This may seem like one of those things that applies mostly to a specialized audience - but not really. That is, breastfeeding itself is something done only by women, and only at a particular time of life. But the culture has an enormous role in enabling nursing, and it is hard to overstate the value of breastfeeding - for the health of children, the health of mothers and for food security in general. The fact that America has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation in the world is part and parcel of industrial culture, and our deep lack of support for breastfeeding and family life.
Why nurse? Well, first there's the money. A year of formula feeding costs upwards of $1000 if you buy the cheapest formula, and several thousand if your child is one of the many that requires special formulas because they cannot easily digest cows milk proteins. Then, there's the energy investment - formula is manufactured industrially, shipped, must be refrigerated, and requires a host of accoutrements. Breastfeeding, if you are with the baby, requires breasts. You don't even need to buy special shirts or bras - just pull things up if you don't want to make the investment (although actually I think nursing bras are a good investment - but I've met those who don't).
Then there's the health benefits, which are, of course, economic as well as medical. Better health means less cost, less time lost to illness, a greater degree of personal happiness. Studies suggest that breastfed babies have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, lymphoma, asthma, allergies , SIDS and high cholesterol. Medical researchers are finding that what we eat in the first two years has an enormous role to play in future health. For mothers who breastfeed, the benefits are similarly great - lowered rates of breast and ovarian cancer, fewer fractures and less osteoporosis later on.
There are women who cannot nurse, and for them, formula, goat's milk or donated breastmilk are better choices. There will always be adoptive mothers, and women who could have nursed but didn't because of a society that makes it extremely difficult. This is not an attempt to make anyone feel bad - but it is an attempt to point out that breastfeeding is the environmentally sound choice, the economically wise one, and it requires the support not just of nursing mothers, but their families and friends, who have enormous power to support and encourage breastfeeding mothers.
The simple fact is that breastfeeding initiation rates in other countries indicate that a majority of women who believe they "can't" nurse can - that is, most nations have successful breastfeeding initiation rates over 90%. The US's numbers are only 66%. But the real trouble is revealed at longer intervals - because "initiation" in the US means you nurse 1 day in the hospital. But, of course, as all breastfeeding Moms know, getting started with nursing takes weeks, sometimes months, not a day. At six months, only 19% of all American infants are being nursed. Six months is the *absolute minimum* that is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
That means a slight majority of American women are attempting breastfeeding, and most are discarding it by the end of the first month. In part that's because maternity leaves are too short and workplace support for nursing mothers minimal, especially among working class people. In part that's because of the enormous power of formula companies to give out free samples, advertise and tell parents that formula is practically the same as breastmilk. It is due to the rising C-section rates that make it physically difficult for women to nurse.
But women also fail to nurse because of lack of support from friends, family and community, from a misplaced fear that people don't want to see them nursing (a majority of Americans believe women should be allowed to nurse anytime, any place), and because they believe it is "too hard" for them. And when you tell people something is disgusting, or too hard or bad long enough, they tend to believe it. I know well educated women who gave up nursing because the baby nursed "too often" not realizing that nursing is often nearly constant early on, and that women need to have time nurse their new babies. I know women who had the time who couldn't handle the physical pain from poor positioning or cracked nipples, and received no support, and lots of encouragement to stop. Fathers and brothers, husbands and friends - we all have enormous power to enable breastfeeding. We can stop buy and take the older kids or do a load of laundry for a new Mom so she can nurse. We can pass a woman nursing a baby in a public place and tell her how much we like to see that. We can encourage our local community centers, churches, synagogues, gyms and other public facilities to provide comfortable, comforting places for women to nurse. We can demand that our workplaces be supportive of nursing women - these are things everyone can do. We can say to people who comment negatively on nursing, or on older children nursing "Oh, I think it is great."
I've been nursing now for almost eight consecutive years. It wasn't always easy - it hurt at first, and Eli nursed near-constantly. I was fortunate that I was able to nurse him because Eli couldn't take a bottle - he never learned how to latch on to one. So for the first months of his life, I had to be with him all the time. Fortunately, Brandeis University where I was a teacher and graduate student was enormously supportive of my bringing him to campus, and later, of my pumping milk for my second child. Fortunately, I had family and friends who could help me. Otherwise, I would never have made it.
I nursed Eli until he was three, tandem nursing with new baby Simon. Simon weaned a few weeks before little brother Isaiah was born, Isaiah weaned at 3 (worldwide, the average age of weaning is 4), and Asher, at 2, is winding down, nursing only for the occasional nap. Still, I'm in no hurry to stop - as much as there's a part of me that would like to have my body back to myself, there's another part that is aware that nursing women are valuable to society as a whole.
One of the things I'm acutely aware of in a lower energy world with more and more climate change induced disasters is how essential nursing can be. Think about the infants in the superdome, dehydrated because they couldn't find formula - as difficult as it would be to nurse under those circumstances, at least the baby would have something. Think about what may happen if an energy crisis precipitates food supply problems, and women cannot get formula. Nursing women aren't just doing the best thing for their own health and their child's, but for their communities - nursing women are a resource that may someday enable the survival of an infant in a crisis. Because milk supplies can be built - a woman nursing one baby can go to nursing two. A woman with a toddler can supplementally nurse someone's infant. A woman who has been nursing can re-lactate. In hard times, a nursing woman is a gift to the future - a gift that may ensure the future for some child.