U.S. Tops the Charts with Stigma Against Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding in public can bring unintended consequences. Image by mconnors.

Breastfeeding in public can bring unintended consequences. Image by mconnors.

No one would argue against the fact that breastfeeding gives babies the best start in life. Study after study has shown that breastfeeding gives babies innumerable benefits: Boosted immune system, fewer infections, better heart health, protection against insulin dependent diabetes, lower rates of obesity, and improved cognitive development.

Additionally, research has shown breastfeeding to advance mental health and socially-positive behaviors. Yet, support for breastfeeding in the U.S. is low, and stigmas against public breastfeeding still prevail.

Although there are no laws in the U.S. that forbid breastfeeding outside one’s home, there are few laws that specifically establish and protect the rights of women to publicly breastfeed: Most state laws that protect the right to breastfeed outside the home do not have enforcement provisions.

Although women have the right to feed their children on demand, regardless of their whereabouts, they lack the legal protection against someone interfering with that right. Therefore, any place of public accommodation can lawfully ask a breastfeeding woman to leave the premises.

If the woman refuses, the police may remove her or arrest her for trespassing. In public areas, such as parks, women can be removed by the police or even charged with indecent exposure for breastfeeding in public. While only Illinois and Missouri have codified laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public that include a requirement of discretion, nursing mothers are often told that they must cover up their breasts in public places.

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Scorecard Indicates Poor Support

The World Health Organization soundly calls for exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. Not only does breastfeeding improve a child’s health, it supports the mother’s health by reducing the risk of certain cancers and osteoporosis. It is also far more economical than formula feeding. Despite the advantages, the prevalence of breastfeeding among mothers varies widely among nations.

The Save the Children charity, in its 2012 State of the World’s Mothers report, included a Breastfeeding Policy Scorecard for Developed Countries. The scorecard ranks support for breastfeeding on the basis of public policies, including the right to nursing breaks at work, maternity leave laws, and the percentage of hospitals that discourage formula use.

The U.S. ranks last of the 36 countries listed, with a score of 4.2. At the other end of the list, Norway ranks highest, with a score of 9.2.

The report notes the U.S. is the only economically-advanced country worldwide that does not require employers to provide paid maternity leave. U.S. law also does not require parental leave to be paid. Mothers have the right to take nursing breaks during the workday, but employers are not required to pay them for this time. Furthermore, only 2% of U.S. hospitals have been certified as baby-friendly, meaning that they discourage formula use. Not surprisingly, only 73.9% of American babies have ever been breastfed, and only 35% are exclusively breastfed by the time they are three months old.

Click to Read Page Two: Stigma Limits Breastfeeding

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