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Mothers seek to combat breastfeeding stigma in Asian-American communities

Infants and mothers can benefit from breastfeeding, with infants gaining protection from some infections and mothers decreasing their risk for some cancers.

by Monica Luhar /
To-wen Tseng and her second child during maternity leave. Tseng said she had trouble in the past finding non-English speaking experts to discuss the benefits of breastfeeding.Mu-huan Chiang /

Sunayana “Naya” Weber first learned about the benefits of breastfeeding when she attended a birthing class in Texas while pregnant with her first son in 2010.

As an expectant mother, Weber occasionally found herself navigating parenting and breastfeeding resources alone. Shortly after giving birth to her son, she also realized there was a generational divide when she reached out for breastfeeding or parental advice from her mom.

Somewhere between my mom being born, and me being born, the culture shifted to one where formula was viewed as better than breast milk or even more of a status symbol where only poor women breastfed.

Somewhere between my mom being born, and me being born, the culture shifted to one where formula was viewed as better than breast milk or even more of a status symbol where only poor women breastfed.

"My mom wanted to be helpful, but a lot of her knowledge was outdated or did not apply to my current situation,” Weber, who is now a certified lactation consultant, said. “Her last breastfeeding experience took place in India over 30 years ago.”

Weber, who was born in Mumbai, India, learned that her mom was encouraged by elders in the family to breastfeed her and her sister for six months. “Even though she wanted to breastfeed for longer, she was told that her milk was not good enough,” Weber said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants be exclusively breastfed for about six months and then breastfed with the addition of complementary foods for an additional year or more. Both infants and mothers can benefit from breastfeeding, with infants gaining protection from various infections as well as diabetes, leukemia, and childhood obesity and mothers decreasing their risk for various cancers among other benefits, according to the academy.

 To-wen Tseng nursing her first child, then 6 months old, at home after leaving her full-time job in 2013. Tseng is one of the founding members of the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force, a group of healthcare providers and concerned individuals hoping to promote and support breastfeeding in Asian-American communities. Mu-huan Chiang

When Weber became a mother, she realized her own breastfeeding practice significantly differed from her mother’s: Both her children were breastfed until the age of two, and Weber breastfed in public, not private, and relied on breast milk instead of formula.

“Somewhere between my mom being born, and me being born, the culture shifted to one where formula was viewed as better than breast milk or even more of a status symbol where only poor women breastfed,” she said.

To address some of the common breastfeeding misconceptions in the Asian-American community, Yajie Zhu, program coordinator at the OB-GYN department at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York, helped spearhead a breastfeeding education program catered in 2014 to the specific needs of mothers.

Zhu noted that some of the misconceptions she’s heard from some of her clients at the center include the idea that breastfeeding is painful or that they will not be able to produce enough milk for their babies.

“Many Chinese-American women, especially recent immigrants from China, hold the view that formula is more nutritious and convenient than breast milk,” Zhu added.

The education program has been a success, she noted, with a "significant increase" in the rate of women exclusive breast feeding six weeks after childbirth between 2014 and 2016. The health center is in the process of compiling data to publicly release.

Another concern, advocates say, is public perception over whether breastfeeding is “acceptable.” In 2012, TIME magazine received mixed feedback for a cover that featured a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old child. And in March 2018, an Indian magazine stirred some debate on social media for featuring an actress breastfeeding.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 49 states have laws that allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Additionally, under federal law, employers are required to provide workplace accommodations for nursing mothers.

But not all employers have honored this law: according to a report published in the Women’s Health Issues research journal in 2016, only 40 percent of women had access to “both break time and a private space for expressing milk.”

To-wen Tseng, a former TV reporter based in San Diego, California, said she faced challenges when she returned to work after maternity leave in 2013 at the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper serving North America, when her baby turned 3 months old.

“I first talked to my supervisor; she told me, ‘You don’t need to breastfeed. Formula-fed babies are as healthy,’” Tseng said. She then spoke with the company’s human resources department, who allegedly told her “they were not aware of the law.”

Tseng said that in a letter sent by her lawyer to the newspaper, she alleged that her former employer did not provide workplace accommodations for her as a nursing mom or a reasonable space to pump. Tseng's lawyer said the World Journal offered a settlement after receiving the letter, paying a monetary settlement and agreeing to implement new policy, according to Legal Aid at Work, a nonprofit organization that represented Tseng. As part of the settlement, the newspaper denied any liability or that it engaged in any wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the World Journal said that the newspaper resolved the complaint to avoid litigation and that there was "no merit to the allegations." A supervisor at the newspaper had arranged a separate office for Tseng and the newspaper purchased a refrigerator to store breast milk, according to the law offices Rose W. Tsai & Associates, which represents World Journal LA.

"Again, World Journal has and continues to be attentive to the needs of all its employees, including breastfeeding mothers," a statement from the law firm said.

Many Chinese-American women, especially recent immigrants from China, hold the view that formula is more nutritious and convenient than breast milk.

Many Chinese-American women, especially recent immigrants from China, hold the view that formula is more nutritious and convenient than breast milk.

Tseng said that she had wanted to invite lactation professionals to her company who could talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, but because many of her colleagues did not speak English as a first language, she tried to find Chinese-speaking experts but failed.

Since that experience, Tseng has dedicated her career to advocating for family-friendly policy and gender equity at the workplace, blogging about breastfeeding as a human right and speaking out about breastfeeding barriers in Asian-American communities and beyond.

She is also one of the founding members of the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force, a group of healthcare providers and advocates founded in 2017 hoping to promote and support breastfeeding in Asian-American communities.

“When I left my full-time reporting job and became a breastfeeding activist, it was my hope that no woman will ever have to experience what I have experienced,” she said. “Since then, four years has passed. We still have a long way to go.”

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