Why Brazil Loves Breastfeeding

The country aggressively promotes nursing—in public and at home.

Brazilian mothers breastfeed their babies during the Tenth National Conference on Breastfeeding in Belem in 2008. (Paulo Santos / Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO—The other day here, I saw something I rarely encounter back home in Washington. A young woman holding a toddler sat down at the table next to me at a boardwalk cafe. When the little boy got fussy, she tugged down her tank top and fed him in plain view of one of Rio’s largest thoroughfares. No blanket. No shame.

It's not just that Cariocas are far less body-conscious than Americans. Brazil promotes breastfeeding much more aggressively than the U.S. does, and perhaps as a result, breastfeeding is far more common here. More than half of Brazilian mothers exclusively breastfeed their children until they’re six months old, according to the Health Ministry, compared with 16 percent of American moms.

For women who can’t breastfeed, the country offers “milk banks.” Donors pump their milk and store it in glass jars in their freezers, as the AP reported. The jars are picked up by motorcycle messengers and kept in 214 banks around the country, ready for use by mothers who can’t produce enough of their own.

Along with dozens of other countries—but not the U.S.—Brazil bans the advertising or promotion of infant formula. These products are forbidden from having labels that read “ideal for your baby.” In March, the São Paulo municipal government passed an ordinance that would fine businesses or organizations that prevent women from breastfeeding in public.

That move was prompted by what mothers’ rights activists say were a series of incidents in which women were scolded or shamed for feeding their babies out in the open. The final straw, it seemed, was when the model Priscila Navarro Bueno was chided by a security guard for breastfeeding her 7-month-old daughter at São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound. That led to a mass feed-in by 40 women who flocked to the museum and nursed openly in protest.

The breastfeeding push is partly credited with helping slice Brazil’s infant mortality rate by more than two-thirds in the past two decades. In the past, poor Brazilian women would sell their breast milk, leaving their own children malnourished, or they would use formula mixed with unsafe water. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life because of its link to numerous health benefits. (Though as Hanna Rosin points out, some of those benefits are overstated.)

Still, there’s a fine line between a gentle “breast is best” message and judging mothers for their choices. Take, for example, this recent advertising campaign created by the Brazilian-based ad agency Paim for the Pediatric Society of Rio Grande do Sul, urging women not just to breastfeed, but to watch what they eat while they’re doing it.

The tagline on that burger-boob? “Your child is what you eat.”

Olga Khazan is reporting from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).