Breastfeeding gets so much good press and is so highly encouraged nowadays that even the men are well-informed. But what was it like, breastfeeding at a time when it was considered taboo to be nursing in public? Where there were no brochures and classes to speak of, no lactation gadgets and no amenities to support a breastfeeding mother; the time during the Baby Boomers’ generation?
We spoke to some mothers from that era for their stories.
To Abby, breastfeeding was the way to go for as long as she could remember. Her mother, aunts and friends breastfed their babies so when it came to her turn, exclusive breastfeeding it was from the word go.
“I breastfed all my children for at least three years. In fact I breastfed my youngest until he was five,” she recalled proudly.
When asked what she knew about breastfeeding, Abby, who is now 60, was aware that breast milk was the best food a mother could provide her kids. There was also the belief that breastfeeding puts a gap between pregnancies.
“Apparently, it’s not as easy for a breastfeeding mom to fall pregnant so soon after, so we resorted to breastfeeding to allow for an interval between pregnancies.”
But what was like, breastfeeding over three decades ago in a remote village in Indonesia? What about the support facilities, when electricity was only available after sundown?
Breastfeeding was a common practice because it was more economical compared to giving baby formula.
“Manual breast pumps were available but using them wasn’t always convenient. No milk storage or freezing. I pumped out my milk and set it aside. I remember having so much milk that my grand aunt would drink it! Yes, it’s healthy for adults too- she lived until almost 100,” Abby said gleefully.
“Also, I had my second child at almost the same time as my sister-in-law. After a few months her milk dried up so I nursed her baby too. It was acceptable for mothers to share their breast milk.”
Cathy had her first child some 40 years ago when there was almost no public awareness on the benefits of breast milk. Cathy’s journey lasted for a few months before she decided to start bottle feeding.
“Breastfeeding was a full-time affair. Facilities were inadequate, unlike today with the convenience of technology and social support. Breastfeeding in public wasn’t even worth considering. We did it at home, in our rooms, unlike today where there are breastfeeding cloaks, electric pumps or mothers’ rooms.”
It was mainly due to the inconvenience of juggling her work schedules that Cathy, now in her 70s, had to cut short her breastfeeding.
When asked what her husband’s opinion was when she decided to stop, Cathy said he was fine with it and asked no questions. Breastfeeding wasn’t forced upon her. Baby formulas were quite the in thing as long as everyone, including the baby, was happy.
Beatrice, 75, was a working mother in the 1970s in the UK, where breastfeeding was encouraged.
“The hospital encouraged breastfeeding but I needed to work at the time, so I’d decided from the start that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. My midwife however, was adamant and tried everything to make sure I breastfed my son,” recalled Beatrice fondly.
“Back then we didn’t have facilities to express and store breast milk, not even bottle warmers, mothers’ rooms or a support system for working mothers. It just wasn’t possible to be on the go during the day and to breastfeed.”
It was the lack of support facilities that hindered her from breastfeeding her child. Beatrice said she is more well-informed now on the benefits of breastfeeding, compared to her time.
“Breastfeeding is much more encouraged these days. In a way that’s good, but breastfeeding has come under the public eye so much that at times, mothers are made to feel terrible if they can’t or don’t breastfeed their babies. It was good that I was born during an era where there wasn’t much negativity if mothers decided not to breastfeed,” she said.
When Anne had her first child, she almost immediately opted for formula. It was common practice in the social circles she kept.
“My sister opted for formula, so did my close friend, so I guess that was how I started off. I wasn’t producing much milk so I started with baby formula,” recalls Anne, now 67.
When asked if she was ever questioned for not trying to breastfeed, she said back in the 80s there was no prejudice against mothers who chose formula over breast milk. Back then, mothers who gave formula were regarded as privileged. Baby formula was considered expensive, and if that was your choice, you were seen as wealthy.
“One thing for sure though, during my time there wasn’t as much information on the benefits of breastfeeding. In fact there was hardly any public awareness on the subject,” she said.
She would probably have given breastfeeding a go if there had been more information on its benefits. Nonetheless, she is glad that society today has put so much emphasis on educating mothers.
Ultimately, breastfeeding has always been the most natural and best means to provide for your child. The women we spoke to have also taught us that there are no right or wrong decisions when it comes to nursing our babies.
With today’s amenities and support systems we should be grateful that breastfeeding mothers today are well looked after and accommodated.
At the same time, the ability to breastfeed isn’t a standard of quality for mothers- every mother has the right to weigh the circumstances before she begins nursing her child. Whatever her choice, one thing we’re certain of is that a mother will always provide the best for her child, to ensure that her child grows up healthy and loved.
By Dessy Barnaby
Dessy left her PR career in exchange for perfecting her critical negotiation skills with her two children. She has found solace in writing and is now a freelance writer.