I recently met with a Huffington Post columnist at Howard Plaza Hotel in Taipei. She is writing a book that tells the story of how culture has influenced the breastfeeding controversy. She asked me what is it like to breastfeed in Taiwan.
I thought carefully when answering her question. Today’s Taiwan seems to be a very breastfeeding friendly society: Taiwanese government adopted International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitute in 1992 and then started to promote Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative in 1998. Today, there are nursing rooms literary everywhere in Taiwan. From big cities to small towns, nursing rooms can be found in government buildings, in shopping malls, in libraries, in banks, in metro stations, in parks, and in restaurants.
I was born and raised in the 1980’s Taiwan. When I was growing up I had never seen or heard of anyone breastfeeding. In 1989, only 5.8% of newborns in Taiwan were breastfed. But currently in Taiwan, 72% newborns under 1 month old are exclusively breastfed. Looks like the government’s work of promoting breastfeeding has been very successful.
But, still, I feel that something is missing. Being born and raised in Taiwan, I gave birth and am now raising my own child in America. My son is two years old, still being breastfed. For the past 12 years I have been calling America home; during the past two years I have visited Taiwan twice with my little one. And if anyone asks if I feel more comfortable to breastfeed in Taiwan, the answer is definitely no.
Why? Some might ask. Aren’t there nursing rooms literary everywhere in Taiwan?
Ironically, that is exactly the problem. Seriously, do we really need breastfeeding rooms everywhere, even in parks and restaurants? Can’t our breastfed baby dine with us by the table or on the picnic blanket?
A while ago there was a breastfeeding incident that widely caught the Taiwanese media’s attention. A breastfeeding mother asked a waitress to arrange a booth that was not being used for her to nurse her baby when dining at the famous Ding Tai Fung restaurant. Her request was turned down because, according to the restaurant, “all the booths were being used at that time.” The upset mother called up the media, claiming that she was being discriminated against. Ding Tai Fung was then burned by the public opinion.
Hearing the story, my first reaction was, why did the mother even feel that she had to ask before nursing her baby? And why did she feel that she had to nurse her baby in a booth that was not being used, but not right at her table? Who is the one that felt uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public…the public or the mother herself?
It did not take long for me to find the answer.
One day when we were in a library in Yilan, my then 18-month-old started to cry for milk. I found the nursing room, but it was locked. So we nursed on a bench in an atrium area of the library. Soon a library staff member approached to me, kindly reminding me that there was a nursing room nearby, where I should “feel much more comfortable.” I told her that the room was locked. She said that that’s because another mother is using that room. I asked, “So the capacity of the nursing room is like, one person?”
She explained that there were plenty of spaces and chairs in the nursing room, but breastfeeding is “such a private thing that mothers usually don’t want to share the nursing room with another mother.” Then she nicely suggested me to “stand in line” for that nursing room.
I was amused. What a waste! We have spacious nursing rooms everywhere but only one mother can use the room at a time? And instead of finding somewhere else to nurse our baby, we have to stand in line for the nursing room?
I think I have a pretty obvious answer by now. Apparently, neither the public nor the mothers feel comfortable about breastfeeding in public. Those ubiquitous nursing rooms seem to be protecting nursing moms, but in fact, it shows that breastfeeding is something that the society considered “abnormal,” something that needs to be hidden and can only be done in a locked room.
It’s unfortunate. I am not saying that we need no nursing rooms. Instead, I suggest that nursing rooms should be something that moms can “choose to”, not “have to” use.
We stayed in Taiwan for three weeks and then returned home to San Diego, California. That weekend when we were breastfeeding in the nursing room in the beautiful Balboa Park, my little one stopped sucking and pointed to the door, “out.”
“You wanna dine out? Sure.” We moved to the lawn where another mother was nursing her baby. We smiled at each other.
What has your experience with breastfeeding in public been?
Photo: A poster outside of the nursing room at Yilan City Hall in Taiwan. Credit to To-wen Tseng.