If you're a new or expectant mom who happens to be somewhat famous, you probably received a save-the-date earlier this month for afternoon tea at Jenna Elfman's Los Angeles home on April 14. Elfman, along with fellow actress Kelly Preston and former pro boxer Laila Ali, is hosting the event to promote breast-feeding among the glitterati, with the idea that doing so will benefit their offspring as well as their fans.
"Celebrities are the trendsetters," says Bettina Forbes, co-founder of Best for Babes, the breast-feeding advocacy group that will be at Elfman's house to field questions. "They are capable of making things that people are squeamish about cool and hip." Best for Babes hopes stars can do for breast-feeding what Katie Couric did for colonoscopies and Gisele Bündchen did for water birth. Lactation activists were overjoyed when Beyoncé was reportedly spotted nursing her 7-week-old daughter Blue Ivy at a New York City restaurant on Feb. 25--not only because Beyoncé is a big star but also because she is an African-American star. According to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 54% of black mothers say they start out nursing their infants, compared with 74% of white mothers. One reason for the discrepancy is cultural bias: it's still common for black women to view breast-feeding as a sign that you're too poor to buy formula. Hence all the hubbub about megabucks Beyoncé.
"It's a huge deal," says Elita Kalma, a mom in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who writes the breast-feeding blog Blacktating. Reports of Beyoncé's breast-feeding in public--her reps have yet to confirm it--quickly became a hot topic on Twitter. "How amazing is it that she allegedly nursed in public, and all these people are now talking about nursing?" Kalma says. "People were saying, Is it natural? Is it nasty?"
Despite many decades of research on the numerous health benefits of breast-feeding, including a decreased risk for SIDS and obesity, few women in the U.S. will meet the new recommendation--released in February by the American Academy of Pediatrics--to exclusively breast-feed their babies for six months. Less than 15% of women do so, according to the latest figures from the CDC. The low success rate is attributed to the lack of paid maternity leave (it's hard to exclusively breast-feed a baby you're not with all the time), workplace conditions (at many jobs, the only private place to pump breast milk is in a bathroom stall) and the widespread practice of giving new moms formula when they leave the hospital. But perhaps the biggest factor is the stigma against nursing in public, the lingering sense that it is something women should do only behind closed doors.
Breast-feeding advocates are keenly aware of the attention Gwen Stefani, Maggie Gyllenhaal and other superstar mommies get when paparazzi snap photos of them nursing on a park bench or at a café. "I wish stories of celebrities nursing didn't generate big headlines, but the reality is, breast-feeding still isn't normalized in our society," says Kate Gulbransen, who, as social-media director at a breast-pump manufacturer, blogs regularly about breast-feeding by the rich and famous.
Not every celebrity is doing it. In 2008, the same year Angelina Jolie appeared on the cover of W magazine nursing one of her twins, Jennifer Lopez was widely quoted as saying she had decided not to breast-feed her twins.
For sure, nursing isn't always feasible, whether you're a jet setter like J. Lo or a bus driver. It takes time and commitment to persevere in the face of what Best for Babes describes on its blog as "the barriers, harassment and humiliation moms face." Some of the Beyoncé stories referenced the March 5 "nurse-ins" at several locations in Georgia, which helped women get commitments from legislators to sponsor a bill that would fine store owners or anyone else who asks breast feeders to leave the premises or go to a dressing room or bathroom.