Breasts are for Babies? Perceptions of Breastfeeding in Italy

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Before the seventies, breastfeeding was the norm in Italy. All babies were breastfed either by their mothers, even though in some cases these women were too poor to have a good enough diet to feed their babies, or by other mothers when the mother had to return to work in the country. Babies who were breastfed by other mothers were considered to be something like step-children to these women, and they called these wet nurses “Mamma Filomena,” “Mamma Maria,” etc., whereas their moms were just called “Mamma.”

 

 

The feminist revolution paralleled the invasion of the first multinational companies shortly after 1968 and in the years following. This combination was deadly for breastfeeding in Italy. Nursing began to be regarded as backwards, old fashioned and something an educated woman would not choose. Economic differences are very strong between northern, central and southern Italy and as a result, perceptions around breastfeeding and birth varied regionally. Because Northern Italy is wealthier and more industrial than the South, this anti-breastfeeding wave spread first in the North.

 

 

Doctors exacerbated erroneous perceptions around breastfeeding and started spreading misinformation about its’ alleged negative effects on maternal health, i.e., the mothers’ vision would decrease, their teeth would decay and they would gain weight. Simultaneously, giving birth was becoming a very medical procedure, especially in the North. This led Italy to have a caesarean section rate of 40% today. Since the process has now peaked in the North, we are now starting to return to natural births. In the South however, where medical intervention arrived later, caesareans are now flourishing at 60% to 80% in some parts.

 

 

Although I was born in Central Italy in 1970, where breastfeeding was the norm, my family lived in the North, and my mother tells me she stopped nursing after five to six months because she felt she had done more than enough. The pressure you felt about how backwards you were by nursing was such that getting to even five months was a lot—probably like breastfeeding a toddler today. I have met very few people my age, born in the North, who were breastfed at all. In the hospital, doctors told midwives to wrap the mothers’ breasts and administer a medicine to interrupt milk production. When women tell you about that experience and see you nursing, you can tell it hurts somewhere in the bottom of their hearts.

 

 

I don’t know when things picked up again with breastfeeding, but today breastfeeding in public in Italy is not as problematic as it is in the U.S. It is unlikely that you are asked to stop breastfeeding in the airplane, in a train or in a restaurant. However, episodes are beginning to arise. Last winter a mother was in a bar where she was having a breakfast cappuccino (bars in Italy are traditionally where you drink cappuccino in the morning) and the owner asked her to nurse outside. This story appeared all over the television and newspapers and everyone condemned the bar owner. But this was perhaps the result of only a few women calling the press to express their opinions, while many others kept silent and swallowed their uneasiness.

 

 

An older person generally smiles with approval when they see you nursing in the bus and in front of the school, but Italian moms on the blogs are reporting increased episodes of disapproving looks or distasteful comments by younger people. One mother stated that she was asked to nurse her two-year-old toddler elsewhere during the nursery school party “because it would disturb other babies.” It was clear that the one being disturbed was the teacher and not the babies who gathered round, very curious to find out what their little friend was doing so close to her mother.

 

 

The funny, or even annoying, part is that Italy is a country where topless sun bathing is common in almost any beach and in many pools. My own mother used to sunbathe topless some 20 years ago, when she already had four kids. Naked breasts are often seen on TV and at dinner-time and are used to advertise deodorants, bottled waters, soaps and what not. Yet breastfeeding is looked upon more maliciously than breasts and butts in super skimpy bikinis in TV shows for the whole family. As our society becomes more and more sex oriented, where sex is used to increase sales and garner an audience, people forget that primary purpose of breasts is for babies’ nourishment rather than sexual objects.

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