A study conducted at Montana State University finds that even though breastfeeding is healthy, cheap and beneficial to mother and child, there is a strong bias against nursing mothers among both men and women.
Jessi L. Smith, psychology professor at MSU, found that participants in three studies thought nursing mothers were not as mentally competent as other groups of women and said they’d be less likely to hire breastfeeding mothers for a job.
The results of Smith’s study were published this summer in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Smith and her co-authors questioned MSU students in three double-blind studies about how they perceived breastfeeding moms’ competence and hire-ability compared to non-breastfeeding people.
In all three studies, the students rated breastfeeding women as significantly less competent in general and particularly less competent in math.
Smith, who became a mother in 2007 after the study was under way, chose to breastfeed her child and said it’s not surprising that new mothers considering breastfeeding are often daunted just thinking about the task.
“It’s the 21st century,” she said. “We have come a long way today in educating ourselves about the health and economic benefits of nursing to both mother and child, but we have done nothing to talk about the fact that breast milk actually comes from the breast and not bottles.”
Promoting breastfeeding to increase the number of nursing mothers would help stem the bias by letting people see that it isn’t a rare thing, Smith said.
“Right now, it’s not surprising that nursing mothers feel isolated,” she said.
Employers could also do their part to encourage breastfeeding by providing a private place for mothers to nurse their children since many mothers are required to return to work just six weeks after the birth of their babies.
“You can’t establish a good breastfeeding bond in six weeks and make a good assessment if breastfeeding will work for you and your child,” she said.
She pointed out that health organizations, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health, stress the economic and health benefits of nursing and advise that breastfeeding protects babies, benefits mothers’ health and society.
Smith has taken her research a step further with an INBRE-funded grant to study actual social psychological barriers to breastfeeding mothers. She has collected data from new mothers in Billings, Bozeman, Kalispell, Miles City and Missoula. She is now analyzing the data and plans to publish the results early next year.
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