World Breastfeeding Week was unfortunately marked this year by a focus on an off-the-cuff remark by Brazilian-American supermodel Gisele Bündchen that there should be a worldwide law forcing mothers to breastfeed their babies for six months.
As ridiculous as the remark may seem, the supermodel’s desire to see other mothers breastfeed for up to six months in fact aligns with the strong scientific evidence of the health and other benefits breastfeeding brings for both mother and baby.
The newsworthiness of the story was likely based more on Gisele’s supermodel status than the reality that people might care what she thinks about breastfeeding. After all, is anybody really interested in what a supermodel does with her breasts? Well ok, that’s probably not quite the right question to ask, but Gisele’s remark about breastfeeding does raise another and perhaps more important question about the impact of others on the decision to breastfeed or not. Surely this is a personal decision that should not be influenced by the opinions or actions of Gisele or anyone else?
In a Western culture that reveres freedom and autonomy as dominant values, personal choice is held up as an inviolable right. However, despite our desire to run our own lives just the way we like, we actually live in relationship with others, in societies and communities. Our behaviours are influenced by, and in turn influence those of others living around us. Friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances all are influenced by what we do ourselves and vice versa. The impressive US Framingham Heart Study, now running for over 60 years, has informed much recent thinking about the influence of those around us on our behaviours. This study has looked at the effect of social connections on a range of traits and behaviours, finding that outcomes as diverse as smoking, obesity, loneliness, and happiness are all impacted upon by these characteristics in those with whom we interact.
Our own research at Deakin University’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research has shown this to be true for breastfeeding too. In our study of 500 new mothers, recently published in the international journal Pediatrics, we found that those in new parent groups where most mothers were still breastfeeding at group formation (about 6 weeks) were far more likely to continue breastfeeding to the recommended six months than those in groups where fewer mothers were still breastfeeding when the group was formed. The influence of the peer group on breastfeeding continuation was clear, and was independent of other factors such as socioeconomic status, maternal age and employment. As much as we might like to think decisions about breastfeeding are a personal choice and indeed don’t affect others around us, humans are social creatures, and our behaviours are not acted out in a silo of our own making.
While recognising that the decision to breastfeed must be a personal decision based on personal circumstance, as well as the fact that there are some mothers who don’t get a choice about whether to breastfeed or not, it does appear that we may be naïve if we think that the decision to breastfeed or not only affects mother and baby.
Since the evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding are clear, and since we now know that breastfeeding behaviour affects the likelihood of other mums in the peer group continuing to breastfeed to six months and beyond, in the wake of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week I would prefer the focus to be on the positive influence Gisele is providing as a breastfeeding mother to her peers around the world, rather than her unfortunate comments for a women’s magazine. Given the many barriers to breastfeeding, women surely need as much encouragement as they can get.