World Breastfeeding Week: Women’s Rights, Infant Health and A Supermodel Mom

It’s World Breastfeeding Week and that can only mean one thing – widespread media coverage of…a celebrity who misspeaks about breastfeeding!

Not that I’m complaining. “Supermodel mom” (so says Us Magazine) Giselle Bundchen slips up and calls for a “worldwide law” mandating breastfeeding for babies up to six months old and, though the comment was utterly ridiculous, at least it’s a great segue into a discussion about breastfeeding for World Breastfeeding Week 2010, happening this week. According to, in an interview for Harper’s Bazaar UK, Bundchen is quoted as saying,

“Some people here (in the US) think they don’t have to breastfeed, and I think ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.” [emphasis added]

After the quote ignited a controversy, Bundchen explained her statement more thoroughly on her blog:

My intention in making a comment about the importance of breastfeeding…comes from my passion and beliefs about children. Becoming a new mom has brought a lot of questions, I feel like I am in a constant search for answers on what might be the best for my child. It’s unfortunate that in an interview sometimes things can seem so black and white…I understand that everyone has their own experience and opinions and I am not here to judge. I think as mothers we are all just trying our best.

The response is not exactly earth shattering and doesn’t address the most important points about breastfeeding in this country (and these points have nothing to do with breasts or babies per se) but at least it acknowledges that the question of whether to breastfeed or not is not necessarily an easy one; nor should the answers individual women come to about feeding their children, be subject to judgment.

This is not the first time a celebrity has chosen to (either inadvertently or not) make a statement about breastfeeding. Last year, actress Salma Hayek caused much eye-popping and hand-wringing when she breastfed a hungry baby on television (not her own child) on a visit to Sierra Leone, a country with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and the lowest exclusive breastfeeding rates. Though many expressed disgust – even outrage – over her actions, Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told ABC News at the time,

“We’ve lost the concept that breastfeeding is normal and human in the United States. In most of the world, it’s [nursing someone else’s baby is] as common as breastfeeding” one’s own.”

“In many African cultures, it is not just a nice thing to do, it’s expected — although it’s mostly within families,” she said. “Anybody who is able to lactate and who does not feed a crying child is considered not doing the right thing.”

The larger point is that breastfeeding is a lifesaver – a critical first step in a newborns’ health, when it’s possible. It’s what World Breastfeeding Week 2010 is all about this year – establishing an optimal foundation for breastfeeding –  through the “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding.” Just how much of a life-saver can breastfeeding be? From the WBW “Ten Steps” site:

If the vast majority of babies were exclusively fed breast milk in their first six months of life – meaning only breast milk and no other liquids or solids, not even water – it is estimated that the lives of at least 1.2 million children would be saved every year. If children continue to be breastfed up to two years and beyond, the health and development of millions of children would be greatly improved.

The good news is that, according to UNICEF, global breastfeeding rates, including exclusive breastfeeding rates (where no formula or other food is supplemented) are increasing – especially in the developing world. Exclusive breastfeeding rates in some countries have risen twenty percent over the last 5-10 years.

These rates are not increasing simply because we tell new mothers that breast milk is best or that we all should breastfeed because Supermodel moms do it or because we see Salma Hayek breastfeeding a newborn on television. It’s happening because the governments of these countries are prioritizing raising the status of women through implementation of both governmental and business policies:

The implementation of large-scale programmes in these countries was based on national policies and often guided by the WHO-UNICEF Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, including the adoption and implementation of national legislation on the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and maternity protection for working women. Further actions included ensuring that breastfeeding was initiated in maternity facilities (and that no infant formula was used), building health worker capacity to offer counselling on infant and young child feeding, and mother-to-mother support groups in the community, accompanied by communication strategies to promote breastfeeding using multiple channels and messages tailored to the local context.

These sorts of policies are not only helpful but critical to improving the lives of mothers and newborns globally. Right now there are only 94 certified “Baby Friendly” hospitals in the United States (as per a UNICEF/WHO Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative or BFHI), and approximately 19,000 worldwide though some countries have zero facilities that are considered “Baby Friendly.” A “Baby Friendly” maternity care center (hospital or birth center) is qualified as such if it offers, according to the WHO and UNICEF program:

an optimal level of care for infant feeding. The BFHI assists hospitals in giving mothers the information, confidence, and skills needed to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies or feeding formula safely, and gives special recognition to hospitals that have done so.

But it’s not only early intervention through hospital and birth center policies that make a difference. The BFHI also suggest new approaches to what “Baby Friendly” means outside of the walls of maternity hospitals and birth centers. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding, the global network of individuals and organizations responsible for World Breastfeeding Week, says:

Action at community level is particularly important since globally only 56% of women deliver their babies in a health facility, (only 33% in the least developed countries) and they may be discharged within a day or two. Women need ongoing support in the community whether they deliver in hospital or at home.

It’s also guaranteed maternity leave (paid), proper postpartum and breastfeeding support via certified lactation consultants, business policies that support mandatory pumping breaks for mothers who go back to work and paid sick days that are so necessary to support new mothers. These are core necessities, not in ultimate service to improving breastfeeding rates but to improving women’s status thereby allowing women true freedom to make choices. As Labbok wrote in her 2006 article, Breastfeeding: A Woman’s Reproductive Right (PDF),

In countries throughout the world, women’s autonomy frequently has been limited in the name of ensuring children’s well-being, subordinating women’s rights to children’s rights. However, by framing the issue as a woman’s right to choose and succeed with breastfeeding makes it a responsibility for the family, society and workplace to recognize and support this right.

And one mother commented on a post of mine,

If most women do not get paid maternity leave or very little paid leave, including all federal Government workers, then it is a bit hypocritical to tout the benefits (and dare I say scare/force women into it) when there is no environment set up to support the effort. There should be plenty support for the effort such as lactation consultants at the hospital available at all times (not just one who is so burdened with women that you never get to see her), breast pumps should be free or greatly reduced in cost, home visits with lactation consultants should be provided!

World Breastfeeding Week 2010’s Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding focuses entirely on health care facilities and what providers can do to help women, around the world, initiate and establish successful breastfeeding relationships with their babies. The steps include ensuring a written breastfeeding policy communicated to the health care staff, training health care staff in the skills to implement the policy, helping mothers initiate breastfeeding within a half-hour of birth by showing them how to breastfeed, facilitating the establishment of support groups and more. According to the WBW these sorts of policies contribute to increased rates of breastfeeding initiation and exclusive breastfeeding.

So, unlike Bundchen’s initial proclamation about the creation of a law mandating breastfeeding – one more way society would exert control over women’s bodies, what these policies, initiatives and laws do are to help offer women more control over their bodies, health and lives, by giving them options to make the best decisions possible about their children’s health and lives, acknowledging the societal support needed to do so.

While it may take supermodels and superstar actresses to get society talking about breastfeeding, we can use this as a prime opportunity to build off of the limited dialogue these scenarios create and root the conversation in a global women’s rights/reproductive justice framework. We’re then working towards a time when women are making decisions about the ways in which we feed our babies, based on equality and justice, not fear, limited resources or lack of information.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • saltyc

    My impression about Bunchen’s initial statement and the reaction, is that it’s a cultural misunderstanding. Brazilians use hyperbole and exaggeration frequently to reflect how passionately someone feels about a subject. When she said there ought to be a law, she meant to show how important she thinks it is, and did not mean for it to be taken literally. Just my observation as a Brazilian here.

  • tonys

    My wife and I have 5 kids and she had a tremendous amount of trouble breastfeeding our first baby and we ended up giving up after about a month.  I don’t think she had enough support and know that I didn’t have anything to give her other than encouraging words and a shoulder to cry on.  She ended up pumping enough to feed triplets and that lead to other issues of discomfort and confusion.  I think any programs that encourage, enable and educate women with regard to breastfeeding are supporting a major area that is lacking currently.  Study after study show the benefits of breastfeeding, but our society in America is very “corporate” and “driven” with many working women feeling out of place if they try to breastfeed or pump with their time off.  It is changing, however and I hope it continues.

  • squirrely-girl

    Lots of women have a rocky start to breastfeeding, myself included, with one of the reasons often cited being lack of education/familiarity. As a society, it’s not something we see on a regular basis and this is unfortunate. If it hadn’t been for the support of my mother, mother-in-law, and other women who had made it through, I probably would have stopped after a couple of weeks. 

  • arekushieru

    Support?  Yes.  But it should also not make women feel they HAVE to do it all, in order to feel like women/mothers, working or otherwise.  Just a thought….

  • sweetchild92

    And people need to stop getting up in arms over women breastfeeding in public without a cover. I hear women who say they were flat out old to remve themselves from a public space and feed elsewhere. Whoa.

    And support for continued breastfeeding beyond 6 months…It’s a shame to see people say really, really awful things when they see an older toddler breastfeeding. Or a woman who was verbally harassed by her family because she was breastfeeding for more than year, and eventually stopped because their insistence on her stopping was too much :/

  • crowepps

    An acquaintance told me that she was asked by a FM employee to stop breastfeeding in PRIVATE in the women’s dressing room of the local Fred Meyer store, and since breastfeeding is legally protected in Alaska, I found the company’s website and sent them a letter reporting the incident.  They wrote back that it is Fred Meyer policy as well that women feeding their children are to be allowed every facility, that they were glad I had reported the sales associate because she had NO RIGHT to do that, and that they would make sure she was retrained.


    When women are hassled about breast feeding, they need to bring that to the attention of MANAGEMENT so that the employees can be told to cut it the heck out.

  • arekushieru

    I’ve had a friend whose two-year old was told to stop staring by a breastfeeding mother who WASn’t using a cover.  It’s NATural for two year olds to stare.  If the woman couldn’t even handle that, HOW was she expecting to handle other people who stare?  Because she is going to encounter that, no matter WHERE she goes, if she’s going to continue. (/devil’s advocate) 


    And, too, while I don’t see how one can object to uncovered public breastfeeding purely on the basis of the nakedness of the breasts, I can see how people would object to being *forced* to see breasts being used as an object, through someone ELse’s choice, especially if the former group isn’t immediately infringing on their rights.     

  • crowepps

    I can see how people would object to being *forced* to see breasts being used as an object, through someone ELse’s choice, especially if the former group isn’t immediately infringing on their rights.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “breasts being used as an object” when they are being put to their natural and intended use instead of being perversely reserved just for sexual titillation, but the experiences I have been told of were women who were attempting to be discreet, many of whom who WERE using a cover and seeking as much privacy as could be found, and who had people GO OUT OF THEIR WAY to come over and walk around where they could ‘see what they were doing’ and make comments about how ‘shocked’ they were.  Most of the people doing this were women, by the way.


    In addition, I myself was informed when I breastfed my son in 1971, very, VERY discreetly and always at home, that “people shouldn’t act like animals”. I rashly said, “but people ARE animals and that’s what breasts are FOR” and by her reaction you would have thought I had told her to drop dead. Some people connect sex, pregnancy and breast feeding with animal bodies and consequent death and they just CANNOT handle the reminder of mortality so they want all those subjects to disappear.


    I have no problem with people seeking the comfort of denial in their own lives, let them be willfully blind all they want, but they cross a line when they insist that nobody ELSE gets to do anything that reminds them they’re in denial.

  • arekushieru

    They are being used as an object whether it is natural or not, Crowepps.  I use a ball as an object even when I use it for it’s natural, intended use, after all.


    Nor does anything I said have something to do with connecting an animal’s body with consequent death.


    I would also like to point out that I specifically referred to sweetchild’s statement, in my post, where she said in public withOUT a cover.  I’m sorry, did you miss that part…?  ^^;  I’ll try to bold the statements, next time!  :)

  • crowepps

    They are being used as an object whether it is natural or not, Crowepps.  I use a ball as an object even when I use it for it’s natural, intended use, after all.

    I’m sorry to be so picky about one word, but an object is “any material thing”.  The BODY is an object, the breast is an object as a part of the body.  It sounds almost as if you’re saying that people might object to the breast because it is being used as a substitute for a bottle bottle and that it is offensive to do so because baby bottles are what is SUPPOSED to be used to feed babies.

    Nor does anything I said have something to do with connecting an animal’s body with consequent death.

    Well, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with what you said because it is what I said.  I was attempting to contribute my own insight.

    I would also like to point out that I specifically referred to sweetchild’s statement, in my post, where she said in public withOUT a cover. 

    Yes, I understood that, which is why I commented that apparently the ‘without a cover’ is not necessarily the trigger point, because some people get all freaked out even if a cover is used, the woman’s back is turned, or even when the mother is nursing in the privacy of a dressing room stall, or in complete and total privacy at home and they merely know that nursing happens totally outside of their presence.


    I’m not trying to argue with you or criticise your post at all – I am trying to take the conversation a little further based on both my own personal and some anecdotal information I happen to have.


    In my opinion, some people don’t want ANYBODY to breast feed, AT ALL, finding the baby’s better health irrelevant, because no matter where it happens or how the task is managed they think the whole idea is icky — breasts are SUPPOSED to be for sex and sex is nasty and dirty and feeding a baby with a breast is in their opinion ‘the equivalent of’ having some sort of perverse sex with the baby.  Which is why people get all hysterical about how ‘sick’ it is to be nursing into toddlerhood — they cannot overcome the unnatural idea that breast equals sex so breast feeding equals sex.



  • amie-newman

    for women to breastfeed in public in every state in the U.S. The law does not specify that women need to be covered or that women can only do it in certain spaces.

    This is a great run-down of breastfeeding laws in the U.S.

    The fact that a woman who was breastfeeding in public asked a young child not to stare is nothing to be angry about. If this woman was rude or short with the child, that’s inappropriate. And, frankly, as someone who breastfed her second child until she was three years old, anywhere and everywhere, I think if you’re going to breastfeed in public you should probably recognize that young children – especially young children who aren’t used to nursing – might be interested in what you’re doing. My god, young children stare at anything and everything because they’re curious – nothing wrong with that. But if this woman asked the young child politely, not to stare, then what’s the big deal?

    We’re at a place, in U.S. society, where we’re beginning to accept public nursing more and more but it’s a process. Many other societies are not nearly as uptight as we are about breastfeeding. Somehow we’re okay with huge billboards of half-naked women, bare breasts on the cover of fashion mags, extremely revealing outfits on teen pop stars and yet a woman nursing her baby in public is what we are up in arms about?!! It’s not that way in most other societies but the United States has promoted a warped and backwards view when it comes to women’s bodies. Women’s breasts aren’t objects. They aren’t separate from our bodies. But I can understand how some people still hold that view – it’s still about women’s bodies being broken up and co-opted. Women’s bodies, women’s faces, our hair, our stomachs, our breasts — these are all used to sell products, they are each exploited for different purposes. Breastfeeding is completely natural and it’s NOT just about feeding our babies with our breasts but about an entire body/heart/mind relationship.