Thursday, July 8, 2010

Nursing in Public in Italy

We are pleased to welcome Barbara, co-founder of the Italian parenting website Barbara coordinated a huge effort to make the Carnival of N.I.P. go international - she posted about the Carnival on her site, on Facebook, and on Twitter, she received post submissions from twenty writers, and they are doing their own giveaways. Thank you for all of your work, Barbara! Here is her guest post on N.I.P. in Italy:

"Wandering about Amalfi, Italy"
Winner of's recent
breastfeeding picture contest
Today breastfeeding in public in Italy is not as “difficult” as it is in the U.S. It is unlikely that you will be asked to stop breastfeeding in an airplane, in a train, or in a restaurant. However, episodes are beginning to show up. We had one incident this past winter: a mother was in a bar where she was having a breakfast cappuccino (bars in Italy are traditionally where you drink cappuccino in the morning). When the mother nursed her baby, the owner asked her to nurse outside. It was all over the television news and newspapers, and everyone was condemning the bar owner.

Was this an isolated incident? Or was it something more? It is possible that very few women would assert their rights or call the press.

An older person generally smiles with approval when they see you nursing in the bus or in front of the school, but Italian mama bloggers are reporting more and more disapproving looks or unkind comments, especially by younger people. During the Carnival of N.I.P. a mother told me that she was asked to nurse her baby (two years old) elsewhere during the nursery school party “because it would disturb other babies”. It was clear, though, that the one being disturbed was the teacher and not the babies who had gathered around curiously to find out what their little friend was doing so close to her mother.

The ironic part is that Italy is a country where topless sun bathing is common on almost any beach and in a number of pools. My own mother used to sun bathe topless some 20 years ago when she had 4 kids already. Naked breasts are often seen on tv at dinner time, used to advertised deodorants, bottled waters, soaps and whatnot . . . yet breastfeeding is looked at more maliciously than are the breasts and rear ends showed off in super skimpy bikini on TV shows for the whole family.

I wonder if there is a connection: as our society becomes more and more sex-oriented, where sex is used to pick up an audience, sales, awareness, people forget breasts are meant first of all for babies' nourishment rather than as a sexual objects.

Breastfeeding in Italy from the 70s to Now

In Italy breastfeeding before the seventies was the norm. Babies were all breastfed, if not by their mother (who was sometimes thought too poor to have a good enough diet to feed the baby or had to go back to work in the country), the baby was breastfed by other mothers. Kids who were breastfed by other mothers were considered like stepchildren, and they called the nurse “mamma Filomena,” “mamma Maria,” etc., whereas their mom was called just “mamma”.

After 1968, we had both the feminist revolution and the invasion of the first multinational companies. This conjunction was deadly for breast feeding. Nursing began to be considered as something backwards, not modern, something an educated woman would not choose.

Since Italy is very long and very different from north to south, with the north being wealthier and more industrial, this way of thinking spread out in the north first. Nursing was considered as something old fashioned, dumb women from the south would still choose. It was totally discriminated against in the north. People would look at you as if you were an uneducated, small-minded, traditional (in the worst way) person. However, nursing in public was not seen as something which would offend, it was not seen as "sexual," as it has come to be seen now.

Doctors started to spread false ideas about bad effects breastfeeding had on health: mothers’ vision would decrease, teeth would decay, mothers would gain weight, milk was watered down and did not nourish a child properly.

At the same time, giving birth was becoming a very medicalized procedure: in the north much more so than in the south. This has led Italy to have a 40% cesarean section rate today. The cesarean section rate is now at its highest rate ever, and in the north we are now returning to a more humanized birth. In the south, though, medical "advances" arrived later: there are now places in the south with a 60-80% cesarean section rate.

Differences were very strong between north, center and south: I was born in central Italy in 1970, where breastfeeding was the norm. Yet we lived in the north, and my mother tells me she stopped nursing after 5-6 months, because she felt she had done more than enough. The societal pressure to wean was such that getting to that level (5 months) was a lot, probably like breastfeeding a toddler today.

I met very few people of my age, born in the north, who were breastfed at all. In the hospital, doctors would tell midwives to wrap the mothers’ breasts and give them a medicine to interrupt milk production. Yet when women tell you about when that happened to them, and see you nursing, you can still tell it hurts somewhere in the bottom of their heart.

I don’t know when things picked up again with breastfeeding. Today things are slowly going better. We do not have dependable statistics, but it seems as though only 35% of babies at 3 months of age are still being nursed.


Wow that is so sad, but so interesting on how history of breastfeeding was. Thank you for posting.

This is really interesting. It's fascinating to see the parallels in different countries. You can see the same sort of trend in the U.S. with going toward medicalized birth and no breastfeeding and then back again a little more toward natural, only the timing has been a little earlier. Thanks for giving such a thorough picture.

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