Breastfeeding. A Family Affair?

It’s holiday time, and you know what that means. Festive family get-togethers will abound in households all across the country, and at these get-togethers nursing mothers will inevitably breastfeed their little ones.

Some will breastfeed freely and boldly in the open and other mothers will breastfeed in secret, relegated to a back bedroom.

A quick jaunt around mommy message boards and mom blogs will unearth unfortunate stories of mothers who complain about feeling too uncomfortable to breastfeed even around their friends and family. Some mothers’ parents, grandparents, or closest relatives do not understand why they have chosen to breastfeed and/or offer baseless comments criticizing how long they have chosen to breastfeed.

All too often we hear reports of mothers who are ill-treated by mall security guards or restaurant managers simply because they opted to breastfeed in public. But there are still countless incidents where mothers are ridiculed and ostracized about their decision to breastfeed, even among those who are closest to them. This is truly unfortunate, especially when it is unquestionably clear that breastfeeding is the best feeding option for infants.

During and after WWII, millions of mothers tucked away their breasts and opted to bottle-feed their babies as they entered the workforce for the first time. Although breastfeeding has made a remarkable comeback since then, the legacy of mass bottle-feeding still claims a stranglehold on our nation’s perception of breastfeeding; a perception that considers breastfeeding to be some sexualized nuisance that should forever remain locked in the confines of ones’ home, instead of a beautiful and natural way to nourish a baby. But America’s outlook on breastfeeding has not always been this way.

There was a time in America’s history when mothers, particularly rural mothers, could breastfeed in the presence of friends, family, men, children and even strangers without incident. And it simply wasn’t because commercial formulas were not on the market, because they were. It was because breastfeeding was considered as natural as the sunset. Below is a great example of this.

This mother and her husband are talking to a rehabilitation advisor who is helping them save their farm after the Great Depression. Notice how openly she is breastfeeding her baby and also notice how the men are acting. The fact that she is breastfeeding and her breast is exposed is not an issue to them. Breastfeeding back then simply “was.”  I’d also like to mention that the photographer was a man as well. Still, this mother is breastfeeding without shame or embarrassment.

Here is another example of a mother breastfeeding around her family and perfect strangers at a furniture auction in Hagerstown, Maryland in October 1937.

Again, notice the men in the photograph. They are not having a conniption because a mother is feeding her baby or even harassing her to nurse elsewhere. What great times these were for mothers who breastfed.

Do you think scenes like these would be the norm or the exception these days? There is no question about it; mothers breastfeed in public and in front of friends, family and strangers even today. But, what is certain is this: A cultural shift occurred in America as far as breastfeeding is concerned. These photographs highlight the shift that now considers breastfeeding to be an act practiced best in private.