In Shannon Dowdall-Smith's opinion, women should be allowed to breastfeed their children anywhere, whether it's at the mall, in church or at a restaurant.
But the Sudbury and District Health Unit employee said when she was breastfeeding her young children a few years ago while living in the United States, she was often met with hostility.
Some people gave her dirty looks and even made comments, even though, in her opinion, she was just feeding her children lunch.
“I was told when I was nursing to go in the bathroom,” said Dowdall-Smith, a foundational standards specialist with the health unit. “But I thought 'No, I can't do that.'
That's why it's important to “normalize” breastfeeding in public so that “nobody would ever give it a second thought,” she said.
Breastfeeding mothers received a vote of confidence from the Sudbury and District Board of Health at their Jan. 17 meeting.
The board passed a motion to implement a Baby Friendly designation for the region, protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding.
“All 36 health units across the province are required to work toward and eventually achieve this designation,” said Sudbury and District Medical Officer of Health Dr. Penny Sutcliffe.
“What that recognizes is basically the importance of promoting breastfeeding. This baby-friendly designation is basically a roadmap to get there.”
Information from the health unit's recent Infant Feeding Survey, which examines the factors behind women's decisions surrounding breastfeeding, was also presented at the meeting.
One statistic shows that mothers who breastfeed in public settings are more likely to continue to breastfeed their children for a long duration.
Dowdall-Smith, who was involved in analyzing information from the survey, said this statistic can be interpreted in various ways.
However, she suspects those women willing to breastfeed in public are the ones most committed to the idea of breastfeeding.
“Maybe it's telling us that if you're comfortable breastfeeding in public, then maybe you're more comfortable breastfeeding in general, and maybe you just have that personality that you're going to do it no matter what anybody thinks.”
The Infant Feeding Survey involved telephone interviews with 690 mothers who gave birth between July 2010 and April 2011 in the region.
Data was collected at three separate points in time during the child's first year of life – at two months, six months and 12 months.
While a summary report of the Infant Feeding Survey has been released, the full research report won't be available until late February.
The survey also reveals that mothers who breastfeed for the longest period of time tend to have fewer risk factors in their lives such as an abusive partner, be over the age of 35, have a university education, had decided to breastfeed before becoming pregnant and had attended a prenatal class.
While 86 per cent of those surveyed at least attempted breastfeeding after their child's birth, by the time their child was a year old, only 25 per cent were still breastfeeding.
I was told when I was nursing to go in the bathroom.
foundational standards specialist, Sudbury and District Health Unit
Beyond the importance of making public places more breastfeeding-friendly, the health unit can garner several other lessons from the survey, Dowdall-Smith said.
It's becoming evident that the health unit should provide more education to young women about the importance of breastfeeding, so they learn that “breast is best,” she said.
Sutcliffe said the benefits of breastfeeding are huge, including reduced obesity rates and improved immunity. Then there's the fact that it's much less expensive to breastfeed than to purchase formula.
“It's not just a feel-good thing to do,” she said. “It has demonstrated positive physical as well as emotional health benefits, not only when you are breastfeeding, but for life.”
Breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months is the best thing for infants' health, according to a 2007 joint statement by several Canadian health agencies, including Health Canada and the Canadian Pediatric Society.
Toddlers can also be breastfed for two years or more, as long as they're also receiving other types of food.
Of course, some women — for good reason — are not able to breastfeed their babies, and it's important to support these women and not to stigmatize them, she said.
Julia Ritchie, a public health nurse with the health unit, said there's a number of steps the health unit must follow when it comes to achieving the Baby Friendly designation.
This includes providing more information about the importance of breastfeeding to health-care providers, increasing breastfeeding education for pregnant women and their families and increasing community support for breastfeeding.
Ritchie said the health unit already does several things to support breastfeeding mothers.
“One of them is the breastfeeding challenge,” she said.
“We do it every single year, where moms come together and breastfeed in public together.
“What this does is it lets us do some advertisement to raise awareness about breastfeeding in public, that they're allowed to do that and that everybody should feel comfortable doing it.”
The health unit has also created a support group for breastfeeding mothers.
“We find that support is a really big piece on having moms exclusively breastfeed for longer,” Ritchie said.
“It creates the support system for them in other mothers who are breastfeeding so they can bounce ideas off them and even just have friendly conversation with other people who are doing the same thing.”
In the end, the health unit wants Sudbury to be a breastfeeding-friendly place.
“What we want to do is have a place where it is friendly for them, where there are supports for them, and they have the knowledge to make those decisions,” Ritchie said.
“If moms choose to artificially feed their babies, we're still going to support them, but we just want to make sure everybody has the knowledge about the decision they're making.”