Guest Post: The breast feeding scapegoat

7 April 2009 by Noah Gray, posted in Uncategorized

At times, this blog probably needs a break from the α-male attitude exuded by your host. Therefore, Hysell Oviedo, a senior postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Tony Zador at CSHL will periodically bring a woman’s perspective to scientific publishing and life as a scientist. Having grown up in the Dominican Republic, she will also speak on her experiences as a minority breaking into the world of science. Once I force her to sign up for an account at NN, she will be glad to reply to your comments. Enjoy, but be warned, she is extremely opinionated and is not afraid to speak her mind…

A recent piece by the journalist Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic entitled The Case Against Breast-Feeding has gone where no one has dared to go in the last 50 years. She uses a combination of personal vignettes and selective review of the medical literature to push the idea that breast milk is not all it’s cracked up to be. Her greater context is that breast-feeding puts a huge burden on mothers that may not be worth it after all. This piece would seem like a relief to professional mothers, especially scientists, who struggle with balancing time with the family and who are in a profession that expects long work hours in a setting that’s often unsafe for children (can’t stash baby next to harmful chemicals). However, I feel that her arguments are a misrepresentation, focusing all of the challenges of motherhood on an odd scapegoat.

One sentiment I do agree with in Rosin’s piece is that in the upper echelons of American society there is a fascist and competitive attitude about mothering. This is not the case in lower economic circles in America or in Europe. When well-off American pregnant women tell their European friends that they’ve cut out coffee and wine, the usual response is: “why would you do that? My doctor said I can do anything in moderation, except smoking.” (cont.)

The biggest problem with bottle-feeding (whether it’s breast milk or formula) is that there is an emphasis on the baby finishing a specific amount of milk. I watch it every day at the daycare center where I have my daughter; worried mothers call constantly to ask how many ounces their babies have consumed. I’ve watched fathers force feed their babies formula while growling “Finish it buddy!” The baby does finish it, and a few minutes later the baby pukes all over his shirt. With breast-feeding, the infant can regulate how much and how often to feed; this is a more natural, personalized feeding system. Studies have already linked bottle-fed babies with obesity.
From a scientific stand-point, a quick PubMed search reveals a plethora of research papers studying the components of breast milk and their role in the development of an infant’s immune system (reviewed here). Even though we have been studying human milk since the 1980s, our understanding of its role in the development of an infant’s immune system is still far from complete. We still don’t understand the role of some of the components in breast milk. Also, the scientific literature does not support Ms. Rosin’s statements regarding maternal antibodies not entering the infant’s bloodstream. The antimicrobial substances in breast milk tend to be resistant to breakdown in the infant’s gut. As far as studies looking at long-term benefits of breast-feeding/breast milk, it is true that there will be some inconsistencies across infants because, as she highlighted, it’s hard to do controlled studies with humans.
The only positive outcome of Ms. Rosin’s piece was that it inspired a discussion on the issue of extended maternity leave by NY Times columnist Judith Werner (who jumps right on Ms. Rosin’s bandwagon). This is the real issue American women should be livid about. At most, we can take off 3 months, fathers rarely get paternity leave, and only precious few work places offer any daycare assistance. If academic institutions truly want more women to stay in academia they need to step up to the plate and offer on-site daycare facilities, which would allow mothers to continue breast-feeding on demand as well as be more present. Unfortunately, I get a sense that women in science will not be at the forefront of this battle, at least in America. In a profession dominated by people (i.e. men) who work endless hours (albeit inefficiently), women tend to rush back to work after having a child. Watching recent mothers returning to the lab, I’ve seen everything from one stressed soul working on a paper hours after having a c-section to others going back to the lab only after one month away from the bench. The first woman never published that paper and, tragically, even any of her Ph.D. research. The other mothers consistently expressed regret for only taking a short leave.
I think there is a silver lining for mothers in science. We can exploit the flexibility of our jobs to spend more time with our children. This includes going to see/nurse baby during experimental down time (e.g. gels running), working at night while baby sleeps (let dad take over if baby wakes up) and don’t forget that you don’t have to attend every single talk (you get so much more from reading the paper…perhaps while cradling baby to sleep if you must!)
Putting breast-feeding at the forefront of women enslavement is misguided and I suspect Ms. Rosin is using it to attract attention and be controversial, while having the safety net of being a breast-feeding mom. Considering the amount of effort and time diligent mothers spend watching over their children, putting them to sleep, entertaining, and educating (just to name a few biggies), breast-feeding is a breeze (my daughter empties both my breasts in less than 10 minutes). In this so-called age of parental equality, women still end up doing a lot more domestic work than men, even when they both work. If you really want to highlight issues enslaving women with children, Ms. Rosin, how about turning up the heat on the fathers!
- Hysell Oviedo

76 Responses to “Guest Post: The breast feeding scapegoat”

  1. Henry Gee | Permalink

    I write as a former member (with Mrs Gee) of the pro-breastfeeding National Childbirth Trust. Anyone who thinks breatfeeding is bad, or unnatural, or degrading, or who object to women flopping ‘em out in public, deserve to be taken out the back and flogged. Just sayin’

  2. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    For once I agree with Gee.

  3. Richard Wintle | Permalink

    Thirded. Of course, this ought to be academic here in Ontario, since the ability (right?) of women to go topless was established in a legal ruling in 1996. I can’t find a sensible news article about this (not surprisingly perhaps, in among all the dreck on the internet).

  4. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Well, NY has Ontario beat there, Richard. Although breast-feeding was exempt from the original law anyway, an appellate court ruled in 1992 that women could expose their breasts anywhere a man could without breaking the NY exposure law.

  5. Richard Wintle | Permalink

    I’m not surprised, Noah – Ontario is in many respects a very conservative place.

    I suspect breast-feeding was also exempt here, but I’m too lazy to look it up.

  6. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    Is it a coincidence that the comments have been dominated by guys talking about breasts being exposed?

  7. Noah Gray | Permalink


  8. Richard Wintle | Permalink

    Sorry, what? I was distracted by something or other.

  9. Dewi D. | Permalink


    Men do love breasts!
    Even in the most non-sexual context of breastfeeding.

    It is never a man who minds a baby nursing in public, or rolls his eyes at you in public, or writes scathing mean things aobut breastfeeding in public. It is always other women.

    I think half the problem with Hanna Rosin is that she could not find her tribe of friends, she is a women of privilege and feels entitled to whine that all the other mothers in the playground have slighted her is some way because she also gives bottles.

    Maybe if stopped living her adult life as if it were a high school lunch room drama, she could find peace with breastfeeding, and not try to twist the science to fit. She does not hate it enough to give up, the end of the articles she goes on to say she still nurses her third child because it’s all “warm and fuzzy”! Well that is the point, warm and fuzzy as well as beneficial nutritionally. That is nursing!

    PS. Not a scientist, found a link to this blog entry from a breastfeeding supportive site.

  10. Ian Brooks | Permalink

    A student I taught was back in lab less than a week after giving birth!! I couldn’t believe it! She claimed dedication to her studies. Needless-to-say a lot of the Grumpy Old Men were suitably impressed with her dedication.

    Also, I was at a conference recently and saw a colleague breastfeeding her baby. I was so surprised to see someone (American) breastfeeding “openly” I caught myself staring. I felt awful! I was staring with surprise at the event, not her boob act :(

  11. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    Dear Dewi D, I agree with you that it’s mostly women with a chip on their shoulder who tend to blast breastfeeding. But I have talked to men (mostly American) who are uncomfortable with women doing it in public. None of these men were fathers of course. I’ve been beaten down so much by the stares that when I feel vulnerable I nurse in a bathroom, on a toilet. And I live in ultra liberal NYC! Ms. Rosin is treating nursing as if it were a mainstream activity. We’re struggling for acceptance here.

  12. Maxine Clarke | Permalink

    I hate to write this, but at least the gentlemen concerned are not illustrating their comments, but please, guys, I am not trying to give you ideas, just commending your restraint.

    Hysell – what you are doing is just fine – brilliant even. If anyone objects, just send them to Henry who will reject their mansucript for them, or worse.

  13. Richard Wintle | Permalink

    Let’s not go completely off the deep end – there are women who can’t breastfeed (for example, if they are required to take medications that are excreted in breast milk and are potentially toxic), and there are babies that won’t breastfeed (yes, really – not to mention those that can’t because of, say, oral deformities). No need to jump down a woman’s throat for using a bottle.

  14. Cath Ennis | Permalink

    there are babies that won’t breastfeed

    My friend has one of those, and she gets all kinds of comments when she whips out the formula. She’s learned not to let it get to her now, but in the first few months with a new baby, having all these people imply that she was a terrible mother really got to her.

  15. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    Now we’re completely off topic. What Ms. Rosin and I are talking about are not the exceptional cases of women and babies who have difficulty breastfeeding. (However, the most common scenario is babies who won’t take the bottle. There’s a whole industry of bottle nipple engineering!!). And if a woman doesn’t want to do it that’s up to her. What I object to is people trying to down play its importance for whatever ulterior motives they may have.

  16. Cath Ennis | Permalink

    This is actually remarkably on topic for Nature Network! Especially since the post mentioned a “fascist and competitive attitude about mothering”.

    All these comments and not one single photo of a cat, I’m impressed.

  17. Henry Gee | Permalink

    Hysell wrote

    Is it a coincidence that the comments have been dominated by guys talking about breasts being exposed?

    Yes, we blokes love looking at bare boobs. Believe it or not, ladies, this is quite normal, and probably what the internet is for. However, in this case it is beside the point. Yes, in some cases women can’t breastfeed, even if they want to, and some babies aren’t very good at it either. But breastfeeding is what Nature nature intended. So why knock it? Some of us here are fathers too, who have been very supportive of their wives’ choices in this matter.

    Maxine wrote

    If anyone objects, just send them to Henry who will reject their mansucript for them, or worse.

    The only option I have is ‘worse’. That I should reject a manuscript on an authors’ personal prejudices? I should do such a thing! If I did, objections to breastfeeding would come WAAAAY down the list.

  18. Caryn Shechtman | Permalink

    Great post Hysell. This is a very important issue for women (especially women in science). I often see women return back to lab too quickly after giving birth, only to be troubled with additional responsibilities since they have been gone. This makes breast feeding all the more difficult. I think it is really a problem of our society that needs to be addressed. We need to teach people how important breast feeding (or at least attempting to breast feed) is for babies and remove the stigma associated with it in the process.

  19. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    I think slowly, but surely things are changing. There is a growing number of women who are bold enough to have kids even as graduate students. The previous generation of women in science used to wait to get pregnant until the day their tenure got approved, at which time they were almost 40 years old. We need pushy, feisty women to keep pushing the envelope.

  20. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Speaking of feisty women, I was always impressed with Julie Simpson at Janelia Farm Research Center; we overlapped for 6 months there when I was finishing my postdoc. First of all, she is one of the few female group leaders at JFRC (along with Alla Karpova; hey 2/19 is better than 1/19!!), which likely brings its own set of challenges. But then, she had a baby shortly after starting and seemed to just take it all in stride. After I left the center, I saw her later at a Gordon Conference wearing the infant in a Baby Björn while browsing posters. She seemed like all of these stressors were agreeing with her. I can’t speak to her baby feeding habits so I apologize for going slightly off-topic, but I simply wanted to highlight one particular mother-scientist who I found to be impressive.

    I just hope Gerry doesn’t continue this off-topic trend by commenting on the hiring of women at Janelia. We can discuss that in another thread.

  21. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Finishing statement from the Atlantic article:
    So overall, yes, breast is probably best. But not so much better that formula deserves the label of “public health menace,” alongside smoking. Given what we know so far, it seems reasonable to put breast-feeding’s health benefits on the plus side of the ledger and other things—modesty, independence, career, sanity—on the minus side, and then tally them up and make a decision.

    Hysell, I don’t read an attack on women who breastfeed in the article. I am actually tempted to read support for women who – for whatever reason – can’t.

    I breastfed my son for a full year (I stopped when he stared biting and grinned at me). I did this even though I went back to work after only three months at home (as you say, the family leave act is pathetic) – I pumped first twice and then once during the workday, and gave the breast mornings, evenings and nights. It did not seem like a big extra effort to me at the time, and it was very important for me and I think also my son that we did this to reconnect after being separated all day.

    Women should absolutely feel comfortable breastfeeding in public – there were many situations where I myself did not and escaped like you to a toilet or the car etc. There also needs to be ongoing education on breastfeeding, so it again becomes a completely natural thing.

    But women who can’t breastfeed, or who decide – for whatever reason – not to do it need to get a break too.

    And just for completeness: at least here in Germany, the guidelines on alcohol consumption for breastfeeding women are very similar to the US (random example) – it is generally recommended to avoid doing it, but if you must, drink little and wait long enough before nursing again.

  22. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    I think Ms. Rosin is exaggerating formula’s bad reputation to make her arguments seem more compelling. No pediatrician or doctor I have encountered has ever labeled it “public health menace”. It is a multibillion dollar industry. Using formula either exclusively or to supplement breast milk is the norm for most people. I will reiterate my point that breastfeeding is not the biggest challenge to a mother’s “independence, career, and sanity”. By having a child you should have already accepted that all of these will be hugely impacted. Here’s what most professional women really struggle with: leaving their children in daycare centers for 10 hours a day. The question we face as women is whether we’re comfortable with this arrangement or whether we push the “establishment” to offer more flexibility and on-site daycare centers.

  23. Hilary Spencer | Permalink

    The Atlantic piece follows an earlier piece in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore. After reading this post, I thought it would be of interest here (at least in providing a bit of a counterpoint to Rosin).

  24. Krushna Mavani | Permalink

    I am not a mother myself but my sister is a mother. I do not think that public places are comfortable for mothers to feed their babies (because of stares).

    At public places, I feel that there is a real need of special rooms for mothers to feed their babies(room without any presence of men). Atleast one such room somewhere at a public place may help mothers to feel easy. Let them charge for using special room if they want.

    Of course, everyone knows that breast feeding is natural, but unlike animals, we humans need special rooms for privacy (I felt a need to mention this).
    Then no mother needs to face the stares and no man need to feel uncomfortable.

    Certainly the idea of special room is not worth if not supported by mothers and fathers and by public places and by conference organizers. I am aware of similar already arranged in some conferences, so why not such special room in some buildings and public places too.

  25. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    How about just providing a chair in the women’s restroom?! But, I think we should focus on public acceptance of breastfeeding here in the US (yet another example of the devolution of social norms). When I visited China with my daughter (at barely 5 months of age) I felt people looked briefly but were respectful of my nursing. I felt a lot more comfortable nursing in Beijing than in NYC! But then again, in China toddlers wear split pants for public potty emergencies (this probably deserves a whole blog piece and a separate discussion!) So their level of tolerance for natural activities is quite high.

  26. Noah Gray | Permalink

    @Hysell- It is cruel to discuss the heralded Chinese toddler split pants without a visual:

    If they made these in my size, I would be forced to consider them. Although they do technically violate the NPG NYC office dress code…

  27. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    How about just providing a chair in the women’s restroom?

    Would you have your lunch in the toilet?

  28. Åsa Karlström | Permalink

    Sometimes I wonder if the lack of proper (easy) breast feeding shirts (like the one here ) in the US is one of the reasons it is so infected talking about breast feeding in public? I recently gave a new mother in the US a shirt from H&M (from a store in Sweden since you can’t buy them online here in the US) where the boobs are easy access for the baby, yet has little to no openness of boobs to other people. In short, it is easy to lay the baby to your breast without much fuzz and open bare skin for others.

    That might make it less “offensive”.

    And no, I don’t think a chair in a rest room is a good place to nurse a baby. It really shouldn’t be that bad to do “in the open”. And a work place should really have some kind of “nice room with a chair or a sofa” where the mother and baby can be. If nothing else, that is good for women who need to pump too…

  29. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Just for some background, many states already require employers to provide ‘adequate space’ to pump breastmilk (this plus other regulations here). Having said that, you may still need to make your employer do it – I did: there was no established space where I worked. There was one other new mother that I knew of who pumped, but she just used an empty office nearby. I had to ask for a place… yet another obstacle. And surely, we couldn’t have been the first?!

  30. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    As a mom who has been nursing for almost 16 months I can tell you that many times a chair in a private restroom has been a godsend (the only difference between this and a special nursing room is the presence of a toilet). Babies tend to nurse better in a quiet place without distractions. Like I stated in my last post, we should focus on making it more socially acceptable here in the US to nurse in public. And I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the government and businesses to spend money to build special nursing rooms across the nation. We can’t even get baby changing tables in most restrooms. Also, I’d rather have work places provide on-site daycare rather than comfy pumping rooms.

  31. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Hysell, after your comment (I think our comments might have crossed?) I need to add that a bathroom with 5 stalls can be anything but a quiet place in a building with over 400 employees which also frequently hosts meetings with additional people coming in. My feeling is that this or similar situations might be the norm for many large companies in the US, so a separate room may not be a ‘nice to have’, but a must.

  32. Krushna Mavani | Permalink

    Something has to be done because…

    1) Mothers feel uncomfortable (the degree of this feeling may vary) and one cannot stop this feeling as the stares do not stop too. I have seen that sometimes this feeling turns into a kind of hate for men or public and I have also seen women expressing verbal reactions while discussing this topic in group.

    2) It is very difficult to make whole society understand and stop the stares at the mothers while they are breast feeding.

    3) There are many places where mothers do not go or avoid to go for long hours, just because of difficulties in breast feeding.

    4) Mother look for artificial ways to feed baby or avoid breast feeding or wish the child to leave breast feeding ealier due to similar reasons as above.

    5) Even some men feel uncomfortable when they are around the mothers who are breast feeding.

    6) There may be more consequences related to the health of babies because some mother may delay to feed them while at public place or may choose to feed the baby something other than the breast milk.

    So let people get the required services when they need it. If govenment is not ready to take any initiative, then how about private services for that? For example, in some countries, there are private services for toilets if govenment does not provide it and then people pay for that.

    If such room is not royal, let it be small. Let it be calm and comfortable and equipped with necessary things. I feel that many mothers will choose to pay to private services to avoid many difficulties and mental strain of being stared.

    It may be better to give ‘special room’ a try atleast at smaller scale initially, rather than waiting to bring a change for social acceptance for breast feeding in public.

  33. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    You see, what’s bothering me is this bit:

    It may be better to give ‘special room’ a try atleast at smaller scale initially, rather than waiting to bring a change for social acceptance for breast feeding in public.

    You know what will happen, don’t you? You hide away breast-feeding mothers and this makes breast-feeding even less socially acceptable. If you do this, you may as well make all women wear veils in public.

  34. Henry Gee | Permalink

    I agree with Grant. Women should feel conmfortable feeding babies wherever they need to be fed – at their desks, on the bus, wherever. If other people feel uncomfortable about this, that’s their problem.

  35. Henry Gee | Permalink

    And another thing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. To this rather emotional middle-aged father of two, the sight of a woman breastfeeding her baby is one of the loveliest, most charming, most normal things in the world. Anyone who objects to this for reasons of ‘taste and decency’, or indeed any reason at all, has either got something wrong with them, is a Nazi, or needs the broomhandle surgically remopved from their colon. Just sayin’.

  36. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    I’d change that first comment of yours slightly, Henry, if I may:

    “Women should be able to feel comfortable feeding babies wherever they need to be fed”

    because I’m not about to tell any woman what they should do. Dear me no. I agree with everything else you say, though.

  37. Krushna Mavani | Permalink

    “Women should be able to feel comfortable feeding babies wherever they need to be fed”

  38. Krushna Mavani | Permalink

    “Women should be able to feel comfortable feeding babies wherever they need to be fed”

    The topic here is because women are not comfortable.

  39. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    and we’re wondering about how to change that. Sequestering women like calcium in intracellular stores ain’t going to help.

  40. Krushna Mavani | Permalink

    “Sequestering women like calcium in intracellular stores ain’t going to help.”

    “You know what will happen, don’t you? You hide away breast-feeding mothers and this makes breast-feeding even less socially acceptable. If you do this, you may as well make all women wear veils in public.”

    Providing special room to make mother comfortable (because she is working or travelling) is not equal to wearing veils or sequestering of calcium. If mothers need special rooms at work place or at public place, what is wrong in proding this facility? Take a fee if you want. Actually many women work now, so why not special rooms? Some conference organizers are already doing this to make it possible for mothers to attend international conferences.

  41. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    Because special rooms do not address the root cause of the problem. It’s like washing your hands to stop spreading swine ’flu.

  42. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Before this gets any sillier with veil comparisons, I would like to just point out again that a mother that feels uncomfortable will not be able to feed her baby, and that a baby that is distracted in a very busy, overcrowded place may not drink milk (I tried this, among other places, on an airplane – believe me, it doesn’t work). I used the separate room at work to pump breast milk, I was certainly not going to do that at my desk – I was very happy about the regulation to provide that room in that situation.

    And I just remembered how it made me giggle on many occasions when people at work asked me whether I was ‘already having lunch’ when I headed off with my discrete little bag of supplies – or that time a colleague turned a bit pale around the nose after he ‘borrowed’ some (cows) milk from a bottle in the fridge that said ‘Steffi’ on it for his coffee – and then remembered…

  43. Maxine Clarke | Permalink

    Remembers that scene in the wonderful film Sunday Bloody Sunday (cue Mozart)….

  44. Maxine Clarke | Permalink

    I also rather like the idea of a “special room” (in general).

  45. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    I have a special place … for special people.

  46. Henry Gee | Permalink

    ‘Special Rooms’ just don’t exist, because companies are suspicious that people might use them for things they might not approve of them doing in work time, like having a nap, having sex, shooting up, or … perish the thought … breastfeeding. No, ‘Special Rooms’ won’t happen, and women will be told to go breastfeed in the toilets.

    Another illusion shattered – on my way home I took a pit stop in the gents at Norwich station, which is bathed in blue light. I always thought that this was some handy disinfection method – the blue being, like, the spillage from a UV tube – but I learned, from another source, that having blue lights in loos is to discourage heroin users, who would not be able to see their own veins. What a depressing world it is in which we live.

  47. Riki Stevenson | Permalink

    There are so many issues here, i dont know where to start.

    • I was lucky comparatively. I got to take 4 months off after having my child (albeit, part of it unpaid, but job protection), I had a room designated as a lactation room (not clean, sometimes used for cell phone conversations by others) and supportive friends.
    • It is nice that they provide on campus daycare (i was excited when i heard i could actually go breastfed at lunch!), but the cost was over half of my take home salary.
    • Now there are some people who were actively against breast-feeding. I was actually told by a colleague that he “hates to be reminded that we are mammals”…are you kidding me?
    • Older employees who i talked to about breastfeeding would lapse into nostalgia about pumping while sitting on the toilet, with people walking in and talking to them, wow, i guess i did have it good!
    • It seems like larger companies must provide these types of things, good time off, lactation rooms, flexible schedules etc, but just b/c they SAY they have these things b/c they are politically correct to have on the books, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge stigma with taking them. Anything I took, I had to take it with my head held high, not taking any crap and not apologizing.
    • Despite everything, i breastfed for just over a year, pumping 3 times a day for most of it. I wish more women felt it was ok to do so, even b/t women there is still a stigma of talking about it.
  48. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    a baby that is distracted in a very busy, overcrowded place may not drink milk (I tried this, among other places, on an airplane – believe me, it doesn’t work).

    I have little sympathy for this, I’m sorry. Millions of years of mammalian evolution and a baby won’t feed because other stuff is happening? I know breast-feeding can be difficult, but special rooms and the like will not help: they will do nothing to change the attitude of people (and will make it worse, in fact). Now, this is a difficult thing to say in public and you’ll hate me for it, but I don’t think that putting babies away, in peace and quiet, is helpful for ever getting them to sleep or for feeding. All this tiptoeing around, ‘hush! the baby’s asleep’-type stuff — been there, done that; it’s a rod for your own back.

    Baby’s hungry — she’ll learn to feed eventually, even on an aeroplane.

  49. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Richard, it’s not just ‘other stuff is happening’ – I am talking about situations that have not arisen during human evolution before. We have a higher density of people and more noise and distraction than we used to… and moms didn’t use to work in offices or labs.

    That aside, many states in the US (and we started primarily talking about the US) have, besides the regulation to provide rooms at work (those are the ones I was talking about) where a woman can pump breastmilk or feed, also given women the legal right (i.e. protection) to feed in public – even when (oh my goodness) parts should be exposed in the process. The two go together, so providing room in places where it may very well be needed by a large number of women (believe me, I am about as unsqueamish as they come, and I needed that room at work…) does not automatically mean you’re ‘locking women or babies away’.

    I am not upset about your actual comment, but about how much you are polarizing this discussion, because it’s an emotionally loaded discussion anyway and this is not helping.

  50. Henry Gee | Permalink

    … here are some people who were actively against breast-feeding. I was actually told by a colleague that he “hates to be reminded that we are mammals

    The appropriate response here is to ask why dogs lick their own arseholes. Because they can.

    And sorry, Steffi, I’m with Richard. So, girls, flop ’em out. If any reptiles come along to give you a hard time, Gee and Grant Lactation Enforcement Services will … er … re-educate them.

  51. steffi suhr | Permalink

    I am trying to resist wishing you good luck next time you try to breastfeed a tired, frantic baby in a crowded, noisy place with people hassling you while you’re exhausted yourself, Henry – and just failed.

    I did my bit of flopping with my son in the US.

  52. Dorothy Clyde | Permalink

    Richard and Henry: I get where you’re coming from – but I think it’s unrealistic (and unfair?) to expect all women to breastfeed publically just to make a point and to change the attitude of others (which seems to be what you’re advocating?). If someone is uncomfortable breastfeeding in public (and many women are just very shy or don’t like the idea of ‘exposing’ themselves for many different and valid reasons – or, like Steffi, they find it easier to do it somewhere quieter) I think it is reasonable that they should have the option of going somewhere a bit more private to feed their child. However, women shouldn’t be made to feel they HAVE to use such rooms just because they are available.

  53. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    @Dorothy —

    you might notice that further up I was very careful to avoid saying what women should and shouldn’t do. I actually agree that the facilities for breast-feeding in private should exist, but what I’m saying is that we’ve got to be careful not to force women into those areas and out of public view. There needs to be a choice, and the general acceptance that feeding babies anywhere they need to be fed is, actually, OK.

    I am really worried, Steffi, that provision of such rooms and forcing women to use them (which will happen. Believe me) will do more harm than good. Do you really disagree so strongly?

  54. Henry Gee | Permalink

    … what’s more, such rooms won’t remain the preserve of breastfeeding women for very long. Perhaps when there happens to be a cohort of breastfeeding women, but after these are weaned, the next woman who comes along will find the room crammed full of old files and junk. Which would be most encouraging, I’m sure.

  55. Dorothy Clyde | Permalink

    @ Richard: Sorry if I misinterpreted your point – my brain is getting a bit dizzy as the discussion seems to be going in circles a bit! Anyway, I think we both agree that the important thing is that every woman is free to make the choice to feed in public or private? However, to have that choice, there needs to be adequate provision of private places suitable for feeding – I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that such rooms shouldn’t be provided because you think all women will be forced to use them? I do agree that this is a concern – but I’m not convinced that it’s a foregone conclusion, in the UK at least. But I may (very likely!) be very naive – and my attitude may change in a few weeks time when I’ll face the trials and tribulations of breast-feeding for the first time!

    @ Henry: I think there are ways to increase the likelihood that such rooms are only used by nursing mothers – like having to collect a key (a fairly minor irritation?). Also, there are successful examples of such rooms – Bluewater shopping centre, for example, is reported to have excellent facilities! However, I agree that there are probably some less salubrious locations that will always prove more difficult to ‘police’….. But I’m not yet convinced this is a good enough reason not to provide nursing mothers with the choice of a private space?

  56. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Richard, I just don’t understand how making rooms available will automatically lead to women being forced to use them – I am pretty sure there are a few other factors at play. I mentioned the regulation in several US states that protects a mother’s right to feed her baby in public, and pointed out that the two would have to go hand in hand.

    Again, I was happy to have a room at work where I could pump, and I did my share of feeding – sometimes demonstratively – in public. Not providing rooms for women who might need or want them and instead saying that they should either be able to nurse anywhere, anytime, or give up is, I think, not very fair.

    Anyway, I don’t remember exactly who started talking about rooms in public, and it doesn’t matter. I think those would be nice to have, while having a room at work is essential.

  57. steffi suhr | Permalink

    …and what Dorothy said. Good luck with everything Dorothy! :)

  58. Dorothy Clyde | Permalink

    Thanks Steffi!

  59. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    Maybe I’m more cynical about human nature, Steffi.

  60. Maxine Clarke | Permalink

    If a lactating woman feels tense, her milk will not get produced, and the baby will be hungry. (The mother will get upset, tense and even more unhappy).

    Women need a choice to breastfeed in an environment where they feel relaxed. If there is a private room provided when they can go if they wish, that’s great. This would be preferable to many women compared with breastfeeding in public, with all its associated self-consciousness. Many people in public spaces are censorious, or stare, or laugh which can feel highly unpleasant.

  61. Audra McKinzie | Permalink

    Australia is incredibly progressive when it comes to social reform. Toilet facilites in nearly every public location also include a ‘parents room’ – a large lockable room with diaper changing facilities, chairs, and sometimes even miniature toilets for kids. This way, mothers or fathers can take their children to the toilet without the dilemma of deciding which gender is most appropriate for the cause. Likewise, breast feeding mothers who seek privacy or quietude may have it. Contrary to low expectations of human behavior, these rooms are not junky sex dens.

    Furthermore, it is not uncommon to see signs such as this (and my spies tell me thay are cropping up in California, too) in restaurants or cafes:

    And now for something completely different (and probably VERY unpopular):

    I don’t especially like babies or witnessing any of the tasks associated with their influence or effluence – including feeding and diaper changing. I fully recognize that this is MY problem and I don’t expect anyone to take that into consideration when deciding how to behave – I have the power to look elsewhere or leave, and I would never tell a mother to sequester herself for my benefit. So despite G&G’s ideal of how society should feel about breast feeding, it is not unreasonable to recognize that individuals are entitled to feel however they feel about it.

  62. Åsa Karlström | Permalink

    Audra> I feel very different from daiper changing and [breast] feeding. One smells, the other usually makes a fuzzy baby calm and sleepy.

    That said, as I stated further up – there is lots of behaviour that isn’t welcome everywhere but it is never as heated as the breast feeding. I guess that is really an eye sore for some people…

  63. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    And so we have come full circle. In my last post my main point was that we should keep pushing for acceptance of nursing in public (it’s as natural and wholesome as a hug, kiss, or hand shake). But, if a mother feels like some privacy would be best (and this is a personal choice that no one should dispute), it’s nice to have that option. Family friendly countries and businesses already offer a simple solution: a private restroom (not with 16 stalls as someone mentioned in an earlier post) with amenities for families with young children (this can include a changing table, toddler potty seat, and a chair for nursing mothers). This is where private businesses can win people over and set new standards (e.g. Whole Foods). I envision an App that allows you to find businesses with these amenities. And I agree that pushing for private rooms for the exclusive use of nursing mothers in every public venue would definitely set us back in the public acceptance fight. This is not a battle I choose to fight given all the other more important issues women face (like equal pay for the same job as a man).

  64. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Hysell – yes, maybe we have come full circle. I just re-read the article in the Atlantic and still see it as relatively reasonable support for mothers who, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t want to breastfeed, while still coming out with an overall plus for breastfeeding. Having said that, the title is provocative and may be misleading.

    The discussion about breastfeeding may just still be too polarized to be really productive – the nuances are not being discussed in any sensible way as far as I can tell. For example, I am not sure about your point concerning bottle feeding: you mention that bottles may contain breastmilk. Having your child in daycare is a given if you are an independent, professional woman today. Driving over to daycare to breastfeed, rather than pumping and having the care provider give the bottle during the day, is just not an option for many, many women. So what is the choice here?

    Maybe we just have to keep going in circles for a while until the emotional aspects of the issue have been ‘vented’ enough. Meanwhile, let’s keep changing attitudes about breastfeeding and support those who can breastfeed – while not making those who can’t feel like a failure.

  65. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    I struggled to decide whether or not I should address your comment, but I just have to. Obviously I don’t agree with you at all about Ms. Rosin’s article. It may strike a couple of warm notes on breastfeeding (but not breast milk), but it is most definitely an attack. She spends a good portion of the article trying to cast doubt on the scientific evidence showing their benefits. If you still have doubts about whether the piece is an attack on breast milk and breastfeeding read Judith Warner’s take on it: she hopes that in the future people will view the pump as a symbol of women enslavement.

    You ask what is the choice, if I work I have to bottle feed. True, this might be the only choice now for many women, but are we fighting hard for better choices? Judith Warner only has a brief statement about longer maternity leave in her piece. But I don’t see women as worked up about these issues as they are about being as sexually liberated as men. It will take that kind of cultural force to get what we want (or some of us want) as working mothers. Our children’s health is at stake, child obesity rates are exorbitant and feeding during early life has a lot to do with this. Our mediocre solutions for child rearing (e.g. ratios of 4 infants per daycare worker!) are becoming costly public health problems. Given that breast feeding doesn’t have a fighting chance the way things stand now in the US (6 weeks paid leave is all we get), it seems misguided to attack it.

  66. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Ok, now I’ve read Judith Warner’s article… and {gasp} she also has a few points (note: moving again from breastfeeding to women in modern US society, as has been happening in this discussion).

    From the Warner article:

    Why, as a society, have we privileged the magic elixir of maternal milk over actual maternal contact, denying the vast, vast majority of mothers the kind of extended maternity leave that would make them physically present for their babies?

    Why do we keep sticking our heads in the sand, putting all the burdens of our half-changed society on women – their “choices,” their “priorities,” their bodies – instead of figuring out reasonable ways to make our new family lives work?

    If you want to achieve a significant societal change, you need as many women involved in it as possible. These women all have different life situations, levels of education, backgrounds… and abilities to breastfeed (for whatever reason). If you hang up this change solely on the ability to breastfeed exclusively, as you seem to, you’ll alienate a lot of people and won’t get much buy-in.

    You say:
    You ask what is the choice, if I work I have to bottle feed. True, this might be the only choice now for many women

    …yes, it is. For almost all working mothers, whether there’s breastmilk in the bottle or formula. So is having your child in daycare – and you get a a 4:1 ratio, which is actually comparatively good, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford this (as opposed to the ‘unlicensed daycare’ the people across the street are running – this is the reality for many people).

    Given that breast feeding doesn’t have a fighting chance the way things stand now in the US (6 weeks paid leave is all we get), it seems misguided to attack it

    It does. Exclusive breastfeeding is what’s very difficult.

    Hysell, please explain what you propose, because I just don’t get where you’re going with what you say. Should all mothers go on strike and stay home to breastfeed until society changes (and give up their job)? Should they start taking their baby with them everywhere, including to work (how about that big meeting? and how are you going to concentrate on work – the two don’t go together?). Neither of those would be particularly clever or, in fact, get women anywhere.

    The ideal situation would be a daycare facility at or very near every workplace where mothers can go breastfeed during break time, but until that happens, we’ll have to agree on some way to make things work.

  67. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    To recap what I’ve been saying in this thread and the original post: I think we need longer maternity leave (in Europe a year is common), paternity leave (also common in Europe), and on site daycare. The point is not only to breastfeed, but to be more involved in your child’s life. Why have children if you can only interact with them on the weekend?!! This piece and discussion just happened to be focused on breastfeeding, but obviously it’s not the only reason why we should restructure childcare. I make no apologies for being a breastfeeding advocate. I do whatever it takes to visit and breastfeed my child (I did it on-demand when I went back to work). Did it slow down my career? Yes, but being close to my child was far more important. I have the advantage of on-site daycare and I think every mother should too. I know women in other institutions have pushed hard to turn empty offices into daycare rooms. This is the kind of grassroots efforts that need to be encouraged and formalized.

  68. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Hysell, I don’t want to speak for ‘Europe’, as there are many significant differences between the many European countries.

    Here in Germany, my observation is:
    - maternity leave is long, paternity leave is possible – but not always taken
    - the majority of mothers get a good, long, thorough education
    - when they have a child and stay at home for the maximum amount of time, chances are they’re effectively slowing down or even terminating their career
    - when they go back to work, they usually have to work some kind of part-time arrangement, because most daycares don’t (or barely) cover a full workday

    I am an oddball here being the only income provider for my family, at least for the time being, and have been made to feel that way. The attitude of ‘how can you possibly do that [working full time] to your child? You must be a very bad mother’ is often quite visible, and I detect it in your statement “Why have children if you can only interact with them on the weekend?!!” as well. But don’t worry, I’ll keep up the fight here for the right of mothers to choose to work…

    I very much enjoy spending lots of quality time with my son, who is a healthy, happy, confident and – as they say – ‘well-adjusted’ child who has been in full-time daycare since he was three months old, first in the US and now here in Germany. If I was at home with him, I’d go mental – and he would too, not having the input and stimulation he gets from a day of experiences and hanging out with his friends in daycare.

    By the way, a daycare at a medium-sized company with a dozen children from infant to 5-year old would have the potential to be quite boring for the older children, as opposed to an off-site daycare center where they get to hang out with their peers and learn from and with them.

    I guess you and I just have very different circumstances (and mind you, we’re even ‘close’ as far as the range in society goes). Which goes to show that there might have to be different solutions to the problem, rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’?…

  69. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    I sense you’re trying to pigeonhole what I say. If you think there’s nothing to fix, fine. If you do, please share what you think needs to be addressed and how you think it should be fixed. I proposed the opposite of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ (that’s mostly what we have today in the US), but more choices and flexibility.

  70. Noah Gray | Permalink

    OUTSIDE OBSERVER ALERT: You both are in agreement on the major issues.

    One main issue seems to be proximity of daycare to the workplace of the mother. Such an arrangement would facilitate a great many things in terms of choice, flexibility and satisfaction (IMHO). I believe that you both are for this. CSHL and Janelia Farm are two research centers that already offer this option for scientists, and there are several additional examples in the corporate world. But things need to be done to make businesses of a certain size cater to this need. Government subsidies, common in many other countries for child care, could assist working mothers afford Daycare centers close to their offices, but perhaps outside of their price range.

    As for the maternity leave time, indeed, taking a long period off (9-12 months) can have devastating consequences for a woman’s career. Luckily, many companies do not make this extended leave a death sentence for a woman’s career. NPG is extraordinary in this way and I have seen smooth transitions back into the workforce after long periods work successfully 4-5 times already in 2.5 years. So extending the leave option is a no-brainer, injecting more flexibility into the system.

    I think we can also all agree that the mother should have the option of extended or shortened leave. Some women are lucky enough to have a good daycare and are perfectly comfortable knowing their children are in an enriching, loving environment. Anecdotally, I have heard some wonder whether they would be able to provide the same level of stimulation and myriad activities for the child if they had stayed home. With all of the chores of running a household, the answer might likely be no.

    So when I put this all together, workplace acceptance of options and flexibility are what we need to strive for in the future. More options = more choice to breastfeed on demand as a working mother, if one so desires. More of this may lead to a greater desensitization of the general public to breastfeeding mothers and solve that problem indirectly.

  71. hysell oviedo | Permalink

    I only have one complaint about your comments. It has to do with your assumption that stay at home moms (or moms in maternity leave) should take over all household duties. This would certainly make them unable (probably because they’re too tired!) to provide fun and educational experiences for their children. This is a gross underestimation of how much work raising a child requires. If the stay at home mom has a partner (the bread winner presumably) there should be some division of household duties. How these are allotted is up to the couple. This is a huge wedge issue for couples. Being a bread winner doesn’t mean you work more than a stay at home mom, even if she doesn’t do all the chores.

  72. Ruth Wilson | Permalink

    Hi Hysell, its great you’ve raised this. I think equal parental leave is key, so mothers are no longer penalised for being the ones who take time off. If only women take extended time off to care for children, employers see them as expensive and their careers suffer disproportionately. The pressure is on to get back to long hours of work (with real impact on breast feeding choices). And there are benefits for the family as well if both parents have time at home.

    Flexible working arrangements help and allowing work from home if possible. But equality of parental leave and a more egalitarian sharing of family responsibilities would have a big impact on how work is organised and rewarded and the choices women have about breastfeeding. Latest recommendations from the Equality and Human Rights Commission

  73. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Hysell, I wasn’t trying to ‘pigeonhole’ what you are saying, but maybe I am a good example of how some women may take your points the way you make them? My alert went off at the “why have children…” comment. This is a very sensitive point, since all choices I have made since I knew that I was pregnant – as far as there even was a choice – have been towards the best possible circumstances for my child, and working full-time was one of those choices.

    Thanks for mediating, Noah!

    I wasn’t clear enough before how important excellent, affordable daycare is – and if this can be close enough to work to breastfeed, that’s great and of course we should definitely push for that. But we should also be aware that the latter – close proximity to the workplace – is unrealistic in many places. And that, if daycare is just that little bit too far from work, trying to go over to breastfeed can be an additional stressor for mothers. Which is why I agree with many points made in the two articles cited in the original post. There are two things here: pushing for the best situation on the political/societal level, but also supporting mothers who try to make the best out of the situation they’re faced with.

    Noah: workplace acceptance of options and flexibility are what we need to strive for in the future
    Yes. But, maybe even more importantly, acceptance among women of what other women choose to do – whether this involves working full, staying at home, breastfeeding or not breastfeeding. Only if we accept each others choices to begin with will we be able to push for solutions that can work for all of us!

  74. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Steffi, regarding your last statement, I think that is correct and one of the themes of Hysell’s post. The Atlantic and NYT pieces were actually challenging, and perhaps even ridiculing, those women who choose to breastfeed, sometimes with rhetoric and at other times with false or at least weak scientific positions. This is completely misguided and wrong. It is fine to quibble about details, but public statements on a grand scale (i.e., in major publications) designed to put down pumping and breastfeeding do nothing to help the overall causes women fight for regarding flexibility, equality and the spirit of choice when it comes to starting, continuing or participating in a nuclear family.

  75. steffi suhr | Permalink

    Noah and Hysell, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one – I just don’t perceive the articles the way you do. This is why I got involved in the discussion to begin with, but I’ll leave it at that now.

  76. Camille Jude | Permalink

    Just an additional to some working moms who are breastfeeding, Obama had put up a health care law for breastfeeding moms:

    “President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, H.R. 3590, on March 23rd and the Reconciliation Act of 2010, H.R. 4872, on March 30, 2010. Among many provisions, the law amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.Code 207) to require an employer to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express milk. The employer is not required to compensate an employee receiving reasonable break time for any work time spent for such purpose. The employer must also provide a place, other than a bathroom, for the employee to express breast milk. If these requirements impose undue hardship, an employer that employs less than 50 employees is not subject to these requirements. Furthermore, these requirements shall not preempt a state law that provides greater protections to employees.”

    Camille Jude
    Hands Free Pumping Bra


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