Facebook: Breastfeeding is Normal

Yesterday, I got an email from Melinda Olson at Earth Mama Angel Baby (EMAB). She was outraged at a warning from Facebook that one of the breastfeeding photos on the EMAB page violated their terms of use, which prohibit nudity. We’ve heard this same story over and over again from breastfeeding mothers, and in fact, there have already been several Facebook uprisings about this policy and even demonstrations at Facebook headquarters in downtown Palo Alto, California.

It’s unfortunate that Facebook does not have the courage to change their policy and recognize breastfeeding images as normal. At Mothering we do; we offer a safe haven for breastfeeders. You know that you can post your photos on Mothering where we have a breastfeeding friendly community accustomed to seeing breastfeeding images. The more the better!

The Facebook policy regarding nudity is well intentioned but ignorant. It reminds me of times when stores took Mothering magazine off the shelves if the cover image was of a breastfeeding mother. A patron would complain and a clerk would remove the magazine or cover it up. We would call corporate headquarters and, every time, the company would apologize, uncover the Mothering cover and declare its support for breastfeeding. This is all we are asking of Facebook.

Clearly, the organization is looking through the lens of a bottle-feeding culture. Indeed, it is sure evidence that we live in a bottle-feeding culture when such a powerful institution treats breastfeeding images as obscene. This kind of social censure illustrates yet another obstacle to the US becoming a breastfeeding culture.

Health officials, doctors, and other parents all tell mothers that it is essential to breastfeed their babies; and it is good advice. Yet, US mothers face more obstacles to breastfeeding than women in any other developed country and as a result, are far less successful at it.

While we don’t really need studies to tell us that the milk of our own species is superior to any other infant food, the studies abound. One such study published in 2007 entitled “Breastfeeding and Maternal Health Outcomes in Developed Countries” reviewed over 10,000 scientific papers on the effects of breastfeeding and found that a history of breastfeeding was associated in the infant with a reduction in the risk of acute otitis media, non-specific gastroenteritis, severe lower respiratory tract infections, atopic dermatitis, asthma (young children), obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and necrotizing enterocolitis.

For mothers, a history of breastfeeding was associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer. Early cessation of breastfeeding or not breastfeeding at all was associated with an increased risk of postpartum depression.

In Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF define optimal infant feeding as six months exclusive breastfeeding with continued breastfeeding (along with age-appropriate complementary foods) for up to two years or longer. This description of optimal infant feeding as exclusive breastfeeding for six months has also been adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology, American Academy of Family Physicians, European Union Blueprint on Breastfeeding, International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, and International Pediatric Association among others.

Encouraging breastfeeding is also a key strategy of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in order to meet their goal of improving the health of mothers and their children. To follow the progress of breastfeeding, the CDC has created The Breastfeeding Report Card that tracks the Healthy People 2010 breastfeeding objectives state by state.

Healthy People 2020 is a national health promotion and disease prevention initiative managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services. (HHS) Its breastfeeding objectives build on health initiatives pursued for several decades. The breastfeeding goals for both 2000 and 2010 called for 75% breastfeeding initiation, 50% breastfeeding at six months and 25% at one year. We did not meet these goals in 2000 or in 2010. As of 2005, less than half of US states had met the 75% initiation rate goal of Healthy People, according to the CDC.

Only ten states had met the 50% at six months and in just 12 states 25% of infants were breastfeeding at one year. Eight states, however, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington did achieve all three of these Healthy People breastfeeding initiation and duration goals.

Our initiation rates lag far behind the norm in the rest of the world. With 86 countries reporting, the US is among only seven countries with breastfeeding initiation rates lower than 85%. 70 of the 86 countries have breastfeeding initiation rates of over 90%.

These rates, however, are for breastfeeding initiation, not the exclusive breastfeeding that the WHO, the AAP and other health organizations recommend. According to provisional numbers from the CDC, while 74.2% of mothers initiated breastfeeding in 2005, only 11.9% were exclusively breastfeeding at six months. This means that most women who breastfeed in the US also use formula, so it is still bottle-feeding not breastfeeding that is the norm in the US.

Despite decades of governmental efforts to encourage breastfeeding, we remain a bottle-feeding culture because we have so few social supports for mothers. Countries with high breastfeeding rates also have strong social supports for women.

The US offers twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave. In a study conducted at Harvard University in 2004, 163 out of 168 countries included had some kind of national paid maternity leave. The United States, along with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the only countries in the survey without paid maternity leave.

In most industrialized countries, working parents are entitled to maternity leave, paternity leave, parental leave and childcare leave. Of 22 countries surveyed in 2006, the period of maternity leave was mostly between 14 and 20 weeks, with payments between 70 and 100 percent of usual earnings. In addition, all EU member states must provide at least three months leave per parent for childcare purposes. Four of the non-EU countries also provide parental leave, the exception being the United States.

So, while women in the US are encouraged to breastfeed, they are offered no paid maternity leave to help make this possible. In addition, there are few legal protections for women who need to pump breastmilk in the workplace in order to keep up their milk supply. And, while many states have laws protecting breastfeeding in public, the US media continue to undermine social progress by portraying breastfeeding in public as a privilege rather than a right. In addition, formula advertising–rampant in the US–has been shown to undermine breastfeeding.

Add to this, the fact that the world’s largest social network classifies breastfeeding images as obscene and one can only wonder that any women in the US breastfeed at all.

Join me in asking Facebook to do the right thing. Facebook is a powerful network that both reflects and creates culture and as such has a duty to be socially responsible. It is socially responsible for Facebook to tangibly support the health agenda of our national government and the international community.

Breastfeeding is not just a lifestyle choice; it is an issue of life and death: 4000 babies a day die worldwide from lack of breastfeeding. If we are to become a breastfeeding culture in the US, we must see breastfeeding, and we must see it as normal. We need the support of social institutions like Facebook in order for breastfeeding to flourish in the US. Until they step up, we must continue to challenge them.

If you agree with me that breastfeeding is normal and not obscene:

Post a breastfeeding photo on your Facebook page as well as on our community forums here at Mothering. Tell us what you think about Facebook censoring breastfeeding photos.

Post a link to this blog on your Facebook page.

Ask Facebook to recognize breastfeeding as normal and to re-classify breastfeeding photos as photos of family life rather than as examples of nudity?




Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded Mothering.com in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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