It wasn't long ago in the U.S. that breastfeeding simply wasn't done. In the '50s and '60s, the thinking was that formula was superior to the food Mother Nature provides. But today, the culture has changed, and breast milk is widely regarded as the best source of food for babies.

The Benefits of Breastfeeding
Among the supporters is the American Academy of Pediatrics. Their policy statement on the topic reads: "Infants, mothers, and society at large benefit from breastfeeding. Epidemiologic research shows that human milk and breastfeeding of infants provide advantages with regard to general health, growth, and development while significantly decreasing the risk for a large number of acute and chronic diseases."

Government initiatives and hospital-based programs designed to encourage nursing have been established nationwide, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of breastfed babies has increased.

Your Rights as a Breastfeeding Mom
In addition, 45 states and the District of Columbia now have laws that protect a woman's right to breastfeed in any public or private location. Unfortunately, these laws don't protect nursing mothers from attitudes and unsolicited advice doled out by family members, friends, and even strangers. And moms who aren't nursing may not have it any easier: fallout from the increased acceptance of breastfeeding can leave bottle-feeding moms feeling guilty.

Regardless of your choice, you can expect comments to challenge you at some point along the way. To help you prepare, QualityHealth spoke with two experts: Erin Boyd-Soisson, PhD, Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Science at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and Claudia Strauss, MA, M Phil, family communications professor at Albright College in Reading, PA. Here's their advice for handling opinions about bottles and breasts.

Understanding Attitudes Towards Breastfeeding
Being a new mom can be overwhelming. You may have started out eager to breastfeed but quickly discover it's more difficult than you anticipated. Or perhaps you elected to bottle feed after suffering a painful bout of mastitis (inflammation of the breast). "There are often confidence issues and feelings of incompetency that go along with motherhood," Strauss explains. "In an attempt to be helpful, some women share their own experiences and give advice, but the new mom may not hear it that way."

With regards to breastfeeding in public, both Boyd-Soisson and Strauss believe that most people mean well but may be negative due to a lack of education about breastfeeding. "Some people simply take the position that it is never okay to breastfeed in public; others think it's okay as long as you cover up," Strauss explains.

Boyd-Soisson attributes this to our culture: "In America, we view breasts as sexual objects and it makes some women feel uncomfortable nursing in public," she explains. In other parts of the world—particularly tribal nations—breasts are not regarded in this way: There, "Breasts perform an important function. Women in those cultures go shirtless, and babies nurse at will. Their breasts are a readily available food source."

Breastfeeding as a Balancing Act
Boyd-Soisson reminds new mothers that young babies cry for a reason: "When an infant cries, it's because she has a need that isn't being met," the professor explains. "When A mom feeds her baby, the baby feels secure and learns to trust others. If a mom isn't able to feed her baby because people are staring at her, she needs to tell herself that the problem is theirs, not hers."

Strauss agrees but advises moms to consider where they are and how that location might affect another person. "Are you at work? In a place of worship? In a public space?" asks Strauss. "If your baby starts to fuss in a building someone considers sacred, for example, nursing may be intrusive to her. Simply being sensitive to others can be helpful."

Emotions can also get in the way of communication: "When people get emotional, they often don't watch their words, and their body language may come across as judgmental when they are actually trying to help," Strauss observes. "There can be insensitivity on both sides."

Please and Thank You
Both experts also agree that unless people are being insistent and obnoxious, the best way to handle any situation is with courtesy. "You can politely let the person know you are listening to him or her and that you appreciate the concern. Then simply go about your business of feeding your baby," Strauss advises. "If it's a stranger that's assailing you, he will likely just walk away feeling satisfied."

If it's an experienced family member or friend who has a lot to say, be careful not to burn a bridge. "Thank her for the input and warmly explain that while you are currently doing what works for you now, you're glad to have this perspective to consider as you may make changes in the future," Strauss says. "Handling it in this manner leaves the door open down the line if you actually want to seek out this person and her experience."

Finally, be kind to yourself. "Babies take a lot of energy, and you need to conserve yours," reminds Strauss. Boyd-Soisson agrees, adding that reaching out to a lactation consultant or a caring friend can help with feelings of isolation. "Surrounding yourself with a support network will make it easier to dismiss those dirty looks or critical comments when you get them," she says.



Interviews with Erin Boyd-Sisson, PhD, Messiah College in Grantham, PA and Claudia Strauss, a family communications expert at Albright College, Reading, PA

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The National Conference of State Legislatures

The American Academy of Pediatrics