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Do We Need Breastfeeding Laws?

yai112 / iStockphoto

In Indonesia, unlike in the United States, breastfeeding isn’t considered simply a lifestyle or parenting choice; it’s the law. Exclusive breastfeeding has in fact been legally backed since 2009, and the laws have recently been strengthened. In a nation where clean water isn’t always available, the country hopes to have 80 percent of its babies exclusively breastfed by 2015, and to drastically reduce infant mortality rates in the process.

As someone who breastfed for only three months (I’d hoped to go for longer), and who would not have been able to breastfeed exclusively (I’d hoped to do that, too, but... no dice)-- this law first struck me as both unrealistic and dangerous. As far as my own experience goes, besides simply not producing enough breast milk to feed Kaspar exclusively from the boob, it turned out he was having allergic reactions to much of what I was eating. Organic formula was a good back-up plan for us, if not a perfect solution. I know another mom, too, who tried breastfeeding both of her kids, scaled back to a dairy- and wheat-free diet when they showed signs of allergies, and then finally switched to formula, which solved the problem-- whatever it was-- both times. Allergies aren’t the only thing that comes between moms and breastfeeding, either; I know moms for whom breastfeeding was, and is, a piece of cake, but I know just as many for whom it didn’t work out, or wasn’t their option of choice, to think laws requiring moms to breastfeed could possibly make sense. Of course breast milk is ideal for its immune-boosting superpowers, for preventing obesity and-- a new study shows-- for keeping babies calm on into adulthood, but there are too many contingencies (adopted babies,moms on meds, moms needing sleep... the list is long) to require, by law, babies drink it.

As I read a bit more about the Indonesian law, however, I felt better about it; it’s intended to support moms (not land them in jail), and to hold their employers, families, and communities accountable for making breastfeeding doable for them. In fact, $11,000 in fines (which is a lot here... and must be an enormous sum in Indonesia), plus a year of prison time, is what anyone standing in the way of a baby and a boob is now looking at under the newly updated law. Formula manufacturers have also been banned from advertising to moms feeding babies under one year old. And so far, no moms have been brought to court for choosing not to breastfeed-- this is purportedly not the intention behind the law, and will not be one of its results.

Clean water supply or not, America, in this light, isn’t looking so progressive (not that we ever actually do...); I’ve got a Google Alerts news feed shooting breastfeeding-related stories to my inbox on a daily basis, and just last week caught sight of headlines reporting on a Houston mom being fired for requesting breastfeeding accommodations at work, a mom in Georgia getting kicked out of church for breastfeeding her daughter there, and another mom in the same state being recently arrested for breastfeeding her baby. This stuff happens all the time. If we were in Indonesia right now, it wouldn’t.

I’m left thinking we could probably use some laws in support of breastfeeding moms, too, and that Indonesia’s (especially given the public/child health situation there) is probably a good thing, but... I’m not thrilled about the discrepency between the Indonesian law’s requirements (that all moms only feed their babies breast milk), and its intended purpose (to protect new moms against breastfeeding-related discrimination). Why not be direct and write the law according to its intended purpose? I haven’t actually read any clauses from the actual law itself-- would be very interested in doing so if any of you can track this down-- but from what I’ve seen, there is room in it for moms to be punished for not breastfeeding their babies, since it technically requires that they do. Whether or not lawmakers are acting on this, the fact that they could seems unnecessarily risky; moms can always use more support, but restricting their rights seems like a weird way to go about providing it. For the time being, though, it sounds like the law is working on women’s (and babies’) behalf.

What do you think of the Indonesian law? Do you think something with similar objectives would be a good thing in America (or elsewhere)? Did you ever receive any flack (either serious, like a job loss, or minor, such as social stigma) for breastfeeding? How about for not breastfeeding? I look forward to your thoughts!

PS. Here's a little dose of Indonesian inspiration, courtesy of my friend Megan Miller and her photographic talents (Thanks Megan!):