As is my usual habit, I have picked a topic based upon national health observances that are getting media attention each month. August just so happens to be National Breastfeeding Month. August 1st-7th is World Breastfeeding Week, which has been celebrated for 22 years, and is recognized in over 175 countries around the globe. The mission of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action is to “focus and facilitate actions to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.”
According to a call to action supported by the Surgeon General of the U.S., breastfeeding is “one of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect the health of her infant and herself.” This breastfeeding campaign, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has a goal to “empower women to commit to breastfeeding by highlighting new research showing that babies who are exclusively breastfed for six months are less likely to develop ear infections, diarrhea, and respiratory illnesses and may be less likely to develop childhood obesity.”
In many states in the U.S., breastfeeding is no longer the choice of new mothers for meeting the nutritional needs of their newborns. This is especially true in Alabama. The national average of women who have ever breastfed is 76.5%, while Alabama reports only 60.4%. This number is lower in only 4 other states, 2 of which are in the “Deep South” and includes Mississippi (50.5%) and Arkansas (57.7%). In addition, the number of Alabama mothers still breastfeeding exclusively at 3 and 6 months is low at 23.5% and 11.9% respectively.
So why is breastfeeding so important? Is it really any better for your baby than pre-packaged formula at the grocery store? With so much information readily available at our fingertips and the click of a few buttons on the Internet, it can get overwhelming to find good sources. There is always “new research” coming out on every topic under the sun, and breastfeeding is no exception. So let’s take a look at what some of the leading scientific researchers in the U.S. have to say.
Health Benefits of Breastfeeding1
• Breastfeeding protects babies from infections and illnesses that include diarrhea, ear infections and pneumonia.
• Breastfed babies are less likely to develop asthma.
• Children who are breastfed for six months are less likely to become obese.
• Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
• Mothers who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
Economic Benefits of Breastfeeding2
• Families who follow optimal breastfeeding practices can save between $1,200 and $1,500 on infant formula in the first year alone.
• A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics estimated that if 90% of U.S. families followed guidelines to breastfeed exclusively for six months, the U.S. would annually save $13 billion from reduced medical and other costs.
• For both employers and employees, better infant health means fewer health insurance claims, less employee time off to care for sick children, and higher productivity.
• Mutual of Omaha found that health care costs for newborns are three times lower for babies whose mothers participate in the company’s employee maternity and lactation program.
Why isn’t breastfeeding more common, then? Below are some key barriers, as discussed by the U.S. Surgeon General3:
• Lack of Knowledge: While breastfeeding is considered a natural skill, some mothers may need education and guidance. Providing accurate information can help prepare mothers for breastfeeding.
• Lactation Problems: Sometimes babies have a tough time getting good at breastfeeding and an experienced lactation specialist can provide assistance. Most of these are avoidable if identified and treated early, and need not pose a threat to continued breastfeeding.
• Poor Family and Social Support: Fathers, grandmothers, and other family members strongly influence mothers’ decisions about starting, continuing, and accommodating breastfeeding.
• Social Norms: Many people see breastfeeding as an alternative rather than the routine way to feed infants.
• Embarrassment: The popular culture’s view of breasts as only having a sexual purpose compels some women to avoid breastfeeding. Improving support for women to breastfeed can help them better accommodate the demands of everyday life while protecting their infants’ health and can be accomplished at no risk to their own modesty.
• Employment and Child Care: Employed mothers typically find that (1) returning to work and (2) lack of maternity leave are significant barriers to breastfeeding.
• Health Services: Health care systems and health care providers can improve mothers’ breastfeeding experiences by pursuing and obtaining the training and educational opportunities they need in order to fully support their patients.
There are many ways to help new mothers increase their knowledge and skill in regards to breastfeeding. An excellent book written on the subject is “Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding,” written by world-renowned midwife, Ina May Gaskin of The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. There are certified lactation consultants and breastfeeding support groups in many areas, including North Alabama. To find a La Leche (which is Spanish for “the milk”) League group, visit http://www.lllalmsla.org/lll-groups/alabama-groups/. Another great resource for breastfeeding support is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. Visit www.ilca.org to find a provider in your area.
Protect your newborn by committing to breastfeeding him or her for at least 6-12 months, or longer if you can!
By: Rachel Clark, RN, BSN