April 5, 2011

Little Girls Need to Learn to Breastfeed

Reading a post about a European Breast Milk Baby toy coming to the U.S. had me thinking about the unfortunate hysteria that lingers around breasts in this culture that apparently obsesses about the female sex while bemoaning it. Think for instance of the public outrage Janet Jackson’s now historic naked breast during the Super Bowl halftime show caused, which had Europeans shrugging their shoulders incredulously. Or nursing tents used to cover up the boob (and pretty much all of baby) while mama nurses.

I am a huge advocate of breastfeeding, and my toddler daughter (whom I still nurse) will often pull up her shirt to "nurse" her baby dolls. I would not invest in $89 to purchase a specific doll for her to pretend nurse, but I think the concept is interesting. The (small Spanish family owned and Christian) manufacturer of this novelty toy claims that “little girls need to learn to breastfeed.” While this may sound preposterous, I actually agree that this is the case for American girls where breastfeeding is not sufficiently supported.

In the U.S., new moms have likely not seen a lot of breastfeeding women in action and are often not surrounded by a whole lot of breastfeeding moms. High breastfeeding initiation rates show that most women in the U.S. want to breastfeed and are trying to do so; however, even from the very start, they are not getting the breastfeeding support they need: "Across the United States, the average level of support that birth facilities provide to mothers and babies as they get started with breastfeeding is inadequate, and hospital practices and policies that interfere with breastfeeding remain common" (CDC). Low breastfeeding rates at 3, 6, and 12 months illustrate that mothers continue to face multiple barriers to breastfeeding.
I grew up in Norway where women's rights and substantial human sex ed. have been promoted for decades. My mom, born in the mid thirties, has never thought twice about sunbathing topless on her own porch as well as at the beach; and this is quite common in Norway where breastfeeding is also widely encouraged and supported, including through public health stations that offer free services to all new moms during their (paid year-long) parental leave, and by receiving an hour off from work to nurse or pump thereafter.

I agree with Sarah Whedon that the argument “breast milk is just food” (which some breastfeeding advocates make when women are asked to nurse or pump in a bathroom, arguing that if you wouldn’t eat your sandwich in a bathroom then why would you feed your baby there), takes away a significant element of breastfeeding. Nursing is more than nutrition; it’s about nurturing and bonding with the baby, and it can be a very sensuous and pleasurable experience for women. As sex educator Debra W. Haffner writes in her book, From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, "some even reach orgasm during breast-feeding. This is a perfectly expected physiological response: Oxytocin, the hormone that triggers the letdown of milk when a baby suckles, is the same hormone that triggers orgasm. It does not mean that you are having sexual feelings towards your baby or having sex with your baby. Your body is simply responding to your breasts' being stimulated in this way" (27).

A more holistic approach to human sexuality, and not simply reducing it to intercourse and reproduction, can ensure a more positive approach to breasts and breastfeeding, in private and public. That way one day we will not need breast milk baby dolls, because new moms will have had for their models real women comfortably nursing and displaying their breasts.


  1. Great post. (Found you via Scary Mommy.)

    When I was pregnant with my first child, 18 years ago, I told my mother I intended to breastfeed and she responded by becoming thoroughly grossed out. Granted, when I was born (1971), she knew no one who breastfed, so it was very foreign to her.

    By the time I had my fourth child, my mother was accustomed to the process, although still not very comfortable with it.

    The other day, my youngest (6) was playing with her dolls, and she raised up her shirt to "feed the baby" and I just grinned. She knew what to do because she has seen the behavior modeled by my friends and our family members.

    I'm elated to know that someday I will be able to support my daughters' (I have three total) choices, whether bottle or breast, without making them feel one or the other is a "gross" choice.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jenny! Interesting how while you and I are born only two years apart (I'm born in 1973), our mothers related very differently to breastfeeding. Nursing became one of the issues the women's movement in Norway fought for in the late sixties and seventies, inspired, in fact, by the American book, "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding." Good for you trusting your instincts despite your mother's original reaction!


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