The controversy over the Berjuan nursing doll underscores that Americans still have a long way to go to accept breastfeeding as normal. If little Maggie wants to play with her baby doll, she will want to feed it somehow, won't she? Traditionally, baby dolls come with little toy baby bottles. But what makes feeding your baby doll with a toy bottle OK, and breastfeeding your doll not OK?
The toy bottles do not send a neutral message, after all. They send the wrong message -- that bottle feeding is normal and desired, at a time public health advocates and major medical organizations and our own Surgeon General are trying to convey the message that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby, and that not doing so incurs multiple increased health risks to children and their mothers alike. We face an epidemic of childhood obesity, so why is it OK for young girls to feed their dolls a food that is linked with higher rates of all kinds of health problems?
Critics worry that it's inappropriate for young girls to pretend to breastfeed, that it calls attention to their -- gasp -- breasts. But anyone who has spent time around young kids and their environs knows that it's fortunately very common for young girls to see women breastfeeding. Go to any park or playground in much of the United States, and chances are you will see women breastfeeding. Have a younger sibling? Chances are, you will see your own mother breastfeeding.
Although it's natural, breastfeeding is a learned skill both for mother and baby. Female chimpanzees who grow up in isolation find they don't know how to feed or care for their infants after they give birth, as evidenced in the recent tragic case of baby Nori at the in North Carolina Zoo, who had be removed from her mother and "hand-reared" because the mother chimp didn't know how to nurse or hold her -- even though the baby chimp nursed well when her mother was anesthetized. Indeed lack of breastfeeding role models is one of the many obstacles that new mothers face in this country which booby-traps their success. It's one reason that just 22% of infants in the US are breastfeeding at one year, despite the universal medical recommendation to do so.
Children's toys, after all, reflect our cultural norms in many ways. Years ago, that cultural norm was bottle-feeding. Now, seventy-five percent of mothers initiate breastfeeding, although many quickly give up in the first few weeks. Unless little Maggie is planning to let her dolly go hungry, she's going to want to do what the grown-up moms do, and nurse her baby.
Let's let our little girls nurse their dollies. It's OK that they realize that one day, they will have breasts to nurture their own babies. And please, let the toy baby bottles go the way of 8-track tapes and black-and-white TVs.