Monday, January 2, 2012

Breastfeeding and Nipple Fear

As Dr. Claire recently wrote on her parenting blog, why can't we in the United States just get over ourselves about breastfeeding?
What great eyes!

This is a culturally loaded admonishment.  We do need to get over ourselves about breastfeeding in this country.  But I sense that it is an accomplishment that we are not close to achieving.
Very styled, very white, idealized image of a mom with a neonate.

Why is breastfeeding even a contentious topic of controversy in the U.S.?

Why do we in the United States make an issue out of breastfeeding?  Breastfeeding is a non issue in most other developed and undeveloped countries.
Is it because the marketers of baby formula and related products have been lobbying and marketing our health care professionals for decades?  Is it because this has become ingrained in our culture?  Is it because immediate personal convenience is touted over nutritional and nurturing goals in our society?  Is it because somewhere along the preceding four decades bottle feeding became associated with being able to afford more baby products, namely formula, bottles, cleaning paraphernalia, trips to the pediatrician etc. and therefore a status symbol?
(Since I used to make my living supporting breastfeeding and selling breastfeeding gadgets, I know that there is paraphernalia on both sides of this equation.  But I think the industry that manufactures nursing support items makes its living more off of our American enjoyment of buying things that support what we like to do.)

All of these issues have contributed in some manner to a questioning side long glance at breastfeeding by our health care practitioners in this country and certainly contributed to the disapproving glances that women nursing in public often experience.

I propose that we need more solid education about breastfeeding in our medical schools, nursing schools and physician assistant schools.  Education that is in depth and real.  This should include some clinical contact and some real "boots on the ground" experience not just the same old "breast is best..." talk.

Sexualization of the breast in America

Breastfeeding tends to bring up so many complex issues for new mothers in our culture.  But why does it have to?
One man speaks, another man peeks.
Is this in part because our culture is invested in finding ways for women's breasts to be constantly available for men's viewing pleasure?
Breasts as sexual objects are effective marketing tools.
So why can't we use these images to more effectively market an easy, effective and inexpensive way to feed our children?  I think part of the answer is nipple fear.

Nipple Fear

Have you ever walked through a shopping mall and noticed the larger than life store posters of Victoria Secret models wearing bras that are two cup sizes too small for them?  It seems that Americans are very comfortable and accustomed to seeing all parts of women's breasts in advertising, media and entertainment except the nipple!  I call this "nipple fear."

We seem to delimit acceptance of exposure of a woman's breast to anything but the nipple.  Are those who are uncomfortable with nursing in public afraid that they will see a nipple?!   And are there men out there disappointed that they don't see more nipples?!  Probably, yes to both.  Indeed a baby at the breast conceals the nipple from the viewing public because it is in his mouth!  (Now, as many moms know, there are those moments when a curious six month old will turn his head, coming off of the nipple to look at an interesting sound on the other side of the room and leave his mother's nipple exposed.)

Nursing a new baby can bring criticism from older female relatives whose experiences and choices were different.

Breastfeeding can be a galvanizing facet of a new mother's (particularly a primipara) parenting force.  It can be a moment of independence when she steps away from the approving glance of her mother or other female relatives, and it can be a scary moment of conflict with the cultural norms of 30 years ago through those family members.

Breastfeeding a new baby can pose a threat to an insecure mate who is uncertain about the sexualization of the breast.  It can even reignite past experiences of abuse and victimization.  These hidden "trap doors" could be acknowledged and addressed for some women by a healthcare professional (lactation consultant, nurse, pediatrician etc.) if they surfaced at the right moment.  These are opportunities for growth for that mother, that are often lost.


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