over my head. None of those comments really matter when the chance of my children suffering with a disease as hard to manage as type 1 diabetes is reduced.

I try as best I can to educate fellow friends, family and parents of the importance and benefits of breastfeeding because I want my children to feel emotionally supported if they decide to breastfeed their babies in the many years to come. They may not know the importance of helping to reduce the risk of type 1 diabetes, for example, as they will hopefully not experience the disease personally. They may therefore be more easily swayed to follow the societal norms and pressure from their peers and other family members. If they can remember or hear back about the stories I have on my breastfeeding journey, I hope it will keep them on their own path as long as they choose it. It should not be for someone else to pressure someone to make a parenting decision such as bottle feeding vs breastfeeding. Our gut instincts, and unbiased guidance (hard to find), are the messages we should listen to when forming our decisions of how we want to feed our children.

Tools to Increase Your Motivations to Continue Breastfeeding

Good places to feel supported in breastfeeding an older child, or tandem feeding, include numerous forums on social media. Facebook for example has longer term breastfeeding groups, tandem feeding groups and feeding multiples forums. It is helpful to connect with other people, even if we never see them face-to-face.

Taking photos for your own reality check. It may sound strange but at times I got so bogged down with feeling pressure to stop breastfeeding my still relatively young toddler (only 1 year old). When my husband would snap a photo of us breastfeeding, I’d look at it and realise how much it suited me and how comforted my daughter was. The last photo was taken when my daughter was just over 3 years old and she looked comfortable and relaxed, and I was looking at her lovingly. Is that the aim for motherhood? It was a perfect representation to me of what we aim to be achieve as parents. These photos of yourself can help you continue doing what nature has allowed you to do.

Research, research, research. What aspects of your life do you wish were better? Perhaps you suffer with anxiety, or lack of a happy relationship with your Mum. Maybe you suffer with ill-health or a disease. If you research any studies conducted around breastfeeding and reducing that particular life circumstance, you may well find there is a strong link to reducing the severity of those life conditions in your children if you are able to breastfeed. It certainly is the case with research finding reduced likelihood of type 1 diabetes with breastfeeding, so it acts as a huge motivator for me in the tougher times.

Ways to Deal with Breastfeeding Stigmatisations

This section may help if you are on your breastfeeding journey and are unfortunate enough to experience uneducated or unhelpful feedback about your breastfeeding journey. The following are some ways to educate yourself if the comment has made you worried, or better yet to educate the other person, as well as refocus your mind on your family goals.

Stigma About Breastfeeding Doing More Harm Than Good

Some relatively common misconceptions about breastfeeding are that whatever goes into your body comes back out through Mummy’s milk into your baby. Mum’s with medical illnesses may worry that taking prescribed medicines may negatively affect their baby and therefore they should stop breastfeeding. This view should be answered by your medical practitioner, who may offer alternative medication while you breastfeed or confirm to you that it is safe for breastfeeding Mum’s to take.

Stigma That breastmilk is Only Important for Newborns

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for newborns to six months of age. They also recommend to continue to at least 2 years. There are many reasons for their recommendations, guided by recent research and professional advisors. The fact is, their recommendation is breastfeeding benefits are not just for newborns.

Stigma That It’s Weird

Unfortunately our society is not used to seeing a longterm breastfeeding Mum and child. It is not the norm for them. There are also some comedy shows using older children breastfeeding as comedic moments. Every parenting journey is different. Yes, there are other options available to women nowadays, but longterm breastfeeding is an equally valid option. Sometimes, even if your child could have something other than breastmilk, it does not mean they are emotionally ready to stop seeking that support from you yet. You want to ask the question “…and what is normal?”. There is no such thing. Normal to one person is not to another. No matter what choice you make you have to do what feels right for you and your kids. That’s being true to yourself.

Stigma that you Breastfeeding is Sexual

Remember that our society is a sexualised one. There are TV shows and adverts designed to present women (or men) as sexual beings. Whilst many of us are sexual beings, the use of women’s breasts to represent the idea of sex is not nature’s intent. When you need to breastfeed your children in public, some people can think you are doing it to attract attention or expose yourself. Just remind yourself that these people are the ones with a limited knowledge of life and love, and that the problem lies with them not with you. There are laws to protect us for breastfeeding young babies, but even with a toddler sometimes they can need the comfort offered by breastfeeding if they have injured themselves for example. It is your child’s right to be comforted and loved by you. In a sexualised society, this is probably one of the biggest stigmas you may feel as you continue on your breastfeeding journey. The older your children get, the more delaying tactics you can use when you see they may need milk, and they will often get comfort from you in other ways too.

That It’s Not the Best Thing For Your Child

Some comments can suggest that your child has you wrapped around their little finger, or that you are spoiling them. These sorts of comments are simply not true. Children view breastfeeding in much the same way as any other food, or comfort. They need love, affection, comfort, food and drink. All of these needs are offered through breastfeeding. My daughter is now fully weaned at 3.5 years old, and she has only ever been gently raised and loved. She has clear boundaries set, comes to me for help and comfort but longterm breastfeeding did not cause her any harm. In fact, I personally feel it has not just given her strong foundations, but it’s built my knowledge and understanding of other gentle parenting techniques. This insight longterm breastfeeding offered me will continue to benefit our family for the many years to come.

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