A variety of recent studies on the practice of breastfeeding have shown similar two-fold conclusions:
1. Breastfeeding an infant has multiple long-lasting health benefits for both mother and child,
2. American families do not do it enough.
According to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008 only 44 percent of infants are breastfed for the recommended minimum of six months and only 14 percent are breastfed exclusively (given no supplemental formula). In comparison with many other countries, these rates are extremely low. This is interesting not only because it is widely accepted that breastfeeding has tremendous health benefits for babies (lower rates of obesity and diabetes, better immune systems, fewer visits to the doctor’s office and lower medical costs) and mothers (lower rates of breast and ovarian cancers) but also because 77 percent of mothers initially start out by exclusively breastfeeding their infant. What causes the rates to decline so steeply in six months?
One reason explored by a recent CDC report is the idea that the American public is not comfortable with lactation and therefore does not foster environments that support the healthy practice. A huge reason that women stop breastfeeding is to go back to work after their maternity leave. If her workplace does not allow a new mother the time and safe space to express breast milk, it is probable her natural supply will decrease and supplementation will be necessary. Beginning in 2014, the Affordable Care Act will require that all workplaces supply women with a space that is private and is not in a restroom in which they can pump breast milk or feed a baby. It is hoped that this marvelous policy addition will help to increase the percent of babies who are able to be breastfed through the crucial first six months of life.
Women often site stigma as another large deterrent to breastfeeding. Whether she is at a park, at a grocery store, in her place of worship or in a friend’s home, negative reactions from onlookers can cause a woman to feel ashamed and even violated. Snide comments or rude stares do not permit for the comfort and relaxed nature that is so important to effective nursing. Nor is it conducive to the magical mother and child bonding time that breastfeeding can be. Despite the ubiquity of the act and the anatomy, our culture has yet to accept (and sometimes even demonizes) women who breastfeed in public. Unfortunately, there is no nifty federal policy that can assuage the negative consequences of judgmental onlookers. Perhaps with time, education and an eye toward the more accepting attitude towards breastfeeding in the developing world, women will feel less inhibited and thus, better able to provide their children with the best health possible.
A third reason that women do not breastfeed their babies until they are six months old takes place very early in the newborn’s life -- right in the hospital he/she is born in! Very few hospitals have been certified as “baby-friendly” by UNICEF and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and little has been done to change this in the past few years. However, as part of their mission to improve mother and child health, the CDC has done a review of things hospitals can do to encourage breastfeeding right off the bat.
Visit http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/breastfeeding/ to see a full listing of the CDC’s recommendations, as well as the data supporting their push to make breastfeeding a priority.
And what can you do? Talk to your health care provider about a plan for breastfeeding your child! Ask about the support that is offered to new mothers in the hospital and in your workplace and advocate for your rights as a working mom! Don’t assume that breastfeeding will be easy right away -- keep trying! Every time you feel self-conscious about nursing in public, remember the world of good it is doing for you and your baby! Be supportive of other mothers!
Check out some of the other resources below to learn more:
The Ten Steps To Successful Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding: Promotion and Support
La Leche League International
Reviewed August 12, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith