When singer Beyonce Knowles made the choice to breast-feed her new daughter, Blue Ivy, at a New York City restaurant where she was dining with husband Jay-Z, word spread fast. Twitter was abuzz with the news, gossip sites blogged it, breast-feeding advocates cheered and others, who still consider breast-feeding “gross” or “nasty,” sneered.
“I think it's amazing when any woman breast-feeds in public, but I especially think it is tremendously important for Knowles, as a public figure,” said actress Mayim Bialik who plays Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS' “The Big Bang Theory.”
Bialik just released a new book, “Beyond the Sling,” in which she shares her family's experience with attachment parenting, a style of parenting coined by Dr. William Sears, one of the world's most respected authors and experts on baby health and wellness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer black women breast-feed than any other ethnicity in America.
“What Knowles is doing is putting a positive face on an African-American, incredible, strong working woman who is breast-feeding,” Bialik said. Bialik has a doctorate in neuroscience, has completed all the coursework to become a lactation consultant and plans to get certified soon.
Bialik breast-fed both her children wherever and whenever she needed to. Last year, Bialik was photographed on the subway in New York, breast-feeding Fred, her 3-year-old. It was either that, Bialik said, or a toddler meltdown.
“I like to joke that pretty much every waiter in Los Angeles has probably seen my breasts from my years of breast-feeding in public,” Bialik said.
Breast-feeding mothers need to know that their rights to breast-feed in public are protected by law, both federal and state. Wherever the woman is allowed to be, she is allowed to breast-feed. Additionally, work places are encouraged, and in some cases required by law to provide breaks and a place other than a bathroom for lactating women to feed their babies or express milk.
Most people are familiar with the reasons breast-feeding is good for babies. Breast-fed babies are more resistant to ear infections and other diseases during infancy. They are also less likely to develop juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and cancer before age 15, according to womenshealth.gov.
The site notes research that shows that if 90 percent of mothers breast-fed exclusively for 6 months, nearly 1,000 deaths among infants could be prevented. This is especially significant news for black families as the infant mortality rate among black infants is 2.4 times higher than that of white infants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Knowles' public breast-feeding also sparked a deluge of commentary, articles and conversations about the fact that fewer black women breast-feed their babies than other ethnicities, a fact that could be a contributor to the heightened infant mortality rate among black babies, some experts believe. In the United States, the CDC's 2010 Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance report shows that 50 percent of black mothers have ever attempted to breast-feed (that number for whites is 60 percent). However, only about 10.4 percent of black women continued to do so for at least one year — as opposed to 12.5 percent of white mothers.
The Academy of Pediatrics recently reaffirmed its recommendation of exclusive breast-feeding for about six months and continued breast-feeding, with the addition of proper foods to baby's diet, for at least one full year.
Many new mothers turn to bottles and formula because they think that their breasts aren't making any milk at first. They get frustrated, thinking they are starving their baby. But they actually are producing tiny amounts of colostrum, a pre-milk “liquid gold” that is low in fat, and high in carbohydrates, protein, and antibodies.
“Newborn babies have a stomach the size of a cherry,” said Ingrid Dixon, a lactation consultant at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. During these first days, a baby's stomach can only hold about a teaspoon of colostrum, and that's all the baby needs each feeding. The baby will be hungry every 30 minutes or so at first.
By day 10, a baby's stomach is about the size of a pingpong ball and by day 14, it's about the size of an egg, Dixon said.
“Our body is made to have exactly the right amount of milk for our newborns,” Bialik said.
Many practical considerations sway whether a woman will choose to breast-feed her baby or not. These include fear of breast-feeding, commercial promotion of infant formula as an equal alternative to breast milk, early use of pacifiers and other artificial nipples in feeding and soothing baby and concerns about how a mother will juggle breast feeding with a career.
Additionally, both Dixon and Bialik agree that a stigma against breast-feeding exists because, especially in America, breasts are so highly sexualized, people forget or ignore that their real function is to feed babies.
“There's nothing sexual about breast-feeding. There's nothing inappropriate about breast feeding,” Bialik said.
“It's not for rich people; it's not just for white people. It's not an elitist activity to breast-feed.”
Certain conditions, however, can limit a woman's ability to breast-feed, Dixon said.
Some mothers hesitate to breast-feed because they've had breast augmentation surgery. Implants inserted through the areola of the breast can cause breast-feeding problems, Dixon said. If implants are inserted via an incision under the armpit and placed under muscle, the breast tissue is generally not affected.