A few days ago, I read in the news that a mother nursing her child in a Costa Rican mall had been reprimanded by security personnel for breastfeeding in a public place. This prompted a series of expressions of discontent and protest among different groups and even led to comments by the country’s (female) president. The story culminated with a “nurse-in,” an initiative in which nursing mothers gathered together where the original incident took place in order to exercise their right to breastfeed in public. These sorts of episodes, which are repeated in different places and encourage a debate about public breastfeeding, arise from time to time and stir emotions. About five years ago, there was a similar incident where a mother was nursing her baby in the Museo del Prado in Spain. In 2012, it happened in another museum, this time in Taiwan, with the same results. And just last year, in Washington, D.C., where I live, a huge debate erupted when a college professor breastfed her baby while teaching a class.
The Costa Rican nurse-in reminded me of something I read a while back that really touched me. Some years ago, a zoo in Ohio celebrated the birth of a baby gorilla. The mother gorilla that gave birth to the baby had been born in captivity and, therefore, had never lived in a community with others of her kind. As such, she had never seen another female nurse. After giving birth to her first baby, the gorilla had no idea how to feed her and the baby died. Some time passed and the gorilla once again became pregnant. The zookeepers invited mothers from the breastfeeding support group known as La Leche League to visit the zoo and breastfeed their children near the gorilla’s cage. When the second gorilla baby was born, the mother successfully breastfed and it survived. This story suggests that breastfeeding is a learned behavior and that one of the ways this learning occurs is simply by watching other mothers in the act of nursing.
Breastfeeding is essential for the growth and healthy development of children. Furthermore, it plays an important role in the attachment between mother and child, the foundation of balanced socio-emotional development. The World Health Organization recommends at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding. After six months, complementary foods should be provided in addition to breast milk, up through two years of age. However, to succeed at breastfeeding, a mother needs the support of the health system, her family and the community.
We hope that stories like the one from Costa Rica continue raising awareness in our Latin American community in support of breastfeeding mothers and the enormous contribution they make, with great effort, to raise a generation of healthy children. And if this argument isn’t enough to respect a mother breastfeeding in public, remember the story of the gorilla in Ohio. It would likely do our species well if we, too, got used to seeing mothers breastfeeding.