Rebecca N. Ruhlen, 44, is a strong supporter of breast-feeding and cites research that shows it’s medically superior. Among other things, the U.S. Government notes research that says breast milk is rich in nutrients and antibodies and that breast milk is easier than formula for most babies to digest.
The adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at Davidson College became an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in 2010 and received her doctorate in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Washington in 2007.
Ruhlen began attending breast-feeding groups in 2001, when she was pregnant with her son. Since 2006, she has volunteered as a mother-to-mother breastfeeding counselor, first with La Leche League International and currently with Breastfeeding USA.
From her advocacy experience with these groups, Ruhlen said there are entire books and studies devoted to medical research and evidence, and she believes breast-feeding is medically superior to bottle feeding. But even putting science aside, she said there are still plenty of factors that support breast-feeding.
Ruhlen said she believes more critical analysis needs to be done on who benefits financially by “undermining breast-feeding and selling formula. No one gets rich promoting or supporting breast-feeding,” she said.
“Certain corporations and institutions in our society profit handsomely from … separating mothers and babies and pushing formula,” she said. “The rest of society benefits when more mothers can breast-feed successfully and happily.”
Ruhlen said it may be true that breast-feeding isn’t free, “But no form of infant care and nurture is free. Mothers who wean in order to work for pay earn more money than mothers who don’t,” Ruhlen said. “But they also have to pay for child care, formula and more doctor visits and medical care.”
Ruhlen said a more beneficial and useful discussion to have in regard to breast-feeding would be how society can shift some of the costs of infant care and nurture off mothers without disrupting breast-feeding. She believes the U.S. should join the many other countries that provide federally mandated paid maternity leave.
“If we want to support breast-feeding while also protecting women’s income, we need to talk about paid maternity leave, as well as better lactation support in the workplace,” she said.
Breast-feeding needs to be addressed as a societal issue – as more than three-fourths of new mothers in the U.S. choose to breastfeed. However, many stop sooner than they intended because of challenges they encounter, Ruhlen said.
“Mothers don’t really need to keep hearing why breast-feeding is important,” she said. “Rather, women who choose to breast-feed need the people around them to help them, or at least not sabotage, their breast-feeding.”
Ruhlen said the people who most need to hear why breast-feeding is important are health care providers, employers, family members and the community at large, who may get offended when they see mothers breast-feeding. Ruhlen noted that influential people like politicians and policy makers also need the information.