“Milk! Milk!” my two-year-old daughter shouts happily, grabbing at my shirt. She’s a girl who knows what she wants, and she smiles as she settles down to a breastfeed.
But she doesn’t often see other babies or toddlers being breastfed. According to recent studies, not even 35% of babies in the UK are breastfed at six months old, and only 0.5% are at 12 months. The UK has some of the world’s lowest breastfeeding rates; the BBC calls the UK “the world’s worst”. This despite new research suggesting that an increase in breastfeeding numbers could save the NHS £40m a year, as breastfed babies are healthier than those given formula milk.
And as well as rarely seeing it in person, my daughter doesn’t see breastfeeding in children’s books either. Research into children’s literature shows us how vital it is that the diversity of the world is reflected in the books that children read or that are read to them. This means seeing both lives like their own – so they know they’re not alone – but also lives and experiences that are different, so they can learn. Breastfeeding is absent from children’s books, however, to a disturbing degree. This corroborates the idea that breastfeeding is not normalised in our society.
Even though breast milk is the biological norm for feeding babies and even though it is the cultural norm in the majority of the world’s countries, authors, illustrators, and publishers don’t want to depict it in books for children. It is much more common to see a baby being bottle-fed artificial milk.
The few children’s books I’ve found that feature breastfeeding tend to be ones that are specifically about breastfeeding or attachment parenting more generally; in other words, someone would have to already be passionate about breastfeeding to seek out these texts. A parent isn’t likely to pick up a book such as You, Me and The Breast or A Ride on Mother’s Back if their child wasn’t being breastfed.
This problem extends beyond children’s literature, of course. Cards congratulating new parents usually depict bottles and dummies. Signs for rooms where babies can be changed and fed usually have a bottle symbol on them too. TV programmes, advertisements, articles in magazines, and films show children with bottles rather than breasts in their mouths. There seems to be a widespread assumption that bottle-feeding is the norm.
Adult novels that feature the feeding of young children tend to depict breastfeeding negatively, and/or they portray the making up of bottles. And yet, research clearly shows that breast milk is what’s best for the developing child, and that breastfeeding also offers numerous benefits beyond nutrition to both mother and child.
The reason for the lack of breastfeeding in children’s books and elsewhere is, I believe, due to some societies’ confusion about what breasts are for. These cultures have sexualised women’s bodies to an extreme extent. Sure, breasts can be, pardon the pun, titillating, but their original purpose was to nourish children. We’re called mammals for a reason, after all.
Many women today feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding their children, whether at home or in public, because they seem to believe that breasts are mainly for men’s pleasure; anything else is a taboo. And society promotes this view by using women’s bodies to advertise products. Women are there to be looked at and admired – having babies clamped to their nipples isn’t considered sexy.
Other countries have different views of the breast. Many African nations, for example, see women’s breasts as powerful, welcoming, and nurturing, and they regularly depict them in art. And, just to take a Nordic example, the rate of breastfeeding at 12 months is over 40% in Norway (as compared to the previously mentioned 0.5% in the UK). Children’s literature there and elsewhere is more likely to feature breastfeeding than English-language texts. You, Me and The Breast, for example, is a translation from Spanish, and I’ve read about other picture books in Catalan and the Scandinavian languages that depict breastfeeding as a matter of course.
Breastfeeding is a woman’s right, and it’s a public health issue as well as a gender-equality one. Breastfeeding makes an important contribution to society, and it’s one we ought to value. It improves women’s health along with that of their children, but new research has shown that many women aren’t aware of the benefits they would receive.
We need to encourage and support women and their children on their breastfeeding journeys. One way of doing this is to make society more flexible, so women get longer leave and can settle into breastfeeding with their child, and also so there is more help and advice available for breastfeeding women, and more places to breastfeed comfortably. Another way to challenge society’s limited views of women would be to feature breastfeeding in literature; this would normalise it and make it more visible, and remind people that women’s bodies are for more than just being looked at.
I’d love to read a book to my daughter as she has a breastfeed, and for us to turn the page and see an illustration of a child breastfeeding. I can imagine my daughter pointing to the nursing woman and saying: “Milk!” I’d love for more babies and toddlers to point at breasts and to see them as their source of food and comfort. And clearly, on a practical level, it would be hugely beneficial to taxpayers as well.
It’s time for society to recognise just how vital breastfeeding is – and for us to begin encouraging and supporting it.