Hayek Breastfeeding: Why Do We Care?

Health workers say the USA is unique in its breastfeeding issues.

February 12, 2009, 1:16 PM

Feb. 12, 2009— -- A video of Salma Hayek breastfeeding another woman's baby boy in Sierra Leone has ignited a week's worth of controversy on the Internet.

The video clip generated millions of Web hits along with a slew of passionate comments by people including women who were moved to tears by Hayek's generosity, some calling Hayek disloyal to her own breastfeeding daughter and others who responded with a simple, "That is so wrong."

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But why does America care so much?

"We're messed up," said Dr. Miriam Labbok, a physician, professor and director for the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute.

Labbok has traveled the world working with nursing mothers, public health experts and breast milk banks. Based on her research and personal experience, Labbok said she's noticed that the United States has an extreme view of breastfeeding compared to many other countries.

"We've lost the concept that breastfeeding is normal and human in the United States," said Labbok. "In most of the world, it's [nursing someone else's baby is] as common as breastfeeding" one's own.

"In many African cultures, it is not just a nice thing to do, it's expected -- although it's mostly within families," she said. "Anybody who is able to lactate and who does not feed a crying child is considered not doing the right thing."

Labbok met Hayek during her work with the United Nations Children's Fund, commonly known by the acronym UNICEF.

"She's a generous woman," said Labbok, who guessed that Hayek likely asked the baby's mother for permission.

Scientifically, Labbok said it is a natural reaction for a lactating woman's body to "let down" milk when she hears any crying baby.

How Common Is Cross-Breastfeeding?

However, there can be rare health concerns to the practice of wet nurses. Labbok said that while there's little chance of a baby passing a disease to a nursing woman, it is known that some diseases, such as HIV, can be passed from nursing woman's milk to the child.

That concern is one reason why the numbers of women cross-nursing in the United States aren't very well known, said Labbok.

"There's just so much concern about spreading disease in the U.S. that you run a [legal] risk to encourage it as a doctor," said Labbok.

However, anecdotes about the practice abound. Self-proclaimed "mommy blogger" Carrie Lauth learned that she was breastfed by her friend's mother in a time of need.

"I think the number one thing is the culturally misunderstanding that we have in the Western world is of breastfeeding being a sexual thing, almost like she's being unfaithful to her baby," said Lauth, of Natural Moms Talk Radio.

"I'm watching the video and just remembered that I myself was cross-nursed when I was five days old," she said.

At the time, Lauth's mother had to go back to the hospital with complications from birth.

"My dad had to take care of me, and he was terrified because I would not take the bottles," said Lauth.

Luckily, her mother's friend who was nursing came over and helped out.

"That was the only food that I had for two days," said Lauth. "I think it's a lot more common that we even realize."

But even the rates of mother-to-child breastfeeding aren't that high in the United States.

It's true that some women physically won't produce enough milk for breastfeeding, but Labbok said that the number is lower than the general public thinks -- at least one in 20 women, if not less.

Labbok pointed to short hospital stays, short maternity leave and a lot of cultural influences as a cause for the rates. Some non-nursing mothers use breast milk banks, but the majority just use infant formula.

Labbok said 75 percent of mothers initiate breastfeeding, another 25 percent turn to formula within two days of birth.

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