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Why breastfeeding military moms freak people out

The uproar over photos of two military moms breastfeeding indicates a larger social debate in America about women's freedom and their comfort as mothers in public spaces. 

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Coontz has studied marriage and family relationships for more than 35 years. She says that Americans have a perpetual, simultaneous fascination and disgust regarding sex, much more so than other societies that don’t make as big of a deal out of it. She said these issues are central to Americans’ ambivalence about sexuality, the sexualization of breasts, women’s bodies and motherhood.

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"Of course the Time magazine cover created a shock," she says. The media coverage presents a moment of opportunity for advocates to jump on the bandwagon and promote their causes, whether it’s attachment parenting or breastfeeding in public, she adds.  

These messages create anxiety for mothers because they are being told what it means to be a good mother. There is a conflict between the health benefits of breastfeeding and the societal norms about what is proper for mothers to do in public, says Hausman.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises mothers to breastfeed “for as long as mutually desired by mother and child,” whether your child is 6 months or 3 years old. The AAP website says that American culture has a limited view of appropriate breastfeeding practices, advises mothers to focus on their own feelings instead of listening to current public opinion.

Breastfeeding is a “source of profound comfort and security, laying the groundwork for a confident, happy, and healthy future” for your baby, says AAP.

A survey by the Centers for Disease Control shows that approximately 75 percent of women initiate breastfeeding in the United States, though those numbers differ geographically. This number has increased greatly since the 1970s, says Hausman. During the second-wave feminist movement, breastfeeding was low (20 to 25 percent) because formula enabled women to join the workforce, to demonstrate their equality with men.

Activism in the 1990s increased awareness about women’s rights to breastfeed in public, and several states passed laws protecting the right to breastfeed. Federal regulation also guarantees the rights of women to breastfeed anywhere on federal property.

Additional activism, also called “lactavism,” is another form of breastfeeding advocacy, where women hold breastfeeding sit-ins where a mother has been banned or harassed for breastfeeding.

“It is hard to know if these efforts of have changed people’s attitudes about public breastfeeding,” says Hausman. “Women are still very much influenced by other people’s attitudes.”

Individual temperament impacts a mother’s decision about whether or not she breastfeeds in public. Women who care more about other people think will do it less than someone with a more carefree temperament. 

“A lot of women are uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public,” says Hausman. “There is information that shows women how to do it in a discreet way, or so that no one knows what your are doing, which is ridiculous if you think about it.” 

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