When we see a novel event over and over, our brain does something called habituation. It becomes so accustomed to what we previously considered unusual (and thus worthy of our attention) that the unique becomes the new normal and, often, we don’t even notice it anymore. For example, the prevalence of scantily-clad people on television and in movies has desensitized us as a society to seeing so much skin. Scenes of bikini-clad women or men in tight underwear (or less) – images that might have resulted in a movie being banned in the 1950s (or banned in some other countries nowadays) – are now standard fare in our country, and movie makers have to make a real effort to push the envelope if their goal is to get people’s attention.
If we’re not habituated, though, when we see something new, it quickly grabs our attention and can make us uncomfortable if we aren’t sure how to react to it. Our country’s discomfort with public breastfeeding falls into this category. For the past few decades, relatively few mothers breastfed past the first few weeks or months and were often home with their babies for most of that time. So the number of women breastfeeding in a mall or on the street was relatively small – and it was unusual for most people to see a mother nursing her baby in public.
Movies and television were showing more and more skin over this time, though, and so we became more accustomed to seeing female breasts in a sensational context rather than being used for their primary function – sustaining a baby and keeping him healthy.
More mothers are nursing in public in recent years, however – and we’re made keenly aware of this by the publicity that follows a nursing mom who is told to cover up or leave the area, virtually always by someone who isn’t accustomed to seeing breastfeeding. In a sense, this publicity is a good thing; it gets people talking and thinking about the issue and, ideally, helps some people to challenge their own perceptions and ultimately to become more comfortable with the situation. But this is a slow process, because most people still aren’t around nursing mothers on a regular basis, which continues their perception that breastfeeding is unusual (and thus can make them feel uncomfortable) and prevents them from getting to the habituation point where breastfeeding is as much of a non-issue as seeing a father kiss his baby on her forehead.
But a small but rapidly growing number of businesses (of all places) are changing this. More than 140 companies and government agencies around the country allow parents to bring their babies to work with them on a regular basis and to care for them while working (generally for the first six to eight months of life or until the babies start to crawl).
Many of the mothers who participate in these programs breastfeed, and many of them discreetly nurse their babies (often in a sling or wrap) while doing their jobs – working at their desks, participating in meetings, or just walking to a colleague’s cubicle. And the most exciting part is that, over time, no one cares.
The owner of one baby-inclusive bookstore in Tennessee explained that mothers would generally use a staff room to nurse their babies, but that other employees would sometimes accidentally walk in on these mothers. In the beginning, the young men who worked at the store would, according to the owner, “screech to a stop and turn around” when they walked in on a nursing mom. The owner was trying to figure out how best to handle the situation when one day he suddenly realized that it had ceased to be an issue. In his words, “The third or fourth time people saw a mother breastfeeding, it might as well have been an elbow. They just got used to it; it was just like any other part of your body.”
This is seen again and again in businesses that allow to bringing babies to work – and it foreshadows what will happen over time with breastfeeding in public (and more quickly as babies-at-work programs are implemented on a large scale, which is what the Parenting in the Workplace Institute hopes to achieve). As more people become accustomed to seeing breastfeeding, fewer people will consider it unusual, and eventually it will be a non-issue. More women will feel comfortable breastfeeding in public, and we’ll get closer to a society in which parents can truly choose how they nurture their babies.
Sometimes, it turns out, the best outcome is one that nobody notices!
We are honored today to host a guest post from Carla Moquin. Carla Moquin is the founder and president of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, a non-profit that provides information and resources for the implementation of formal business programs in which parents can bring their children to work and care for them while doing their jobs. The Institute is currently focused on programs in which parents can bring their young babies to work for the first six or eight months of life, and it maintains a growing database of more than 140 organizations with these programs . The Institute recently launched several initiatives to move closer to its goal of bringing babies to work programs to thousands of businesses and millions of families.