Everything in the bathroom was clean—except the floor.
Yet there she was, crouched down, her third baby in her arms, breastfeeding on the floor of the women’s bathroom at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She couldn’t help but think, the future is not female friendly.
“But it definitely was not the weirdest place,” Catherine D’Ignazio said, recounting awkward and uncomfortable locations, like her car, to breastfeed her children over the years.
A graduate student at MIT at the time, D’Ignazio said she was fed up. Breastfeeding shouldn’t be this demoralizing, she decided. She solicitated stories about the hardships associated with breastfeeding which received hundreds of responses from women across the country. That led to a Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon and policy summit at MIT with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF).
After seeing a space where breastfeeding was normalized, D’Ignazio said she realized “The future is not female.” There’s more work to do at the community and federal levels.
Only 27 percent of black mothers continue breastfeeding beyond six months, according to a 2016 report by the Center for Social Inclusion and funded by WKKF. The study identified a number of factors, including: too few obstetrician-gynecologists trained in breastfeeding, limited access to information, less flexibility in the workplace, less time to bond with the newborn and formula marketing strategies targeted to black mothers more often than other groups.
Malia Luarkie, a 22-year-old from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, went to Detroit and Washington, D.C., after her experience at the hackathon and policy summit, to speak to government officials about putting policies in place to make breastfeeding more accessible and accepted.
Luarkie said she told them in her village, equal access to obstetric care isn’t available. Their pueblo is more than 30 minutes from the nearest hospital. Luarkie’s niece was born on the side of the highway, after her brother and sister-in-law failed to make it to the hospital in time.
“Physicians say breast is best, but there’s pressure to bottle feed your child,” Luarkie said. “In the community I live in, we have a lot of women that after five to ten days they go back to work. So they don’t have time to sit and pump or bond with their child. They need to realize that the equity of breastfeeding is not really there.”
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) goal is for all children to be breastfed exclusively for six months, and 823,000 infant deaths per year could be prevented by achieving this goal.
Breastfeeding in the U.S. has become a luxury, where just 14 percent of workers have access to paid leave, and one in four mothers return to work within 10 days of giving birth. Without guaranteed paid-family leave, mothers and fathers lack critical bonding time with their newborn, and babies miss the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding.
The United States is the only developed country in the world without a federal paid family leave law. Just four states, New York, California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey have state laws for employees to take paid time off to care for a new baby or a disabled or sick relative. Washington has a paid family leave law that is scheduled to take effect in 2020.
Luarkie accepted the Healthy Communities Award from the Kellogg Foundation at the Hackathon on behalf of Indigenous Women Rising (IWR). IWR adapted Pueblo women’s traditional garment to accommodate breastfeeding. They altered the long cotton ankle-length dress with slits and pockets, making it possible for women to participate in cultural events without retreating to secret spaces to feed their infants. The ingenious alterations maintain cultural values and cost less than $10 per garment.
“When we brought it home everyone was so excited about what we were doing, especially about the clothing,” Luarkie said. “Very receptive to the clothing, the moms and grandmothers were asking ‘Where was this when I was breastfeeding’.”
The award was a surprise to Luarkie, who said it’s rare that women of color are invited to participate in such events, let alone discuss their ideas. Since the events at MIT, Luarkie said IWR has encouraged women within the tribe to wear the altered dresses, which are typically made by women in the community.
Luarkie’s sister-in-law and founder of IWR Rachael Lorenzo have been collaborating with the New Mexico breastfeeding taskforce to educate women on the importance of breastfeeding.
While they continue to work on finding resources and support for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, Luarkie says their strongest work remains in normalizing breastfeeding as it is still hyper-sexualized so that women will feel comfortable feeding their babies.