By now everyone has seen the infamous photographs of two Air National Guard women breastfeeding their babies. The photographs were posted on this website on May 21st as part of blog post asking whether breastfeeding in uniform was acceptable and why I thought the Department of Defense should change the uniform regulations to accomodate military women who choose to breastfeed. In the ensuing days the photo went viral on Facebook and over Memorial Day weekend my blog post started getting massive hits. Then Tuesday morning the national media picked up the story and it spread like wildfire over the internet, tv and newspapers worldwide. Unfortunately the media skewed the facts behind the photos and the original message was lost.
And that message was one of support. The photographs were taken as part of breastfeeding campaign, designed to help both increase the rates of breastfeeding among civilian and military women at Fairchild Air Force base in Washington, and to offer support to all the military moms on base who already are breastfeeding. They were taken by Mom2Mom Breastfeeding Support Group and Byrnja Photography, and were going to be used for their World Breastfeeding Week celebrations later this summer. The coordinator of the group and the photographer wanted to PROMOTE, PROTECT and EDUCATE people about breastfeeding and provide support for the many untold and unseen mothers who are breastfeeding, everyday, in or out of uniform. Nothing more, nothing less. Research has shown that exposure to breastfeeding (through photos, stories, and in-person) positively affects and influences women’s breastfeeding intentions and success. In other words, mothers who see other mothers successfully breastfeeding, go on to be successful themselves (1,2). This is of particular importance in the military, where mothers breastfeeding are NOT seen and far too many women quit at 6 weeks because they think it is not possible to combine military service and breastfeeding. But more on that later. The idea behind the photographs was simply to show that breastfeeding can be done while serving one’s country.
But instead the photos created a huge controversy, and one that NONE of us were expecting. Of course the issue of breastfeeding in public was at the top of the list, regardless of whether the women were wearing a uniform or not. But the majority of the controversy seemed to revolve around the issue of breastfeeding in uniform and how it is against the regulations. What is interesting about this is that the military, in particular the Air Force, has gone on record to state that there is no actual regulation approving or forbidding women from breastfeeding in uniform (just like I said in my original post and the Breastfeeding in Uniform page):
DOD spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said: “The DOD policy on uniform doesn’t address that.”
Captain Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, gave a similar answer: “We actually don’t have a policy in place that addresses breastfeeding in uniform.”
However the Internet was a firestorm of comments swirling around the fact that any woman breastfeeding in uniform must unbutton, unzip and untuck her uniform in order to breastfeed and that is against regs as well as how breastfeeding in uniform is not professional looking and is not in keeping with honoring the uniform or maintaining military decorum. While I agree that having ones uniform unbuttoned and t-shirt untucked does make one ‘out-of-uniform’ and could be seen as against the regs in a very strict interpretation, it is also unavoidable when breastfeeding, and is easily fixed with a change to the uniforms and/or the uniform regulations. Make a breastfeeding uniform blouse (like the civilian shirts with slits) or a regulation cover-up. And incorporate into the regulations and policies already in place that breastfeeding women, when at a medical appointment with the baby or at the CDC on lunch break, are allowed to breastfeed in uniform. Pretty simple, right? As for professionalism and military decorum? Tell me how bottlefeeding a baby and or having a blanket with teddy bears on it covering you up is considered professional by any stretch of the imagination (or one of many of the unprofessional things I see men doing in uniform). And while I admit to having a ‘whoa’ moment when I first saw the photos, my first reaction was that neither of the women had their covers (hats) on while outside. Only then did I noticed the moms of twins with her shirt hiked up. I do agree that the mom of twins could have covered up and adjusted her uniform a bit more and they both should have been wearing their headgear. But it should be also noted that this is not how women in uniform look when they breastfeed their babies while waiting at the medical clinic or during their lunch break at the CDC. This was a staged photo shoot, remember? Furthermore, most of the time military mothers will not have their babies with them at the workplace. But during the occasional circumstance when it is necessary, mothers in uniform NEED some sort of black and white guidelines that spell out what, when, where and how they can breastfeed in uniform.
The other part of the controversy, and the one that the DoD and military brass were more concerned about, was the issue of whether the women were ‘promoting’ a cause. The official military stance on the photos is that women in the photo are in violation of using the uniform, breastfeeding or not, to promote a cause or ideology and how that is against military regulations. Apparently breastfeeding is a cause and/or an ideology, but I don’t have the time nor the space to delve further into this issue. Although I do have to wonder how promoting a healthy behavior, such as breastfeeding, is wrong. And whether the military sees bottle-feeding as a cause or an ideology (lots of photos of mothers and fathers out there in cyberspace and on Facebook bottle-feeding in uniform). See this wonderful post by PhD in Parenting and her take on this aspect of the issue. By the way, the women in the photo will not be reprimanded, however the incident will be used for ‘educational’ purposes.
More interesting to me were the repeated statements made during this controversy by the DoD about how the military DOES support breastfeeding. I beg to differ. While each of military branches may have a policy regarding breastfeeding, with the exception of the Army which doesn’t have one at all, they are not being enforced nor followed. Very few commands have a dedicated lactation room for mothers to use to pump, and instead they are forced to use restrooms, boiler rooms and supply closets. Due to operational commitments, the 15-30 minutes allotted by the policy for pumping breaks are often denied. And while each of the military branches offers a deferment from deployment ranging from 6-12 months, loopholes exists and mothers with breastfeeding infants are sent away before the allotted time. Get my drift here? And so yes, when a mother is with her baby at a medical appointment or on her lunch break at the CDC and her baby needs to eat, and she proceeds to breastfeed, in uniform, she can and often does get reprimanded. And that is NOT being supportive of breastfeeding. Which brings us back to the reason why the photos were taken in the first place and my reason for writing the original blog post. And that reason is supporting the mothers who choose to both serve their country and breastfeed their babies.
The DoD has a problem on it’s hands, but one that is easily fixed. Nearly 43% of women in military are mothers, and 22% of the children born to them are newborn to 2 years old. The vast majority of women in the military are in their prime childbearing years, creating a huge potential population of women in the military that might choose to breastfeed (3). In fact breastfeeding rates are up in the military as more health care providers are recommending it due to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement that children be breastfed exclusively for 6 months, and up to 12 months or as long as mutually desired (4). Furthermore the DoD is mandated to follow the Healthy People guidelines, of which a core component is breastfeeding. Unfortunately, breastfeeding duration rates are very low, and drop off precipitously at the 6 week mark and are virtually nonexistent at 6 months. Why? Because even though the military says it supports breastfeeding, in reality it does not. It is partly due to the reasons outlined in the paragraph above, but also because mothers in the military NEVER see another mother breastfeeding. Remember that study I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Breastfeeding mothers need support from the DoD, yes; but also from seeing other breastfeeding mothers around them, in uniform, to be successful. Just what those ‘controversial’ photos were trying to accomplish.
So it seems to me that it would be in the best interest of the Department of Defense to come up with a policy that is consistent across ALL the branches of the military regarding breastfeeding and pumping, but also one that specifically addresses breastfeeding in uniform. Because breastfeeding is not only a health and safety issue, but an economic issue for the DoD. Supporting breastfeeding by creating regulations regarding breastfeeding in uniform and also enforcing the current policies in place regarding breastfeeding and pumping will lead to increased morale and increased retention among mothers currently serving, as well as decreased health care costs (due to less illnesses among breastfed babies). Breastfeeding mothers lose weight and get in shape faster, and miss fewer duty days due to having a healthier baby, which results in increased mission readiness and less absenteeism (5, 6). Breastfeeding mothers in the military will feel supported in their efforts. It’s a win-win situation for the military and for mothers and babies. And it all comes back to supporting the breastfeeding mothers who are both serving their country and giving the best to their babies. Something that those beautiful photos were simply trying to do.
(Thank you to Joni Rae of JoniRae.com for the use of her illustration).
1. Angeletti, M.A. (2009). Breastfeeding mothers returning to work: Possibilities for information, anticipatory guidance and support from U.S. health care professionals. Journal of Human Lactation, 25, 226-232.
2. Meedya, s., Fahy, K., & Kable, A. (2010). Factors that positively influence breastfeeding duration to 6 months: A literature review. Women and birth: Journal of the Australian College of Midwives, 23(4), 135-145.
3. Defense, D. o. (2009a). Demographics 2009: Profile of the military community. Retrieved from http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/12038/Project Documents/MilitaryHOMEFRONT/QOL Resources/Reports/2009_Demographics_Report.pdf.
4. Pediatrics, American Academy of. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-841.
5. Bell, M., & Ritchie, E. (2003). Breastfeeding in the military: part I. Information and resources provided to service women. Mil Med, 168(10), 807-812.
6. Bell, M. R., & Ritchie, E. C. (2003). Breastfeeding in the military: Part II. Resource and policy considerations. Mil Med, 168(10), 813-816.