Do you have an hour and a half to spare? If so, and you are hoping to breastfeed, skeptical about breastfeeding, are currently breastfeeding, feel as though you failed at breastfeeding, or simply are interested in learning how parenting affects culture, I want to recommend a documentary to you that had a powerful impact on me.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I watched this documentary. It found me in a stage of vulnerability and doubt, at a time when I was wrestling with whether or not to wean my toddler, struggling with the cultural stigmas associated with extended breastfeeding. This documentary engaged me, informed me, frightened me, moved me, and inspired me. It’s called The Milky Way.
The Milky Way was created by Jennifer Davidson and Chantal Molnar, two lactation consultants that were discouraged about the plight of breastfeeding in America and wanted to make a change. Their goal? To normalize breastfeeding in America. “We want to see a cultural shift and restore the nursing mother to a place of honor.” Jennifer and Chantal frequently refer to their desire to help women relearn to trust themselves and their babies.
Throughout the film, they address breastfeeding in a beautiful, honest, analytical, well-researched, and anecdotal fashion. Perhaps the most important part of what makes this film so accessible and engaging is the variety of interviews they include. From experts, such as co-sleeping guru James McKenna and various lactation consultants and physicians, you hear the importance of breastfeeding and the amazing effects it has for the individual mother and her baby, for culture as a whole. The real heart of the documentary, however, is rooted in the experiences of real moms who share their journeys. Some were successful at breastfeeding. Some were not.
Why are American breastfeeding success rates so low? And what can be done about it?
What are Breasts For?
As lactation specialists, Jennifer and Chantal observed first-hand many reasons why American women aren’t choosing to, or feel unable, to breastfeed their babies: one reason is complicated beliefs about breasts themselves. As opposed to global history, we rarely see women breastfeeding her child. Since the introduction of baby formula and the sexualization and marketing of breasts, people are confused and misinformed about what breasts are for?
That connects to another issue: the controversy surrounding nursing in public and whether or not it is appropriate. Many women are discouraged, even shamed, for breastfeeding in public. Since most women are not interested in staying in their home all day, this causes a problem for breastfeeding mothers.
Lack of Information
In general, there is a lack of information about breastfeeding, and the information that is out there is tainted by media and the complex economic influence of formula companies (breastfeeding initiatives, they remind us, don’t make anyone in corporate America much money). Breastfeeding, they argue, is a lot more than just feeding your baby; it has to do with developing the central nervous system, building trust, bonding and attachment, eating habits, general short-term and long-term health, and more. Medical doctor Peter Whybrow states: “Breastfeeding is symbolic, in a way, to all sorts of other things that create the attachment of human beings, the bonding of human beings which in itself is the basis of culture. If you don’t get that right, the culture begins to fragment.” The underlying message is that if women knew more about the benefits and impact of breastfeeding, more would be likely to try it and persevere through it.
Lack of Support
Yet another problem American women have is finding adequate support. As one mom aptly states: “We are in a society that spends a lot of time doing the opposite of empowering women… I think [women who want to breastfeed] have their confidence ruined by people saying, ‘Oh, you’re gonna nurse? Good luck with that’, perpetuating this cycle of people doubting themselves.” Not only is there discouragement from peers, but from professionals. One mother recounted, tearfully, how an expert assessed her breasts and declared that her milk would probably never come in. In general, our society is quick to pass judgment and slow to offer guidance, assistance, and encouragement, to mothers’ and babies’ detriment.
Many mothers desire to start breastfeeding, but feel ashamed when it doesn’t seem to work. One mother said: “When you try to succeed at breastfeeding and you fail, it’s emotional really destroying. It nearly happened to me, and it happened to my sister, it happened to many women I know who were close to me, and it not because physically they were not able to do it, but because they potentially don’t have the support.”
Another important issue is maternity leave. “There are only four countries in the world with no government mandated paid maternity leave, and the United States is one of them.” With more paid maternity leave, mothers would have more time to bond with their babies and learn the art of breastfeeding. Globally, there is a direct correlation between mothers who have longer maternity leave and their success with breastfeeding.
Another issue that negatively affects breastfeeding is current hospital practices. “Right after birth, separation the baby from the mom is one of the most damaging interventions that professional medicine has come up with,” one lactation consultant states. Research shows that when babies are put directly on their mother and remain with her after birth are more likely to breastfeed successfully. (According to the documentary, formula companies have funded the construction of many nursery wings with the goal of making breastfeeding less successful – it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but with all of the information they provide, you can see the hidden agenda between seemingly “helpful” acts of formula companies.)
Successful Breastfeeding Practices
What can be done when there are so many obstacles for breastfeeding in America? Jennifer and Chantal decided to leave their home soil and travel to Europe to visit and learn about two places where the breastfeeding rates are high.
First stop: St. Joseph’s Hospital in Berlin, Germany. St. Joseph’s is the original baby-friendly hospital where mothers and babies are together for the entire duration of their hospital stay. Even premature babies are kept with their mothers, not rushed off to the NICU. There, parents are trained and supported to take complete care of their child. They believe that the parents, not the medical staff, are the experts on how to best care for their child. Breastfeeding is advocated for and supported by skin-to-skin after birth, co-sleeping, and lots of education and support while parents remain in the hospital. When it’s time to go, parents feel equipped and confident in their ability to care for their new baby.
Next stop: Sweden. Sweden has one of the highest breastfeeding rates in the world. There, it is common to see women breastfeeding in public. Women and men get significantly longer paid maternity and paternity leave. Sweden encourages skin-to-skin and co-sleeping, and parents are well-educated and offered support. As for formula: “We think that the woman has enough milk in the breast, so we do not give any formula to the baby,” one Swedish midwife says. It is never offered in the hospitals, in accordance to the international code written by the WHO in 1981 which states that formula companies should not advertise or give gifts of formula to mothers of infants under six months of age.
Can American Women Succeed?
America women can succeed at breastfeeding, with the right information, tools, and support. The documentary goes on to explain the importance of changing our habits and our perspectives. They suggest changes as simple as such as encouraging skin-to-skin contact with babies after birth and as advanced as advocating for new legislation that protects breastfeeding mothers. They allude to a culture in which women support each other and allow instinct, not fear, to rule as judge.
I can’t go into all the detail here — just have to see it for yourself!
But it all starts with empowering women with knowledge. That is the primary goal; to educate women on a simple truth that many of us have forgotten: “Women can trust themselves. They can trust their bodies, and they can trust their babies.”
I am one of the women who has felt empowered by this documentary, and I am forever grateful to Jennifer and Chantal and their desire to make an impact. They’ve influenced my story, and they can influence yours, too.
Watch the documentary and be inspired here (it’s free for Amazon Prime members).
Learn more about the Milky Way Foundation here.