Border Mail Column, Wednesday 2 November 2011
There are many issues that can divide a community – race, religion and politics to name a few – but there’s one that continues to divide, and mostly to divide women, and that’s the decision on whether or not to breastfeed their babies.
Discussions around the subject make it seem as if it’s a clear cut case for and against, but that is far from the reality.
If a mother breastfeeds she is often told that she’s lucky or fortunate as if her ability to feed involves some magic.
Perhaps it’s with the use of the term ‘ability’ that the gap begins to widen, for it suggests that the woman who doesn’t breastfeed doesn’t have this ‘ability’; she may be seen as a failure, or to be made to feel guilty because of her choice.
There are a small percentage of women who for reasons including lack of duct tissue, breast surgery or illness in the mother or baby cannot breastfeed, but it is possible for most women.
How a woman makes the decision on how she will feed her baby are complex and
according to the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy 2010-2015 involve factors at an individual, group and societal level.
It’s the latter level which studies show have the biggest impact because it’s the level that includes the cultural norms about breastfeeding and the role of women and men in society: factors which can be highly influenced by perception and how they are promoted to us through sources including the media.
My own research for a Masters thesis in 1999 looked at this issue and how more positive messages could be developed into a campaign to promote breastfeeding by organisations including the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
The association, founded in 1964, promoted the message ‘Breast is Best’ in campaigns featuring the much loved Australian actor and mother, Noni Hazlehurst. It also contributed to the development of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative now the Baby Friendly Health Initiative.
Recently the association held its international conference, which explored developing an inclusive breastfeeding culture through research, communication and clinical practice.
Best selling crime writer, former supermodel and mother of eight month old Sapphira, Tara Moss, opened the conference in her new role as UNICEF Australian Patron for Breastfeeding.
Moss told the conference she’d had reservations about breastfeeding which she now saw had been ‘largely informed by comments in the media and popular entertainment, by friends and strangers.’
These are similar sources to those mentioned by the mums I interviewed but 12 years on, these forces are increasingly more intrusive and influential; the view of breasts as sexual objects rather than for their natural function is all pervasive but a massive double standard.
The myths surrounding what is a natural function roar, while the facts about this living fluid including its amazing antibody properties and benefits for mums, babies and society are barely heard.
Moss believes this is largely because breastfeeding has become ‘invisible and taboo’ in our society; we just don’t see it as part of our everyday lives.
She and her baby didn’t have a dream start to their breastfeeding relationship, but she found with support, available to most mothers, she was able to establish her feeding.
One of her goals is to use her position as the patron to work toward promotion of creating an environment to increase the current rate of only 14 per cent of Australian women nursing to the recommended six month minimum.
It’s an outcome Moss can’t achieve alone, but one that all of us can contribute to and improve our social, economic, and environment health.
To read more about Tara’s new role click here.