Society’s Knowledge of Breastfeeding

Society's (Lack Of) Knowledge of BreastfeedingSociety’s (Lack Of) Knowledge of Breastfeeding

I continue to be amazed at the lack of knowledge that many women have regarding breastfeeding. As a breastfeeding mother, I have heard numerous questions and comments implying that breastfeeding needs to be supplemented with formula, that it is painful and that the sooner you can be done with it the better. I believe this lack of knowledge is a result of cultural trends for formula feeding in the 70’s. By the early 1970s, over 75% of babies in the United States were fed on formulas, almost entirely commercially produced. With so many mothers opting to feed formula over breast milk, who was able to pass on breastfeeding facts and secrets? Primarily, a mother would pass this on to their daughters and since such widespread popularity of formula was less than 40 years ago, our generation of mothers is suffering.

When The Trends Changed

My mom breastfed two of her three children. She wanted to breastfeed her first baby, but all of her family and even her doctors discouraged her! They told her that it would be too hard for her and that she just needed to feed formula. Reluctantly she listened to their advice and regrets it today. She did what she wanted and breastfed her second two babies and loved every single aspect of it. Looking back she knows that she could have easily handled breastfeeding her first child too. It seems absurd that people, especially doctors, would discourage a mother to breastfeed, but that is the result of such strong cultural trends. My mother’s generation was largely formula fed — people got used to seeing babies bottle fed and hearing repeated arguments for formula feeding and against breastfeeding. So, our mothers were formula fed and encouraged to formula feed their children, therefore many still recommend formula over breastfeeding today.

Since most of our mothers and grandmothers fed formula, they really don’t know very much about breastfeeding at all. They were not taught all of the benefits of breast milk over formula and they certainly don’t know the “secrets” of a good latch which is necessary for successful and pain-free nursing. So, for many mothers, unless we are hungry for knowledge, researching and educating ourselves on breastfeeding we will not learn the breastfeeding truths. And maybe even more detrimental is that mothers today might struggle to find a support team within their own family. Having a new baby, learning the ropes of motherhood and getting the hang of breastfeeding is no easy task. Having a family that can relate and encourage you to stick it out can increase a mother’s chance of continuing to breastfeed during the most difficult first few weeks.

Reasons Women Don’t Breastfeed

I have noticed (and felt myself) among women is a general discomfort or uneasiness at the thought of a baby actually nursing on you. While it is a hard thing to imagine, a big reason we must feel this way is that simply have not been exposed to enough nursing mothers. I believe that if we had seen more images of women nursing (not necessarily bare-breasted) in the media and of course within our our families, we would be more comfortable with the concept. Instead, the media always shows babies being bottle fed and nursing mothers in public are criticized. I myself am not comfortable breastfeeding in public, but I think if a woman chooses to do so (hopefully covering herself with a nursing wrap) then it should be considered acceptable.

Despite what many people think, there are few medical reasons to use infant formula; breastfeeding is suitable for most mothers and babies. Some mothers are unable to breastfeed, and others choose not to breastfeed, or choose to combine breastfeeding with formula-feeding. Their reasons for choosing alternatives to exclusive breastfeeding include:

  • The mother’s health: The mother is infected with HIV or tuberculosis. She is malnourished or has had certain kinds of breast surgery. She is taking any kind of drug that could harm the baby, or drinks unsafe levels of alcohol. The mother is extremely ill.
  • The baby is unable to breastfeed: The child has a birth defect or inborn error of metabolism such as galactosemia that makes breastfeeding difficult or impossible.
  • Labor/Delivery was difficult: Labor and delivery can be long and exhausting (especially with the rise of inductions). Mothers may feel too tired and overwhelmed to try breastfeeding. It feels easier to feed formula and let the baby go to the nursery for undisturbed sleep.
  • Personal preferences and beliefs: The mother may dislike breast-feeding or think it inconvenient. She may feel that breasts are too sexual for a baby, or that bottle-feeding will increase the father’s role in parenting his child.
  • Absence of the mother: The child is adopted, orphaned, or in the sole custody of a man. The mother is separated from her child by being in prison or a mental hospital. The mother has left the child in the care of another person for an extended period of time, such as while traveling or working abroad. The mother has abandoned the child.
  • Food allergies: The mother eats foods that may provoke an allergic reaction in the infant.
  • Financial pressures: Maternity leave is unpaid, insufficient, or lacking. The mother’s employment interferes with breastfeeding.
  • Societal structure: Breastfeeding may be forbidden at the mother’s job, school, place of worship or in other public places, or the mother may feel that breastfeeding in these places or around other people is immodest, unsanitary, or inappropriate.
  • Social pressures: Family members, such as mother’s husband or boyfriend, or friends or other members of society may encourage the use of infant formula. For example, they may believe that breastfeeding will decrease the mother’s energy, health, or attractiveness.
  • Lack of training: The mother is not trained sufficiently to breastfeed without pain and to produce enough milk.
  • Lactation insufficiency: The mother is unable to produce sufficient milk. This only affects around 2 to 5% of women. Alternatively, despite a healthy supply, the woman or her family may incorrectly believe that her breast milk is of low quality or in low supply. These women may choose infant formula either exclusively or as a supplement to breast-feeding.
  • Opposition to other sources of breastmilk:
    • Lack of refrigeration: Expressed breast milk requires refrigeration if not immediately consumed.
    • Lack of wet nurses: Wet nursing is illegal and stigmatized in some countries, and may not be available. It may also be socially unsupported, expensive, or health screening of wet nurses may not be available. The mother, her doctor, or family may not know that wet nursing is possible, or may believe that nursing by a relative or paid wet-nurse is unhygienic.
    • Lack of milk banks: Human-milk banks may not be available, as few exist, and many countries cannot provide the necessary screening for diseases and refrigeration.

A Time For Change

There are ways around some of the above mentioned reasons for not breastfeeding and could be solved with an increase of knowledge. It is my hope that breastfeeding is on a huge rise and that our society can turn into one that knows the true facts of breastfeeding. It is up to our generation to become educated by taking classes, reading books and turning to breastfeeding organizations. Breastfeeding has such unbelievable benefits for babies and mothers that it should not be neglected or underrated. Sadly, many untruths of breastfeeding have actually become “common (false) knowledge” and it is time to clear up the facts.

Breastfeeding is the best gift a mother can give to her baby (and herself) and it is up to us to change our society to one that embraces it!

Recommended Reading

To learn more about breastfeeding and proper techniques, we recommend Dr. Jack Newman’s book, The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers.


  1. Tiffany Drake says:

    Why does breastfeeding in public have to be acceptable if covered? Why can it not always be acceptable? I breastfeed all three of my children without ever using a cover a in public. I personally was never criticized for breastfeeding in public but I know moms who have been. If we want to change the culture and society’s knowledge of breastfeeding then we as mothers should be more than comfortable breastfeeding in public with or without being covered. In order for us to change the norm we need to be the norm. I hope more and more moms become comfortable nursing in public and not everybody staring is thinking negatively. I often watch mothers thinking what a beautiful sight.

  2. I nurse when and wherever my baby is hungry. I do not cover but I do not take my shirt off and inappropriately ‘let it all hang out’. I’m mindful of my surroundings but would not deny my child food just because I’m afraid to make someone uncomfortable. I want to be the norm and lead by example. I have nursed in the middle of the grocery store isle when my little one woke up from a nap hungry, it caused a few male driven cart accidents but I was not otherwise bothered or asked to stop.

    I appreciate the article but I wish it would have included the benefits of nursing so as to educate those who read it. Also, you might want to include information about support groups for women that want to nurse but are having a hard time or don’t have a support system like La Leche League.

  3. I agree with Tiffany. I am from Australia, and breastfeeding women are welcome anywhere in our country. We do not feel compelled to use ‘covers’ to breastfeed in public. Why should we? Breastfeeding is a natural part of life and the best option for the health and emotional well-being of our children.

    A friend of mine recently visited the USA and in the 5 weeks she was there, she only saw 2 mothers breastfeeding in public and both were under enormous ‘covers’ – she’d never seen something so bizarre – no wonder breastfeeding rates in the US are so low. She didn’t let this stop her breastfeeding her own child in public ‘uncovered’ and noone said anything negative to her but she did get a few interesting looks.

    I walked around my town yesterday with my 4 week old daughter on my breast as I had errands to run. I had a singlet top pushed down under my maternity bra and a long sleeved top pushed up over my breast, so there was very little of my breast visible, but I am not going to deny my beautiful daughter food to ‘protect’ some ridiculous prude from being offended.

    It would be a brave or very ignorant person who would say anything negative to me about when/where I breastfeed as I would tear strips off anyone who made such a comment. I have had only positive experiences here in Australia feeding in public and I have fed at concerts, theatres, restaurants and even at a Volunteer Rural Fire Brigade Annual General Meeting in a small rural town where I was the only female member – none of my male colleagues there had a problem with it.

    Don’t get me wrong, our breastfeeding rates here in Oz need to improve greatly too – often for the same reasons as you’ve mentioned – the previous generations were bottle fed and keep trying to get the current generation to do the same. I also think that with the younger generations now, they are used to getting what they want instantly and aren’t prepared to put in the hard yards, particularly in the first 6 challenging weeks, to get breastfeeding well established. The irony is that it saves so much time/money later on. The same is true for cloth nappies – I have used them for both of my babies – I do it for environmental reasons and because I have found them better for my children’s skin (my son had exczema that was exacerbated by disposables) but I don’t know how people afford disposables. And cloth only requires a couple of buckets for soaking and 2 extra loads of washing per week.

    That’s my soapbox rant finished. Let’s all try to support one another to successfully breastfeed our babies – it’s wonderful for babies/Mums alike.


  1. […] "Old people" were actually told to NOT breastfeed by their pediatricians.…breastfeeding/ […]

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