Should female prisoners be allowed to breastfeed their infants? Breastfeeding requires the mother’s constant presence in her child’s life, or frequent breaks to pump milk and an extremely safe and efficient delivery system. This may put pressure on the penal system to develop the appropriate infrastructure. However, there are many definite advantages to the infants involved (and secondary advantages to the mothers) that cause the answer to be a resounding yes. Policy makers should be concerned with the rights of the innocent children first and foremost in this area.
If prison breastfeeding is accomplished by providing special nursery sections (where mothers and babies can live together), then this will have great benefits both to the babies and to the imprisoned mothers. For the baby, it prevents the kind of developmental disadvantages that come when an infant is not nurtured. A recent study has shown that “babies in the prison nursery program are developmentally the same as other babies…[while those separated] have difficulty learning and become cold and aggressive adults” (Conova). Additionally, breastfeeding mothers were significantly less likely to re-offend when they left prison.
In this way, mothers, infants, and society may all benefit. However the most important aspect of prison breastfeeding is not how it affects the mother, but how it affects the baby. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Human milk is species-specific, and all substitute feeding preparations differ markedly from it, making human milk uniquely superior for infant feeding” (496). Doctors claim a wide variety of benefits from breast milk, from increased immunity, higher childhood IQ, and lower death rates. The AAP recommends that breastfeeding for at least six months “for all infants” (498).
There is very little scientific question that breastfeeding is much better for infants. Even if mothers cannot be allowed to keep their children with them (due to space constraints or a social belief that this is not sufficiently punitive to the mother), at a minimum they should be encouraged to pump breast milk for their infants. To do otherwise risks endangering the life and wellbeing of their babies. It does not seem fair to penalize children for life simply because their mothers were imprisoned during the crucial 6-month period after their birth.
Such children will face enough challenges socially, having had a mother in prison, without also facing lifelong physical and development consequences. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says that countries should “take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, [or] activities… of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members” (United Nations, Article 2).
It also suggests that all children have the right to adequate nutrition, including the right to have their mothers breastfeed them at an early age. While America did not sign the convention, it is relevant to keep in mind that the vast majority of world opinion believes that governments should not refused children the right to be breastfed by their mothers. In conclusion, prisons should allow women to breastfeed their children. This should not be seen as special treatment or any sort of award, though it may have very positive effects in terms of recidivism rates.
Instead, it should be viewed as a logical step towards protecting the intrinsic rights of the child. No child should be punished for the actions of his or her mother, and refusing to let a child breastfeed is sufficiently detrimental that it should be considered a punishment. If prisons cannot arrange to safely transport breast milk from the mothers to their infants (without jeopardizing its healthful benefits or safety), then mothers should be allowed access to their infants to feed them.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. ” Pediatrics 115. 2 (2005): 496-506. Conova, Susan. “Do Babies Belong in Prison? ” INVIVO: he Newsletter of Columbia University Medical Center 5. 1 (2006). Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 1989. 14 March 2009 <http://www. unhchr. ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc. htm>.