When my younger son was four-months old he came down with the H1N1 flu virus and had to be hospitalized. As luck would have it, I too came down with the virus and was essentially bedridden for the better part of two weeks. This meant that I couldn't get to the hospital in order to breastfeed Luca. I tried pumping but as the days went by and I had less and less energy, I had to face the fact that I was losing my milk. Full of despair, I staggered to the hospital to see if there was something they could do to make me feel better. After being told that there was in fact, nothing they could do to decrease my misery, I began crying and then proceeded to have the following conversation:
Doctor: Why are you crying?
Me: It's just that I can't feed my baby and I think I'm losing my milk
Doctor (perplexed expression on face): Well how old is your baby?
Me: Four months
Doctor: Four months! Well what are you worried about then? Nearly all the babies in Spain are drinking formula by four months!
Me: It's just that in America they tell us we should do it for at least a year...
Doctor- (with total disbelief) REALLY?? Well that's not how it is in Spain.
Statistics show that although most Spanish women do initially breastfeed their babies, less than half are still doing so by the time their babies reach 6 months. The majority of Spanish mothers return to work by the time their child reaches 4 months old [maternity leave here lasts 16 weeks and 18 weeks for multiple births] and unlike in the US and the UK, there isn't much encouragement towards, or support for the idea of pumping in the workplace.
A few Spanish women do choose to breastfeed for the first year, but going beyond is seen as unusual, and even suspect. A friend of mine went so far as to actually lie to her pediatrician when asked if she had finally stopped breastfeeding her 18-month-old son because she was afraid of what he might say. That may seem extreme but considering that just a few months ago, Madrid social services took a 15-month old from her mother for three weeks due to her habit of breastfeeding on demand, perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea after all.
To be honest, there are times when I find the lack of breastfeeding pressure in Spain to be somewhat refreshing. A friend of mine in New York City who chose not to breastfeed told me that she strenuously avoids feeding her eight-month-old bottles of formula in public for fear of the nasty looks and judgement she is sure to receive from at least a few passersby. Other friends have come close to having full-on nervous breakdowns merely because despite trying everything, they weren't able to produce enough milk for their babies. Clearly, this sort of suffering is completely unnecessary and when I look at it from that perspective, I can sort of appreciate the lackadaisical attitude towards the practice in Spain. On the other hand, it really would have been nice to have received a bit more support that day in the hospital. As in many aspects of life when it comes to the crossing of cultures, there often doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground.
The good news is that there are a few signs that perhaps the attitude towards breastfeeding in Spain is changing for the better. Studies show that breastfeeding has increased significantly during the past five years in Catalunya. Furthermore, last year the European Union Court of Justice ruled that working fathers in Spain have the same rights to breastfeeding leave as mothers do. Also, on a somewhat more bizarre note, Spain has recently been in the news for producing the first ever breastfeeding doll. Marketed as ‘Bebé Glotón’ in Spain, and 'Breast Milk Baby' in the US, the doll makes sucking sounds and motions when held up to a halter top which is worn by the 'breastfeeding' child. The doll has sparked controversy amongst some who say it is completely inappropriate. However, the marketing director for the company says that the doll was produced with the idea that "dolls should reflect the reality of motherhood" and that the children who play with it will be both more informed and more willing to breastfeed when they are mothers. The concept is definitely interesting, but nevertheless I still find the whole thing somewhat disturbing. But perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Google translated ‘Bebé Glotón’ as 'Baby Wolverine' and naturally, I'm having a tough time getting that one out of my head.
What have your breastfeeding experiences in Spain been like? Have you received support and if so, from where? Have you had any negative experiences? Would you buy Baby Wolverine (oops, I mean ‘Bebé Glotón’) for your child? Leave your comments below!
In the meantime, for those of you looking for breastfeeding information and support in Barcelona, here are a few resources:
La Lliga de la Llet. This is the Catalan branch of La Leche League. On their website you can find phone numbers of women offering support, as well as a calendar of meetings which are held monthly in different neighborhoods throughout the city.
Alba Lactancia. This is a breastfeeding support and advice group that was founded in 1992. On their website you can find a plethora of information about breastfeeding , as well as a list of their support groups which are held weekly in various locations throughout Barcelona. They also offer advice over the telephone (690 144 500). You can read more about the group in this article that was published in Metropolitan a few years ago.
Elvira Lopez is an Australian-Spanish breastfeeding consultant. She offers individual support as well as drop-in clinics (2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month from 11am-2pm at Mujer Shop, Calle Carders, 28. Tel.: 626 122 047- call first to make sure!). She can be reached on her mobile at 626 122 047.