In August 2010, Gisele Bundchen, supermodel and wife of New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, spoke of breastfeeding her new baby and her dismay that so many Americans chose not to do so. She went on to say that in her opinion, there should be a worldwide breastfeeding law requiring mothers to breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months.
Bundchen's comments released a maelstrom of criticism as well as statements of support from breastfeeding fans and advocates. Interestingly, according to AsiaOne.com, such a law exists in Indonesia as of October 2009, and will begin being enforced in 2010. They (and many other internet news outlets and blogs) stated that women who refuse to breastfeed exclusively for at least six months (for other than medical reasons) will be subject to one year in prison and a substantial fine. Employers who do not allow/support breastfeeding risk the same punishments.
In trying to understand the reason for this, I discovered that it appears that many outlets, probably in the wake of the Bundchenn story misstated this law. According to a comment by the secretary-general of Indonesian Breastfeeding Mothers’ Association (AIMI) on the Jakarta Post website, the law is not targeted at imprisoning mothers, but states that infants have a right to six months of exclusive breastfeeding and provides the sanctions to employers or anyone interfering with a mother's ability to do so.
When I first saw Bundchen's comments, I appreciated the sentiment, but assumed she was speaking symbolically of breastfeeding's importance. I was surprised when many chose to take her literally. I was even more surprised to read about the Indonesian law (in it's misstated form). In any case, it made me wonder – is a mandatory breastfeeding law something that should be considered?
No – I would never support a "mandatory breastfeeding law" for American mothers. Obviously, this would be incredibly hard to enforce and impractical. But more importantly, as law such as this is all about imposing punishment on violators. And punishing mothers for not breastfeeding is missing the mark. Many breastfeeding advocates complain that when stories like the Bundchen comments post that there are always immediate responses from women who tried, but couldn't breastfeed. But breastfeeding professionals know that such women who truly can't or shouldn't breastfeed are incredibly rare. Most likely, most of these women did not have the proper support or education to make breastfeeding successful.
But there is another dimension to this – it is, in my opinion, equally rare to find women who didn't breastfeed simply because they didn't want to, and this is why I think so many women on the bottlefeeding side of the mommy wars find breastfeeding advocacy so offensive. Most women end up not breastfeeding due to, again the lack of education and technical support, but also the lack of support in society they will receive.
Many women know they will go back to work and feel their jobs or work environments are incompatible with pumping. Many women can't handle the demands of feeding and pumping along with managing households and other children with little family support, much less jobs. And this is all assuming they are able to take the care of themselves long enough after birth and put the time into properly establishing breastfeeding, to even get to that point.
Punishing mothers for not breastfeeding would simply be a red herring. Gisele wasn't wrong to think towards the law to promote and protect breastfeeding. But as much as advocates may get kneejerk pleasure out of the notion of "requiring" breastfeeding, all public policy and law needs to focus, as in the correctly stated Indonesian law, on removing the barriers to breastfeeding for six months (or even longer!).
Breastfeeding advocacy is all about promoting what is healthiest and in the best interests for mothers and babies. No one serious would (I hope) argue that imprisoning a mother for not breastfeeding and separating a mother and baby is in anyone's best interest – mother, baby or society. American public policy does simply a pathetic job at providing for the needs of families, mothers and children, the needs of breastfeeding included.
Women's attitudes toward breastfeeding aren't statistically what advocates would like, but these attitudes are circumscribed by what is practical and possible in American society. These attitudes are created by misleading advertising and sneaky tactics by formula companies that is banned in other countries. Breastfeeding laws are toothless without enforcement provisions to back them up. And women's economic and workplace situations make breastfeeding difficult. (See my article on Breastfeeding and Feminism for more discussion of this and reference to an excellent book by Sharon Lerner, The War on Moms that explores this issue.)
I hope in the future to see more exploration of breastfeeding in the law in ways that actually make sense rather than further escalation of the "mommy wars" pitting mothers against one another rather than against the societal barriers to breastfeeding success.