Recently, a young mother on a Virgin Australia Airlines flight was kicked off the plane while it was prepping for takeoff, taxiing on the runway. Why? She was breastfeeding her 10-month-old son. The mother in question, Virginie Rutgers, said that she was holding a cover over her son as she nursed him when a cabin supervisor asked her to remove it for safety reasons.

“I was in a state of shock honestly,” she told Seven News. Rutgers explained that the cabin supervisor “started to raise his voice” and became “quite abusive.” When flight attendants didn’t give her an explanation as to why her behavior was wrong, she continued breastfeeding. This ultimately led to her being removed from the plane and met by police shortly thereafter.

This isn’t the first time a mother breastfeeding in public was discriminated against. In 2013, a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight offered to move a mother back a few rows, saying that it was “because there are kids on this flight.” The airline later noted that mothers should be more careful when choosing to breastfeed “because of the offense that may be taken by others.”

In another recent case outlined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a mother named Angela Ames was reportedly denied a place to pump breast milk when she returned to her job after a maternity leave. After protesting this, Ames was told to “just go home and be with your babies.” The ACLU notes that this is sex discrimination, even though the trial court held (in perhaps one of the silliest arguments ever made) that Angela’s coerced resignation from her job wasn’t sex discrimination, since men can technically lactate as well under certain circumstances.

Breastfeeding in public is often viewed as “offensive,” inappropriate, or gross. And in many cases, employers or airlines don’t have proper guidelines of how to deal or communicate with breastfeeding mothers.

“My guess is that these cases aren’t a result of miscommunication but rather lack of communication to begin with,” Diana West, director of media relations at La Leche League International, a nonprofit dedicated to educate women about and promote breastfeeding, told Yahoo Parenting. “If a woman doesn’t comply with airline instructions, it’s technically a security issue, but breastfeeding shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.”

More women should breastfeed their children not only because of the copious amount of research that have proven its health benefits, but also because it’s important to create an accepting environment in public and work spaces where women can feel safe to do so. We need to support an upward trend in breastfeeding for all the benefits explained below, of course, but also because breastfeeding is in essence a reproductive right that all women deserve to have. Women should have a right to breastfeed in public without discrimination, even if they choose to feed their babies infant formula.

Breastfeeding has been a natural part of human existence for thousands of years, but so has bottle feeding and wet nursing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Breastfeeding's History

If breastfeeding is so natural and essential to reproduction, then how and why did such a negative stigma come about?

While breastfeeding has always been a part of human existence, ancient civilizations also had to find ways to save the lives of babies if mothers were, for whatever reason, unable to breastfeed. Wet nursing, which involves one woman breastfeeding another woman’s child, became popular in many societies, particularly if a mother was too ill to breastfeed or had died during childbirth. As time went on, wet nurses, who were often women in lower social and economic positions, would nurse children of women in higher social positions. Thus breastfeeding began to be considered too “common” for royalty.

Soon, the notion of mothers breastfeeding their own children came to be known as a practice undertaken by the lower, common classes. Only peasants who couldn’t afford to feed their babies formula or hire wet nurses would do it. Fast-forward to the 1880s up until the 1960s, and there was a huge decline in the number of women who breastfed their own children; the practice was replaced by infant formula. As a result, breastfeeding was branded and stigmatized as an old-fashioned practice among poor and uneducated people.

“Society’s negative view of wet nursing, combined with improvements of the feeding bottle, the availability of animal’s milk, and advances in formula development, gradually led to the substitution of artificial feeding for wet nursing,” one report on the history of infant feeding says, also noting that infant formula companies pushed advertising so much that it had a huge impact on society’s view of breastfeeding.

Throughout history, there have been times when doctors and writers advocated for a woman breastfeeding her own child, claiming that it would be better for the child than a wet nurse. But wet nursing remained a popular alternative in addition to feeding bottles, which had also been around since ancient times, and infant formula.

While breastfeeding began to gain more popularity in the 1960s (and has recently risen, with 77 percent of mothers breastfeeding their own children, according to a 2013 CDC report), the stigma still remains, particularly in public and work spaces. And while laws allowing women to breastfeed in public do exist, many times they’re not enough.

Copious amounts of research have outlined the benefits of breastfeeding; it mainly protects the baby's immune system and prevents a variety of disorders from allergies to diabetes and obesity. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The Benefits

Based on heaps of research, there is no doubt that breastfeeding is better for both the mother and child than infant formula.

For one thing, it’s healthier. One recent study from Henry Ford Hospital found that babies who are breastfed actually have much stronger immune systems than those who aren’t. Instead of keeping babies in a sterile environment and preventing them from being exposed to bacteria, which can be detrimental to their immune systems, breastfeeding allows for “exposure to these microorganisms” which helps “stimulate the immune system,” said Dr. Christine Cole Johnson, an author of the study. It’s the mix of cells, hormones, and antibodies from the mother’s breast milk that is protective to the child, preventing the development of a variety of disorders like allergies, childhood leukemia, obesity, type 2 diabetes, ear infections, eczema, and diarrhea.

Another recent study out of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that breastfed babies developed stronger stomachs, and the process prepared them more for eating solid foods, too.

“This study provides yet more support for recommendations by the World Health Organization and others to breastfeed exclusively during the first six months of life,” Dr. Amanda Thompson, an author of the study, said in the press release. “We can see from the data that including formula in an infant’s diet does change the gut bacteria even if you are also breastfeeding. Exclusive breastfeeding seems to really smooth out the transition to solid foods.”

Interestingly enough, in addition to providing the infant with greater immune protection, breastfeeding has been shown to increase a child’s IQ. According to one study, babies who were breastfed for 12 months grew up to have a higher IQ, complete more education, and make more money compared to babies who were breastfed for less than one month. Scientists still aren’t sure why this is the case; it’s possible that because breast milk is rich in long-chain saturated fatty acids, it can contribute significantly to brain development.

On top of all this, breastfeeding is much safer than infant formula as it provides babies with better nutrition and makes it easier for them to absorb all the protein, calcium, and iron in it. Infant formula, on the other hand, contains higher levels of arsenic, according to one recent study.

It’s important to raise awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding, and also the notion that it truly is a woman’s reproductive right. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires employers to “provide reasonable break times” for a mother to nurse her child up to one year after birth, and requires them to provide a safe place, shielded from view, that can be used by the employee. Yet, the stigma remains and makes it difficult for women to breastfeed at work or in public without some form of discrimination, no matter how subtle. It’s up to us to change that view in society, and provide a healthier alternative to infant formula to mothers and children across the country.