Breastfeeding in the Big Durian: Mothers of infants or soon to be mamas who are new to Indonesia often ask about breastfeeding in public. The short answer is: yes, you can breastfeed in public. Breastmilk is widely known as “ASI” or ‘air susu Ibu’ (mother’s milk). It is polite to cover yourself while feeding but it is a cultural courtesy and not a necessity. In actual fact it is a recognized legal right for mothers to breastfeed anytime, and anywhere, in Indonesia.
In 2011, the government of Indonesia implemented a new law to allow breastfeeding or risk punishment. The law stipulates all babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and anyone or any company that stands in the way of this can be fined (up to the equivalent of USD 11,000) and face imprisonment. Further to this, breastfeeding is supported and encourage to the age of 2 years. (Health Law No 36.2009 Article 200 and Government Regulation 33/2012 on Granting Exclusive Breastfeeding)
It is interesting to note that a 2015 UNICEF report indicated 36.4% of young children in Indonesia are “stunted” [failing to reach growth potential – physically and developmentally – due to chronic malnutrition and illness during childhood] and this may be a key driver for the government’s pro-breastfeeding initiative. Studies in other countries have made evident that babies who are exclusively breastfed during the first 6 months of life fare far better than those who are introduced to solids at an early age and even formula. Formula requires a mix with water which could be contaminated water, and different companies produce variations of formula with no regulatory standards to ensure babies’ nutritional needs are fully met by the formula content. Accordingly, in addition to the breastfeeding law, Indonesia also prohibits formula companies from promoting their products to mothers of babies who are less than one year old.
The government of Indonesia is taking powerful steps to ensure breastfeeding is made as culturally acceptable as possible. And I for one, want breastfeeding to not just be acceptable but to be the most desirable approach. I have loved breastfeeding my children and I truly believe that IF a woman is able to, it is the best approach for foundational nutrition and growth.
As I look around the shopping malls and restaurants that wealthy Indonesians and expatriates patronage, I often see nannies bottle feeding babies under six months of age. I have discussed this with my peers and many expat women believe wealthy Indonesians see having a nanny feed their child as a status symbol. Both the formula and the nanny cost money. And, the fattened look associated with formula fed babies adds to the perceived aura of wealth and good fortune. In a highly-stratified society, this is a visible and deeply flawed message to women who cannot afford superior formulas and clean water; which is indeed the situation for many women in Indonesia.
Thus, I openly breastfeed. In cafes and malls. I breastfeed at the playground. I breastfeed at my husband’s place of work. I do this because it is what my babies have wanted and needed nutritionally and emotionally. I do not do this hidden away or even covered because I know the average woman in Indonesia perceives me to have wealth. So I am not just a mother feeding or comforting her child – I am a conscious advocate! I meet many pregnant women who have deep anxieties about their potential for breastfeeding and women with newborns who are very stressed by breastfeeding. I believe that if we see each other breastfeeding our babies and openly support one another in breastfeeding; it becomes normalized. If breastfeeding is normalized, there is less stress related to breastfeeding and the physiological barriers created by stress begin to breakdown.
I have had just one instance in which I was asked by a friend’s nanny to “cover up” more if I insisted on breastfeeding at the playground at my own apartment complex. I quoted the law to her politely and said, “No, I will not.”
Let’s be honest – the average soap ad on the internet during my YouTube watching or bouncy doll-like 20-something standing outside a bar on a Saturday night has more cleavage showing. And I am serving an essential function for life and for growing the next generation.
I applaud the Indonesian government for doing what is good and right in terms of child health and development, and for future generations of Indonesians. Furthermore, I am particularly appreciative that, as an expat, I can comfortably give my babies ASI when and where I like while living in Indonesia.
As a contributor for What’s New Indonesia, Jaclyn Cruz Coleman has lived in Jakarta for over three years. Coleman is a mother of 2 beautiful children – a girl who is 3 years old and a boy who is 16 months. This super-mom gained Masters in Anthropology (2017) by research on “The Cultural Construction Risk in Pregnancy and Childbirth in Australia” – a cross cultural analysis based on narratives of experience. She is also a prenatal and birthing yoga teacher, womens yoga teacher and a birth educator.