By Letter to the Editor on October 12, 2017.
Even though an estimated 75 per cent of adults agree that women have the right to breastfeed in public spaces, health officials in Timmins, Ont. felt it necessary to keep the discussion open. Lifesize cutouts of breastfeeding mothers dot the city to ease the discrimination faced by mothers in Ontario and across Canada. Women are often illegally asked to cover up, leave an establishment or are verbally attacked by strangers.
Breastfeeding has become somewhat of an oddity in Canada. The 1930s saw the introduction of scientific parenting; doctors urged mothers to breastfeed their babies exclusively. A brief glance of social media today will show that mothers are shamed for both breastfeeding and formula feeding alike. However, for those who choose to breastfeed, there are additional barriers. The invention and marketing of infant milk supplements in post-war Canada, coupled with the over-sexualization of breasts in the 19th century, has created a culture hesitant to the idea of breastfeeding, especially within the public sphere. The benefits of formula were praised in a society that was trying hard to impose capitalist, nuclear family values. Breasts were no longer seen as functional, but as sexual objects. Because of this, it is viewed as immoral for women to show their breasts in public, regardless of the reason. Science has since confirmed the claims that breastfeeding is the healthier and safer choice for capable mothers, yet many still face stigma and pressure.
Only 14.4 per cent of mothers breastfeed to the age recommended by the World Health Organization, and while there are several factors that play into this, the stigma surrounding public breastfeeding remains a strong deterrent. Women who feel comfortable breastfeeding in public are 2.9 times more likely to continue breastfeeding to the recommended six months, yet governments fall short when it comes to deterring stigma and funding programs. Only three of Canada’s 350 maternity hospitals are baby friendly as outlined by the United Nations and WHO, while federal funding for breastfeeding is non-existent. Social stigmas are unlikely to change without support from our local and federal governments.
Educating women about the benefits of breastfeeding and increasing the training of health-care professionals are significant ways to increase breastfeeding, yet they may not be enough to resolve social stigma. Advocacy groups may well be the social push needed to pressure the government into action while educating the public about mothers’ legal rights. Not without significant changes will we stop viewing breastfeeding as a barbaric or outdated act.
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