U.S. Tops the Charts with Stigma Against Breastfeeding

Policy should give babies the best start in life. Image by anita peppers.

Policy should give babies the best start in life. Image by anita peppers.

Stigma Limits Breastfeeding

In 2011, the U.S. Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, issued a Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. She noted that social policies that fail to support breastfeeding create an environment of stigma against public breastfeeding. That social stigma inhibits breastfeeding, as it puts women in uncomfortable positions, such as trying to nurse in public restrooms.

She also pointed out that low support for breastfeeding often causes women to abandon the practice. Doctors and hospitals, employers, and families should all work toward the common cause of supporting breastfeeding, instead of making women feel that they are fighting against a wave of disapproval.

Dr. Benjamin’s statements are backed by research. In a 2013 study published in the Maternal and Child Nutrition journal, Australian researchers found that African women living in large Australian cities were affecting by stigmas against breastfeeding. They interviewed refugee women from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo about their breastfeeding practices.

Although the women all strongly desired to breastfeed, both from a cultural perspective and an understanding that it is the superior infant feeding method, they were affected by the social norms of their adopted country. African countries tend to have a high level of breastfeeding; for example, in Burundi, 95.9% of parents of one-year-olds were still nursing their children. In contrast, only 28% of Australian children were still breastfed at one year of age. Stigma and shame surrounding the practice of public breastfeeding were key factors in their decisions about whether to nurse their babies.

Another 2013 study focused on breastfeeding in Ghana. Researchers at Malmo University interviewed women to learn about influences on their decisions to breastfeed. They found that social influence is fiercely persuasive. Family beliefs and practices, and family understanding about the importance of breastfeeding, were crucial in helping mothers start, and continue to, breastfeed.

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The Political is Personal

Given the importance of support in helping women breastfeed their babies, U.S. policy should reflect the need for maternal support. The U.S. can take its lead from Norway, where new mothers receive full pay during their generous maternity leaves, have the right to unlimited nursing breaks, and are exposed to baby-friendly hospital environments. Norway’s 99% breastfeeding rate proves that supportive policies bring results. In order to give the next generation of children maximal health benefits, stigma-reducing, supportive policies are imperative.


Gallegos, D., et. al. Breastfeeding beliefs and practices of African women living in Brisbane and Perth, Australia. Maternal and Child Nutrition. (2013). Accessed on October 17, 2013.

Marcus, Jake. Lactation and the Law. (2013). Accessed on October 17, 2013.

Seidu, I. Exclusive Breastfeeding and Family Influences in Rural Ghana: A Qualitative Study. (2013). Malmo University Electronic Publishing. Accessed on October 17, 2013.

World Health Organization. Data Bank on Infant and Young Child Feeding. (2013). Accessed on October 17, 2013.

Save the Children. Nutrition in the First 1,000 Days: State of the World’s Mothers 2012. Accessed on October 17, 2013.

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