What's that giant suckling sound?

Breast-feeding enjoys renewed popularity. Whither the haters?

Published August 8, 2007 10:38AM (EDT)

For all we read about nursing moms getting flak on airplanes, at Ronald McDonald House, at Victoria's Secret and even for appearing on baby magazine covers, you'd think that breast-feeding was under a full-frontal attack.

Au contraire!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, via Reuters, reports that breast-feeding is enjoying something of a renaissance in the United States. More mothers are giving their babies the boob than at any time since the government started keeping track back in the '50s of how many newborns get their latch on. Seventy-four percent of American babies born in 2004 were breast-fed for at least some time, which is just shy of the government's goal of 75 percent. This represents a huge leap since 1971, when the breast-feeding rate was just 25 percent, the lowest point since the feds started keeping records.

If you're wondering why the government has breast-feeding goals at all, it's because Uncle Sam has a public-health stake in the matter, since breast-fed infants have decreased risk of ear infections, respiratory tract infections, sudden infant death syndrome, obesity, eczema and diarrhea, while breast-feeding also lowers their mothers' risk of some forms of diabetes, ovarian cancer and breast cancer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of a baby's life.

But hold onto your nipple shields. The nursing news isn't all good. The CDC's latest data also show that many moms and babies have a hard time sticking with it. In 2004, the rate of exclusive breast-feeding through the first three months of life was just 31 percent, well short of the government's goal of 60 percent, and through six months it was 11 percent, well below the government target of 25 percent. As we've already discussed here, going back to work can be a big impediment for keeping at it, especially for mothers working low-income jobs. Notably, the CDC found lower breast-feeding rates among mothers who are black, teenage, rural, less-educated, lower-income or unmarried.

Even so, the increase in the rates of mothers trying breast-feeding shows a big cultural change since the early '70s. It's obvious that most families are getting the message about the health benefits of breast-feeding newborns, whether it's coming from those scare-mongering mechanical bull ads put out by the Department of Health and Human Services or their own pediatricians.

So, then, what to make of all those anecdotal horror stories about nursing moms getting hassled for breast-feeding in public? Is there an insurgent anti-mammary movement, just itching to rip newborns from their mothers' (tender) nipples? Do we need a hearty lactivist counterinsurgency to do battle with the haters one-handed, while cradling their rosy-cheeked infants in the other arm? I doubt it. It seems more likely that more moms nursing overall equals more babies on the boob in public, which increases the likelihood that a handful of nincompoops will take offense and make a fuss.

There, there, poor fussy nincompoops. Don't cry. It will be OK. Really.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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