Reaction to Leah McLaren column shows education still needed around breastfeeding

Although nursing babies is promoted as a public health issue, we've failed to normalize breastfeeding as a natural human activity, says Joanne Seiff.

Stigma and lack of knowledge around breastfeeding still an issue, says Joanne Seiff

Thanks to a lack of education and stigma, starting breastfeeding can be an alien, confusing, uncomfortable experience for new mothers, says writer Joanne Seiff. (iStock)

In March, Leah McLaren, a Globe and Mail columnist, was suspended for a week over a controversial column. It described a long-ago incident when she used poor judgement.

As a broody 20-something without kids, she showed inappropriate interest in a stranger's baby. She went so far as to attempt breastfeeding without permission before the father intervened. The uproar focused on her behavior, the potential health risks and the titillating aspects of her column (which the newspaper pulled).

Critics failed to mention the elephant in the room. McLaren was curious about a basic biological function. Although "breast is best" and nursing babies is promoted as a public health issue, our society focuses on breasts' sexuality rather than their functionality.

When I read about this, I understood how McLaren felt. I didn't see a person breastfeed (aside from paintings in museums) until I was in university. My mother didn't breastfeed. When I was asked to feed a sibling as a kid, my mom would hand me an infant and a bottle of formula.

As a 20-year-old in the early '90s, I visited with a family friend while she fed her newborn. That was my first breastfeeding encounter. It's no wonder many young women are dying of curiosity. 

We've failed to "normalize" a natural human activity.  As a result of this disconnect, many women struggle when it comes to feeding their babies. It's an alien, confusing, uncomfortable transition.

This photo from the PEI Breastfeeding Coalition shows breastfeeding as a natural human activity. But it's one we've failed to 'normalize,' says writer Joanne Seiff. (PEI Breastfeeding Coalition)

While Canadian public health education is more progressive than my U.S. childhood experience, McLaren's column indicated that this curiosity and lack of knowledge hasn't gone away.

How can we change this dynamic?

Congregations need to welcome breastfeeding

Traditional public health initiatives have been effective in medical settings, but new approaches make a difference.

I recently had the opportunity to work on a teacher's guide that accompanied a novel approach to breastfeeding education. Kelowna Community Resources will launch a three-year "Breastfeeding Art Expo" in June. This travelling art exhibit will educate a whole community through art, teaching and public health.

The exhibit's teacher's guide demonstrates how much we've avoided this topic in educational settings. Although feeding babies is a normal part of many kids' daily family life, some awkwardly ask, "Isn't this topic best left to sex education class?"

Surprised, I thought back to bottle feeding my baby brother while watching The Electric Company after school. What did that have to do with sexuality?

The biggest change requires everyone's help. We need a grassroots initiative.

In many places in North America, the right to breastfeed (in public) wherever the baby is hungry is part of the law. Yet our communities often don't allow what is legal to become a social norm.

A mother breastfeeds her child during a rally to raise support for breastfeeding in New York City. While the right to breastfeed in public is legally protected in many parts of North America, communities often don't allow what is legal to become a social norm, says Joanne Seiff. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Historically, many religious scholars and sources agreed that as long as a woman is covered and modest, she should feed her child immediately upon seeing the child is hungry. (And if your child throws off the covering, so be it, many sources say — baby's hunger comes before modesty.)

Religious tradition hasn't hidden breastfeeding. It's not a new, racy thing. How old is this topic? In Jewish tradition, the rabbis discussed it in the Talmud. That was codified about 1,500 years ago.

However, just because something's long-established doesn't make it acceptable. Many congregations, in all religious traditions, struggle with attracting and welcoming young families. Rabbi Maya Resnikoff, a new mom, problem solved by creating an online crowdsourced guide to breastfeeding in synagogue.

Based on the information at this informal website, some Jewish communities still fail to provide consistently supportive responses. And breastfeeding issues are widespread — far beyond one faith tradition.

While some congregations welcome breastfeeding, others definitely don't. They expect nursing to happen in the bathroom or in an out-of-the-way space. Sometimes there's no signage to indicate the community's expectations. In some places, respondents on Rabbi Resnikoff's website indicated that when they arrived, the approved nursing space was locked or no lights were on.

Other congregations expect breastfeeding mothers to sequester themselves in a "crying room." This way, the congregation doesn't have to hear or see infants, who are theoretically also members of their community!

'Prurient curiosity' can be changed

We've forgotten that humans are mammals. One of the ways we define mammals? We nurse our young.

Is this too essentialist? I struggled when it came to breastfeeding. Nursing twins is no joke even when everybody's healthy, but a confluence of health issues and a lack of support left me nursing, feeding formula, and pumping breast milk. I juggled all three methods for a year and a half.

While my twins and I succeeded with the help of a supportive public health nurse — I was able to get breast milk into both my kids — I also sought help from the local La Leche League, a motherhood support group.

Whose encouragement offered me unconditional support? Another nursing parent in the group helped me prioritize breastfeeding. His name? Trevor MacDonald, author of Where's the Mother? Stories from a Transgender Dad

This prurient curiosity and anxiety about breastfeeding isn't something we must live with — it can be changed. Simple things matter. We can make a difference.

Here's what can, and should, be done:

  • Public spaces and religious congregations should come up with simple, law-abiding breastfeeding policies.
  • Comfortable, accessible places for breastfeeding should be established.
  • Information and signage about these breastfeeding policies should be provided without embarrassment. Some parents nurse for years. If they have several children, make this extended part of their lives easier. 
  • Moms who feed their children in public should never be embarrassed or shamed for doing so.
  • If you encounter someone who shames a nursing parent, speak out — and get help from others.  
  • When children learn about body parts, we can teach that breasts are "for feeding babies."

Humans have breastfed for most of our history. When bottle feeding is necessary for a mom or her baby, no one should condemn it. However, if we care about maternal and infant health, the law, and even religious tradition, we can openly support breastfeeding without sexualizing it.

Let's be proactive. Educate everyone, from childhood onwards, to give young families positive support while making this big life adjustment.

Joanne Seiff is the mother of twins, a freelance writer and the author of a new book about being a newcomer to Winnipeg.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Joanne Seiff is the author of three books. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.