by Robyn Roche-Paull
June 06, 2012
A photograph of Air National Guard women in uniform breastfeeding their babies recently circulated the web, appearing everywhere from unknown blogs to national news sites. The photographs are part of a campaign by Mom2Mom that is designed to raise awareness of breastfeeding in the military.
In an effort to lend her support to the campaign, Robyn Roche-Paull, author of Breastfeeding In Combat Boots, posted one of the photographs (used here with permission) on her book’s Facebook page, which has over 3,000 followers (many of whom are active duty military mothers) and invited readers to share their thoughts on her personal blog regarding the photo and the issue of breastfeeding in uniform. The photos went viral over Memorial Day weekend and a nationwide outcry ensued.
We invited Roche-Paull, a U.S. Navy Veteran and IBCLC who breastfed her son for over a year while on active duty, to share her thoughts on the obstacles breastfeeding mothers in the military face and why policy change is needed now.
Aside from the typical consternation over breastfeeding in public, the images ignited controversy over whether breastfeeding in uniform was appropriate or even allowed. Were these women violating military regulations? Disgracing and/or dishonoring the uniform? Behaving “unprofessionally”?
Some military personnel cautioned that the photographs threaten gender equality and undermine military authority. According to military spokespersons, however, the “real” problem with the photographs is whether the women were using the uniform to promote a cause. Capt. Keith Kosik, spokesman for the Washington National Guard recently explained, “The uniform was misused. That’s against regulations. I want to be very, very clear about this. Our issue is not, nor has it ever been, about breastfeeding. It has to do with honoring the uniform and making sure it’s not misused. I can’t wear my uniform to a political rally, to try to sell you something, or push an ideology. That was our point of contention.”
The U.S. Air Force has made it clear that the women involved will not be reprimanded. However, the incident will be used for educational purposes to teach other personnel about the regulations surrounding the use of uniform to promote a cause or ideology.
Whether breastfeeding can be construed as a cause is a debate for another day. One could argue that the military uses the uniform to promote numerous activities and causes and this particular cause garnered national attention because it involved a central part of the female anatomy—breasts.
According to the Department of Defense (DOD) spokeswoman Eileen Lainez, “The DOD policy on uniform doesn’t address that.” And Captain Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, agreed, telling U.S. News & World Report, “We actually don’t have a policy in place that addresses breastfeeding in uniform.” However, a woman breastfeeding in uniform must unbutton, unzip and/or untuck her uniform top in order to breastfeed, actions that do violate existing uniform regulations, making this a very grey area for military mothers. How might these regulations be modified to better accommodate the needs of breastfeeding mothers in uniform and their children? Simply change the uniform and/or the uniform regulations. It would be easy enough to make a breastfeeding uniform blouse with concealed slits and/or a regulation cover-up. It would also be fairly easy to incorporate into the regulations and policies specific guidelines regarding when, where, and how nursing mothers can breastfeed in uniform.
The Department of Defense has repeatedly said in the aftermath of the release of the photographs that the military supports and encourages breastfeeding. But its actions suggest otherwise. While four of the five military services (Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy) boast a breastfeeding policy, the Air Force and the Navy have the only comprehensive policy and the Army has no policy. There are a limited number of commands that offer lactation rooms (a private place where personnel can express and collect breast milk), and even fewer commands that provide breastfeeding education and support services. Existing policies are seldom enforced and women are often told by their superiors to stop breastfeeding.
Nearly 43 percent of military women are mothers, and 22 percent of military children are less than 2 years old. Most military women are of childbearing age, making the potential population of breastfeeding women in uniform significant. Breastfeeding rates among military women continue to rise, as health care providers, in response to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement on breastfeeding urge women to breastfeed. Initiation rates are estimated at 65 percent, but the majority of military women discontinue breastfeeding by six weeks, at which point military moms must report to duty.
All women working outside the home face numerous challenges, but those challenges are compounded for the women in uniform who are denied the chance to breastfeed when picking up or dropping off their child at the base child care center or while waiting at the medical clinic for their well-child check ups. Why? Because they are in uniform. Given the many roadblocks, it’s no wonder women in uniform breastfeed for less than six weeks. It’s easy to see how a policy change allowing breastfeeding in uniform could make a huge difference in the breastfeeding rates of military moms.
How to support breastfeeding mothers in the military
The goal of the campaign by Mom2Mom was to use these breastfeeding images to protect, promote, and educate civilians and military about breastfeeding. Sadly, that mission was lost in the controversy.
The challenges faced by breastfeeding women in uniform underscore the need for such a breastfeeding campaign. Rather than criticizing organizations like Mom2Mom, we should be applauding their efforts. Data show that exposure to breastfeeding via pictures, articles, face-to-face interactions influences women’s intentions as well as breastfeeding success. In other words, seeing is believing.
It’s time for the Department of Defense to adopt a comprehensive breastfeeding policy that is consistent across all branches of the military and then to take an even bolder step—enforce the policy!
Breastfeeding is not only a public health issue, it is an economic issue. A comprehensive policy would increase morale, increase retention, and decrease health care costs in the military. It’s a win-win-win.
We have a responsibility as a nation to support the women in uniform who serve our country. They are giving their best to us. It’s time we helped them give their ‘breast’ to their babies.
Robyn Roche-Paull is a U.S. Navy veteran and author of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding in the Military. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Maternal Child Health in 2006 and currently works as an IBCLC in a private practice helping many military women navigate the unique challenges of breastfeeding while on active duty. You can read more about her personal experiences on baby gooroo here.
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