Moms and hospitals around the state are working to figure out what can be done to support breastfeeding. It’s all about re-normalizing an ancient and intimate exchange of nutrition in the United States today.
This is a busy, bright workroom, full of moms wearing colorful slings, infant heads poking out of the tops. Some babies are nursing. Some moms are snacking themselves.
Justine Laurie was holding her baby son. His big sister squeezed onto the armchair, too. It sucks—pun intended—that nursing moms are made to feel shame in public sometimes, "especially when you have a crying baby in public," she said, "and it’s uncomfortable for you to feed them because people are, you know, staring and judging."
She said people ask, "Why don’t you just cover up?"
"I’m pretty modest, and I’m not comfortable with being all exposed," she said. "But if I put a nursing cover over him, he won’t eat. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to eat with something over my head either."
De-stigmatizing breastfeeding in public, Laurie said, requires a shift in thinking in the United States. "There were so many years that it was just looked down upon, and everyone thought formula was best. Breastfeeding is just good for mom. It’s good for baby."
Breastfeeding rates around the U.S. have been rising steadily, but we don’t do so hot as a country when it comes to making it easy for moms with institutional support, like paid maternity leave, for example.
Robin Hayter runs the free breastfeeding support group at Dar a Luz Birth Center in Albuquerque’s North Valley. "We’ve sort of lost the art of breastfeeding in our culture," she said. "We are so thankful for formula, because it is truly life-saving, but it gets overused."
Sometimes it takes a while for a newborn to get into the swing of things, Hayter explained, and hospitals can jump the gun and sub in formula without talking to the mom first. Now, some hospitals are working to earn the official designation of “baby-friendly,” and that means normalizing breastfeeding from day one.
Erin Marshall is the baby-friendly hospital project director for the New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force. "That’s a designation that shows a huge commitment and takes years to achieve, huge culture shift within the hospital systems," she said.
There’s a whole checklist, and hospitals have to turn down free formula offered by major companies and remove their advertisements from health care facilities. "We were sold this whole thing about being able to afford formula, status, and ‘Formula’s the best. It’s formulated for the baby!’" Marshall said.
That’s because, for decades, companies suggested their product was better for infants than what a mother can provide from her body for free. Now, Marshall said, it’s up to hospitals to go back to endorsing what babies have been eating for thousands of years. "There’s nothing your body can’t produce for this child," she said. "It’s the perfect food for the baby."
There are 30 hospital facilities with maternity care units across the state. Eight have been deemed baby-friendly, and four of those are part of Indian Health Services. Facilities also have to come up with a policy on breastfeeding and educate all staff. And they have to leave the baby in the room with the mom for skin-to-skin contact right after delivery.
"We’re not trying to push breastfeeding on everybody," Marshall said. "We really are supporting each family to reach their own breastfeeding goals, whatever that may look like."
Kelsey Norris is a new mom. She was breastfeeding her son as she was interviewed back at the Dar a Luz Birth Center. "It is just such an awkward experience," she said. "People think that it comes naturally, and it really doesn’t. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a two-person relationship."
She has pride in what she’s doing, Norris said, and she doesn’t mind nursing in public anymore. In fact, just last week she was walking around the grocery store and breastfeeding while doing her shopping. "I’m not embarrassed about it, and I do it with confidence," she said. "And maybe people are staring, but I don’t look at them. I’m focused on what I’m doing, and I’m focused on my baby."
If it were more accepted to breastfeed while going about your business, Norris said, more moms would be able to make it part of their lives.
Find a list of baby-friendly hospitals online at publichealthnm.org. And tune in next week for a call-in show about breastfeeding.