As the owner of the Maine Cloth Diaper Co. store on Main Street in Bangor, Betsy Lundy has heard all of the questions in the new mom book — questions surrounding methods for feeding infants are often chief among them.
But despite the variety of the questions, the answer is generally the same: “That’s normal.”
It’s a phrase that is said a lot during the shop’s weekly breastfeeding support group, where mothers can gather to talk about their experiences and challenges in feeding their children. How women feed their children is one of those topics that, Lundy says, everyone has an opinion about — though that opinion isn’t always helpful to mother and baby.
“I just feel like moms feel constantly judged and criticized,” Lundy said. “Think about how lovely it would be to go back to being cave people and not having anybody telling you how to do anything, you literally just respond based on instinct and need.”
In the U.S., about 81 percent of women who have given birth have breastfed their child, according to U.S. Centers to Disease Control and Prevention statistics from 2014-2015, with about 30 percent of mothers continuing to breastfeed, in some capacity, for up to one year. About 44 percent of mothers exclusively breastfeed their child up to three months old, with 22 percent continuing to exclusively breastfeed their children up to six months of age. At six months, 51 percent of mothers breastfeed their child while also utilizing formula.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies for six months — when babies start eating solid foods — and to continue breastfeeding up to one year, and beyond then as mutually agreed upon by mother and child.
But for some, serving a child’s basic need to eat can become uncomfortable in public, whether it’s external stigmas being imposed on a mother for her decision, or a mother’s own anxiety about breastfeeding her child in a public setting.
Chris Yentes, a licensed midwife and owner of the Holly No. 7 Birth Center in Bangor, said one of the biggest issues that women are up against when it comes to breastfeeding their babies in public is the sexulization of women’s breasts and their bodies. While society has accepted the sexualization of women’s bodies for the purpose of advertising, she said people often take issue with seeing a woman’s breast being used as it was intended for in public.
While Yentes said she has seen this external stigma lessen in recent years, she said there still needs to be a conversation around normalizing breastfeeding.
“That’s the biggest challenge,” Yentes said. “How do we re-educate [the public] and define and normalize female’s bodies?”
Lundy breastfed all three of her children, and while she was uncomfortable breastfeeding in public at first, the more she breastfed in public the more comfortable she became doing it. While she did “feel like people would look at [her] funny” at first, as time wore on, that feeling went away, so she feels some of her own internal discomfort may have played into how she perceived others were viewing her.
“You’re taught not to sit with your breast out in public,” Lundy said. “It’s a new thing, and as some of that wore off, [the discomfort] wore off for me and I never had anyone say anything to me about it.”
Breastfeeding does not always come easy and some mothers have a more difficult time successfully breastfeeding, which could amplify their anxiety about feeding their child in public, said Kate Yerxa, a nutritionist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Having a plan and thinking ahead is a good way to try to prevent this anxiety if a mother is not comfortable breastfeeding openly in public, Yerxa said, whether that is simply asking employees or others where a more discrete place to breastfeed might be, or pumping and bottling their breast milk to use in public settings.
One of the biggest issues that stems from the stigma mothers face for breastfeeding in public is the isolation of mothers, Lundy said.
“My fear of feeding my baby in public kept me from doing those things even if they were things that I needed to do,” she said. “I would have so much anxiety about feeding the baby in the car right before I got [somewhere] with my first child and it was new. I see that with a lot of moms.”
But even for moms who choose not to breastfeed, for whatever reason, Lundy and Yerxa said those mothers can often feel ostracized for their decision.
“No matter how you choose to feed your baby right now it has become a hot topic,” Lundy said. “If you break out a bottle and give your baby formula, you feel like people are judging you for that. If you break out your breast and feed your baby in public, you feel like people are judging you for that, and you feel like you should roll yourself away in some room.”
Whatever decision a mother makes in feeding her child, it’s important that they have access to the resources and support they need, whether that be an organized weekly meeting or a group of mothers who are there to support each other.
“The conversation needs to be around supporting women and how they choose to feed their baby and encouraging parents to feed their babies in the best way they can,” Yerxa said.