THE BLOG
07/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mamma Mia!

"Of course I'm nursing my baby, I'm a mammal," became the standard reply of Carrie, a Rome-based American mother, to the umpteenth local who marvelled that she was nursing her 4-month old.

Ah, breastfeeding. By no means a red-hot conversation topic in Roman circles, it appears to be snubbed by Italian mothers. Also a rather controversial issue in central and southern parts of the country, where hardly any woman nurses until six months, for one or more of the following reasons:

a) not enough milk

b) far too painful for her

c) milk consistency not nourishing enough

d) child didn't gain enough weight after feeding

e) artificial milk was easier

Why oh why in a land famous for its family values, for its child-friendly waiters, and for blessing the world with expressions like "Mamma Mia!" and "Ciao Ciao Bambina' is something as natural as breastfeeding often judged difficult, uncomfortable or simply unnecessary?

In most Western countries, the trend toward breastfeeding for at least the first six months of a baby's life has been growing since the '70s. Nudged on by the Nestle scandals (babies dying in poor countries because mothers mixed artificial milk with contaminated water) and the acknowledgement by the medical world that nothing is comparable to the perfection of mother's milk -- it's pretty widely accepted by now that a mother provides baby with the best possible start in life.

But my Sicilian pediatrician says Italian mothers are a generation behind. Many still cling to the hackneyed belief that what comes from a factory is as good as what comes from a human gland.

According to a Roman midwife I was talking to recently, young mothers in Italy are also more likely than in other countries to live at close-quarters with their mothers or mothers-in-law. That means that rather than reading child-rearing books or researching information online, they are bombarded with information from their relatives -- and often the artillery is out-of-date.

I personally blame the pediatricians for not making enough of an effort to convince mothers to nurse. Alina, a Canadian mom here in Rome, says that when she told hers that she was still breastfeeding her one-year old the doctor was furious -- insisting it was crucial that Alina immediately switch to cow's milk. Guess who turned on her heels and walked straight out of that office?

Mammal Mia! indeed.