"Who am I?" I've asked myself lately to tell women that they should breastfeed. I don't have children yet, but as a pediatrician, I know, based on research, evidence, and witnessed experience, that breastfeeding is good for babies, mothers and communities. And for the month of August advocates from across the globe are calling for action to build a better "landscape of breastfeeding support" through efforts such as World Breastfeeding Week, National Breastfeeding Month, and Black Breastfeeding Week. Yet, the fact that we have to dedicate a month to advocate for women to be allowed to use a part of our body for what it was intended for - to feed our babies - baffles me.
Sadly, women continue to be denied the right to breastfeed in many public places, and are shamed for fulfilling the basic need of feeding their hungry babies. Could you imagine being hungry and being told you couldn't eat your hot dog while sitting at Yankee Stadium watching the game? Even recently Mila Kunis, a Hollywood actress usually provided privileges linked with fame, was not supported in her choice to publicly feed her baby. Imagine what it is like for less privileged moms who are not able to amplify their voices or whose voices may fall upon deaf, unconcerned ears.
In addition to the shaming, formula companies, the health system, and even our own families and peers keep telling us that breastfeeding isn't healthy, that mothers don't make enough milk, and that breastmilk isn't good enough. These messages, often dehumanizing, sexualized, and deflating, are backed up by unsupportive policies and practices in the workplace and society at large. All of this underscores the message that women, especially women of color, are just not good enough, and our bodies are not good enough. Many women don't feel they have the freedom to determine how to use our own bodies.
As the typical pathway of oppression goes, we internalize these messages and lose confidence in our selves to do those things that are natural, and essential, like breastfeeding. It is not surprising, then, that in New York City, only 5.3 percent of babies were exclusively breastfed at six months. And Black mothers are 1.6 times less likely to exclusively breastfeed than White mothers.
Therefore, a prescription for breastfeeding not only includes education on it's benefits but also the dismantling systems of gendered racism that work to further oppress women, the implementation of policies and practices that readily allow mothers to freely breastfeed, and the amplification of community power and mobilization in which women, mothers, and families celebrate ourselves, our bodies and our collective resistance to the negative messages that are used to oppress us.
And many women are collectively claiming their freedom to breastfeed.
For the past 12 years in early August, as a means to exemplify solidarity and freedom, moms and families, now reaching over 100 people, crowd onto the 'A-Train' in Manhattan and participate in the NYC Breastfeeding Subway Caravan. With much pride and often-bewildered onlookers, the women proudly demonstrate their NYS given right to breastfeed in public anytime, anywhere. They stop at City Hall's steps for a rally and then continue by train to Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. There breastfeeding activists from all over NYC celebrate their right to breastfeed as well as remind each other how much work they still have left to do.
Bed-Stuy is also home to the nation's first Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone. The Zone is a neighborhood-based effort, supported by the NYC Health Department and the WK Kellogg Foundation, that enlists the help of many partners such as local politicians, the health department, block associations, restaurants, pharmacies, medical providers, faith organizations, and men - who are crucial allies. And they are sharing responsibility for creating an environment that empowers women to breastfeed.
Last week, NYC Mayor de Blasio, along with breastfeeding champion NYC Councilman Robert Cornegy, signed bill Intro. 1063-A which mandates the NYC Department of Health to ensure public buildings, including every job center, SNAP center, medical assistance program center of the Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration, and every city-owned borough office of the Administration for Children's Services, has a lactation room. This effort is not about hiding away breastfeeding women, but creating more options for women to return to work while still providing their babies with the best start to life.
Much more work is needed to address the intersecting assaults that women experience every day on our bodies and our lives that prevent us from freely breastfeeding. This work cannot be achieved by one organization or person. It requires collective action. Here is what we all can do together:
• Advocate for paid family leave policies and workplace protections, such as adequate paid breaks for nursing or pumping, or flexible hours. This year New York State passed the nation's strongest paid family leave program, allowing employees to take 12 weeks of paid leave.
• Work with hospitals and birthing centers to become Baby-Friendly® designated birth facilities.
• Encourage local businesses to support breastfeeding by displaying "Breastfeeding Welcome Here" decals in their storefront windows. (In NYC, call 311 to receive a decal.)
• Encourage the creation of tax incentives for small businesses to become breastfeeding friendly spaces.
• Explore extending Medicaid and other types of insurance reimbursement for allied health professionals who provide lactation support, including Certified Lactation Counselors (CLC), International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC), Registered Dieticians (RD) and doulas.
• Work with local fatherhood or male-partner coalitions and initiatives to educate fathers about their important role as breastfeeding champions.
And what about each other? Let's support and encourage our women. Audre Lorde once said "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own." So if you (woman or man) see a breastfeeding mother in public feeding her hungry baby or know of a breastfeeding mother in your life, let her know that you stand with her by simply letting her feed her baby...in peace.