Breastfeeding in Australia needs to grow up

Breastfeeding relics - Metal, Ivory and Glass nipple shields.
Times have changed – Metal, Ivory and Glass nipple shields.

There are more than a billion monthly active users of Facebook, 500 million tweets are sent every day and overall nearly 40% of humans are able to access the internet. Until this year women sharing images of their children breastfeeding were at risk of having their photographs reported for obscenity and Facebook blocked some breastfeeding support organisations’ accounts entirely. The recent change to Facebook policy which removed the ban on women’s nipples being shown in breastfeeding images is a healthy step forward, but a great deal of discomfort and inequality that exists in regard to the female nipple in public and on social media remains.

It is not illegal for women to be topless in New York City and lately a range of celebrities and ordinary women have been barechested around town in support of the #freethenipple campaigns, or perhaps just generally because they can. The twitter hashtag has seen a lively discourse of images, blogs and commentary.

It is frustrating and often bewildering for women to have their bodies considered pornographic no matter the context and there are some serious consequences to the sexualisation of breasts and consequential continuing public perception of breastfeeding in public as unacceptable.

In Australia 83% of babies are being breastfed when they leave hospital. Within the first few weeks rates begin to drop. 40% of women have ceased to breastfeed by 3 months and by 12 months 75% of women have stopped. Many women do not meet their own breastfeeding goals and few are meeting the World Health Organisation recommendation of breastfeeding for two years.

Suboptimal breastfeeding costs money, it costs lives, it makes women miserable  and it’s environmentally destructive. But, if we have trouble accepting the breastfeeding of little babies in public, the change in attitude that will have to happen in order for breastfeeding toddlers to be seen as normal is a much bigger hurdle.

Women’s bodies have evolved to bear children and breastfeed them. It’s normal and healthy for a woman to go through the complete reproductive cycle.

The hormones of pregnancy alter a woman’s metabolism. These changes may persist and increase women’s risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, hyperlipidaemia and diabetes in later life if the reproductive cycle is not completed.

Breastfeeding is the key. If women breastfeed adipose stores gained during pregnancy tend to mobilise, blood pressure and lipid levels decreases and their blood glucose levels normalise. The longer women breastfeed the more protected they are. For every year a woman breastfeeds she decreases her risk of developing type II diabetes by 14%.Breastfeeding for 4 months or longer reduces the risk of basal-like breast cancer by 40% compared with never breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is not always easy. Our recent study of new breastfeeding mothers showed that 79% experienced significant nipple pain and nearly 60% had nipple damage in the first two months. Women can and do persist through remarkable difficulties but to do so in a society to expects women to breastfeed, but not in public, is unfair.

Bartick and her colleagues in Massachusetts have modelled that if 90% of women in the USA breastfed optimally it would prevent 4,981 cases of breast cancer, 53,847 cases of hypertension, and 13,946 cases of myocardial infarction, saving society $17.4 billion dollars in direct and indirect costs. This is not simply a matter of women choosing to breastfeed, it is a woman’s biological right to breastfeed for the sake of her health.

The ecological impact of women not breastfeeding is an understudied consideration. The environmental costs of dairy cows that produce the milk, which is processed into formula, shipped, reconstituted, and administer to infants in millions of plastic bottles, has not been calculated and it’s likely that the powerful formula manufacturing companies would be unhappy if we did those sums.

Breastfeeding in Australia is protected by law, and society is making progress on some fronts towards the normalisation of breastfeeding but whilst we continue to discuss the breastfeeding in terms of babies we are missing the bigger picture. Optimal breastfeeding is until the age of two, and to achieve that Australia will need to grow up or start counting the costs.

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