Where does breast shame come from? Is it instinctive or learned behavior? When babies are born they feel no shame. Before infant bottle formula was invented there was no need to cultivate breast shame. Even religious art commonly depicted Jesus being nursed by bare-breasted Mary. Mothers commonly breastfed their babies in church during mass. Why did that change? When does a little girl decide she doesn’t want anyone to see or photograph her chest uncovered? Why does a modern mother decide she doesn’t want anybody to see her exposed breast – even while breastfeeding?
Breasts are something to be proud of, just like any healthy part of the body, but breast pride is sabotaged early in life when little girls see their mothers hiding their breasts. That is a model of toxic breast shame, a problem so pervasive in modern Western countries that it seems “normal.” Fathers today don’t dare compliment their daughter’s budding breasts, let alone caress them. How “indecent” that would be! In many jurisdictions exposing a little girl’s chest or touching a girl’s breasts is considered no less a crime than exposing or touching her genital area. Even four-year-olds at the beach are told to wear two-piece bathing suits to learn how shameful breasts are.
As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out in his book “The Economics of Innocent Fraud,” multinational corporations have the money and the incentive to dedicate full-time staff to cultivate markets for their products (1). What better way to cultivate the $30 billion/year infant bottle formula industry than by promoting body shame in general and breast shame in particular?
The infant bottle formula industry is not the only special interest that profits from breast shame. The bra industry has $3 billion/year in annual sales in the U.S. alone. In modern culture breasts are supposed to be covered and appear “perfect.” How ludicrous to see crowds of women all with their breasts propped up by bras to look perfect! Even some little girls insist on wearing falsies to appear that they have perfect breasts. Some women refuse to breastfeed their babies even in private for fear that suckling will injure the appearance of their nipples.
Who cares about breastfeeding? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used to receive $1 million /year from the infant bottle formula industry (2), but the AAP now recognizes that “All major medical groups worldwide agree that breast-feeding is best for mother and baby.” (3). That is an understatement, considering the known dangers of infant bottle feeding.
Putting the baby to the breast immediately after delivery makes the mother’s uterus contract, reducing the amount of uterine bleeding and the risk of hemorrhage. Breast-feeding also stimulates production of the hormone oxytocin, which diminishes pain and contributes to a feeling of euphoria. Human breasts produce colostrum which contains antibodies to protect the newborn from infection. Infant bottle formula contains no antibodies, so bottle-fed newborns are immune-depressed in a hospital environment where there are antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Bottle-fed babies have an increased risk of potentially fatal necrotizing enterocolitis, as well as a higher risk of eventually developing obesity and diabetes. Baby bottles must be kept scrupulously clean to avoid contamination, and bottle-fed babies spit-up the formula frequently. Some bottle-fed babies become “heavy spitters.” The great expense of infant bottle formula is not only unnecessary but an unwise investment – greatly appreciated by some multinational corporations.
There are many tricks used to discourage mothers from breast-feeding, such as claiming that if anesthesia was used breast milk is contaminated by the drug. But in reality if anesthesia was used during delivery the baby already has anesthesia in his blood before birth. Another trick is to take the baby away immediately after birth for “washing and monitoring.” Such babies are then given glucose solution or formula while out of the mother’s sight so the baby is no longer hungry when it returns to the mother. Such babies also develop nipple confusion and become poor breastfeeders.
Every newborn should breastfeed immediately, even after C-section, and be washed only after the first breastfeeding. If necessary the baby can be monitored at the breast (e.g. a portable instrument is merely attached to the baby’s hand). Newborn tests required vary from state to state, as well as varying over time. They can wait. In the first hour of life babies are alert and need eye contact, soothing speech, and affectionate skin-to-skin contact to begin bonding with both parents.
Every normal woman can produce enough breast milk for two babies at a time. Lactation can even be stimulated in adoptive mothers or wet nurses who did not give birth themselves. Even after a baby begins eating solid food (at about six months) she should not be given cow’s milk, which is poorly digested and stresses the baby’s kidneys. A baby can continue to benefit from part-time breastfeeding as long as the mother and baby want to – even well past one year of age. The average age of weaning in pre-industrial cultures is four years old.
The next time you see a photograph of a little girl “carelessly” exposing her chest, think twice about demanding censorship or teaching little girls shame. Think about what effect such shame-training may have on her future behavior as a mother. Think about the damage of denying breast milk to babies, and think about who is profiting from breast shame.
1) Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Economics of Innocent Fraud. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
2) Palmer, Gabrielle. The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business. Pinter and Martin, 2009.
3) Shelov, Steven P. et al. (eds). Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009