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Are Breastfeeding Moms Extraordinary Or Exhibitionists?

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You may have seen them.

Lurking in coffee shops. Hiding in women's changing rooms. Exposing themselves on airplanes. They're making their way from coast to coast traumatizing innocent victims as they go. And to make matters worse each has at least one tiny accomplice.

They're shameless, chronically sleep-deprived, and dangerous.

They're an army of topless breastfeeding G-cup hippies.

At least that's what you may believe if you've followed the news lately. In late 2015 Ashley Kaidel's viral Facebook post, in which she's breastfeeding her baby uncovered in a cafe, caused quite the stir. What wasn't shown in the image was the disapproving onlooker. Kaidel's defiant stare paints a vivid scene. Criticism raged suggesting the photo was premeditated. And critics may be right. But does it matter if they are?

Sensationalist images are frequently used to bring attention to important social issues. They aim to wake us from our daily slumber and demand our attention. Shake us up. Make us talk. And that's exactly what the post achieved. The controversy it caused speaks to how sensitive society is about public breastfeeding. It doesn't take much to push our collective buttons.

"Breastfeeding is a huge commitment which demonstrates unconditional love. Women don't accidentally breastfeed -- it's a conscious decision."

In February, Juliet Thomson was on a United Airlines flight when she was humiliated by a female passenger who called her "disgusting" and complained to a flight attendant. Juliet had achieved the dream of nursing her baby to sleep on a plane. The reaction of those around her should have been relief. But, instead she was met with hostility.

How could something as natural as a nursing baby be a topic for debate?

Breastfeeding mothers rarely expose themselves needlessly. Comments I've received in response to my support of feeding our babies in public suggest breastfeeding women are somehow getting a kick out of exposing themselves. That nourishing our babies is an afterthought and really our main objective is to get our boobs out.

Breastfeeding is a huge commitment which demonstrates unconditional love. Women don't accidentally breastfeed -- it's a conscious decision. And often a treacherous journey requiring determination to overcome obstacles thrown in our path.

Cracked nipples. Engorged breasts. Improper latches. Mastitis. Bites. Nursing on demand every two hours. Loss of independence. And now, judgmental stares and nasty comments. For most mothers, disapproval, from strangers is the least of our worries. We've given birth. We're enduring a level of sleep deprivation most would consider a form of torture. We're tough. We can handle it. But, why should we?

A 2010 study by the Journal of Pediatrics suggests if 90 per cent of mothers were able to follow medical advice to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months, the American taxpayer may save more than $13B annually in infant healthcare and related costs. And more importantly, prevent almost 1000 infant deaths each year.

Most women begin breastfeeding their babies, but by 3 months only 32 per cent are exclusively breastfeeding. And at 6 months it drops to 12 per cent. A survey conducted by the Australian Breastfeeding Association reports only 5 per cent of women are still breastfeeding their toddlers at two years of age despite the strong recommendation by the World Health Organization to do so.

Dr. Melissa Bartick, of the Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston suggests, "We shouldn't be blaming women, because not only are they often not actively supported in attempting to breastfeed, but they are also undermined" in a number of ways.

Bartick says her main message is that moms need more support for breastfeeding including better access to lactation counselling and scaling back in the aggressive marketing of infant formula.

"If we can challenge ourselves to shift our perspectives and see a breastfeeding mother for the miracle she is we'd all be touched by the magic we're witnessing."

But, small, but positive changes are happening. Outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, recently announced changes in it's family policies as they sought solutions for colleagues struggling to breastfeed and care for their babies without losing their jobs. In the U.S. up to 35 per cent of working women don't return to their jobs after giving birth. Over the last five years Patagonia has seen 100 per cent of their moms return to work.

In a recent interview with Katie Couric, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, wife of Canadian Prime Minister, spoke about her choice to continue breastfeeding her two year old son.

She says, "I will continue to feed my child even if he's two, I'm not going to stop if he wants it. I think it's a beautiful bond. I encourage it." Sophie's no-nonsense conviction lends a fresh and much needed face to countless mothers who feel less confident defending their choices.

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But perhaps the most powerful symbol of support would be a shift in society's approval. If we can challenge ourselves to shift our perspectives and see a breastfeeding mother for the miracle she is we'd all be touched by the magic we're witnessing. A brave mom who has been nursing round the clock, getting no sleep, enduring pain and trying to do the best she can for her new baby.

She's not trying to ruin your day.

She's not trying to expose herself.

She's doing what women have done for millennia; nourishing and protecting her baby the best way she knows how.

This post originally appeared on Raised Good.

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