Breastfeeding Around the World
By Sarah Lambersky
Breastfeeding is a choice. For a mother, it is an emotional choice, a practical choice, a healthy choice and a natural choice.
So what do you do if you find yourself living or travelling to a place where breastfeeding in public is not supported? Do you ‘do as the Romans do’ and follow cultural norms or ‘keep on keeping on’ in an attempt to #normalizebreastfeeding?
“I breastfed my three kids all over the world as each kid was born in a different country” says Katja Gaskell, travel writer and Globe Totting blogger. “In Australia, where my eldest was born, you could nurse anywhere, as society is pro-breastfeeding. In India, where my daughter was born, breastfeeding was encouraged but done behind closed doors or under the folds of a large scarf.”
In certain cities and states, breastfeeding in public is a right, in others it’s a privilege.
Around the globe, local and travelling mamas and their babies experience a whole gamut of breastfeeding environments from supportive to downright uncomfortable.
This broad spectrum of environments is influenced by a web of policies, laws, cultural norms and support measures in place. Breastfeeding rights, maternity leave policies, access to information on the importance of breastfeeding versus formula, maternity ward practices, public opinion and body image are just a few topics that can influence one’s experience of breastfeeding in public.
“In Mexico, it is hard (to breastfeed in public) as myths and misinformation prevail. The belief that artificial milk (formula) is more nutritious and beneficial than breastmilk is one that challenges a woman’s decision to breastfeed” says Ximena Garcia, psychologist, doula, lactation consultant and founder of GranDiosa Yoga in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In Latin America, Mexico has one of the lowest levels of breastfeeding (2013); the Dominican Republic is the lowest. “The first things babies suck on are pacifiers and bottles, instead of their mother’s breast; this negatively impacts the first stages of breastfeeding” Ximena shares. As of 2015, the Mexican government banned free baby formula in hospitals in an effort to encourage breastfeeding; a small step in the right direction.
“Pumping in the lounge of an airport is awful… There is no doubt someone will sit next to you and you are obviously doing something weird when you have to reach under your sweater to take jars of milk off the pump…”
Sadly, we do not live in a time where women have a unanimous right to breastfeed in peace in public [although it recently (*finally*) was made a right in each of the US states!] as nursing is still not normalized; harassment, gawking and photos still ensue. Dana Maldonado, owner of Amaze and Graze in Dallas and mother of two, was approached to take photos while breastfeeding her daughter in a carrier in an airport in Japan and on a beach in Thailand.
Breastfeeding in public does not come without its frustrations and challenges and for women who pump breastmilk while travelling, it can be equally tricky. Jacqueline Sava Clarke, Founder and Director of Possibilities, Soak Wash Ink, regales account after account of having to pump while travelling for work. She has pumped in airports, on airplanes, in convention centers, in public parks, in public washrooms and behind tradeshow booths.
“Pumping in the lounge of an airport is awful” says Sava Clarke. “It’s a last resort, when you are desperate to pump but can’t locate the ‘so called’ nursing room. This is combined with the desire not to miss your flight. There is no doubt someone will sit next to you and you are obviously doing something weird when you have to reach under your sweater to take jars of milk off the pump and unhook the pump so you can find a restroom to clean up.” Jacqueline shares that pouring out pumped milk and cleaning the pump parts in a public restroom is almost as uncomfortable as pumping in public.
Encouraging laws and measures do exist to support mothers. In Sao Paulo, Brazil for instance, businesses and organizations are fined if they prevent a woman from breastfeeding in public. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a program in Vietnam called Alive & Thrive to help normalize the practice of breastfeeding and improve breastfeeding rates. Rates went from fewer than 20% of babies exclusively breastfed until 6 months as of 2009 to 62% in 2014.
In Canada, the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario deemed breastfeeding in public a right. It is included in the Human Rights Code that protects women from discrimination and grants women the right to breastfeed in any public area, including not being asked to move to a discreet area or covering up to feed a baby.
“Berlin is the Mecca of do-whatever-you-please” says Elina Penner, blogger of Hauptstadt Mutti and Schnitzel & Schminke. “In Berlin, women breastfeed everywhere but from time to time a story emerges about a woman who was thrown out of a store or café. Interestingly, sometimes you see the opposite extreme in Berlin. We call them the ‘nursing mafia’ where women vocalize their contempt for non-breastfeeding women on social media” says Penner. Due to supportive environments and policies, mothers have positive public breastfeeding stories. Germany for example, allows a three year parental leave and prenatal care includes midwifery and lactation consultants; in other words, supports are in place to encourage mothers to breastfeed.
Dana Maldonado recalls how she breastfed her two children in four countries and never experienced a negative comment or situation, especially when she breastfed her daughter Alba until she was 2 years 3 months. “In Japan, breastfeeding in airports was super easy because they offered breastfeeding partitions right near the play area. Older children could play, you could stand nearby and didn’t have to drag all the kids with you into the family bathroom” says Maldonado. “In Thailand, breastfeeding was completely normalized. No one cared at all and in New Zealand, I breastfed everywhere. My husband is sensitive to social norms and didn’t bat an eyelash either.”
When you travel, there’s always a balance between staying true to yourself and adhering to cultural norms. Erica Levine Weber, of The Worldwide Webers, who has nursed her children in over 35 different countries across 5 continents said, “Getting over any level of embarrassment or sheepishness about the situation was key to ensuring the baby stayed full and my boobs stayed empty regardless of time zone.”
As a breastfeeding mother, understanding the world around you just might make seeking out that friendly park bench a little easier.