August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week. The theme this year is Breastfeeding: A key to Sustainable Development. Locally, we are focusing on raising awareness of exclusive breastfeeding rates and what we can do to improve them.
In the United States, exclusive breastfeeding rates are not good. According to the CDC Breastfeeding Report Card, the exclusive breastfeeding rate just for Ohio in 2014 (the latest year information is available) was a dismal 15% for babies 6 months of age. In order to understand what this means, let’s break down what it means to exclusively breastfeed, why our rates are so low, and what we can do to change it.
What is exclusive breastfeeding?
The World Health Organization describes and recommends exclusive breastfeeding and says, “babies should receive only breast milk for the first six months of life—no other foods including formula or water should be given.” The most important reason for exclusive breastfeeding is the health of our babies and their moms. It lowers risk of infection and allergies, and promotes better brain development for our babies. It reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer for moms, and is economical for our families.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The benefits of breastfeeding are being discovered daily and the list could go on. Believe me when I say, this is an exciting time to be a lactation consultant!
Why are our rates so low?
So, if exclusive breastfeeding is so great, why is it so hard for us in the United States—and especially here in Ohio—to actually do it? Why are we so bad at exclusively breastfeeding?
Because breastfeeding is sometimes really hard and most people don’t have the knowledge or support they need to make it successful. Because many new moms don’t have long enough paid maternity leave to establish a good milk supply in the first place. Because we sometimes don’t have access to family, friends or lactation professionals to help us if our nipples hurt. Because as our population of childbearing women has more complex health issues, breastfeeding can become of secondary importance and the healthcare providers that take care of them lack the education and time they need to support exclusive breastfeeding.
Also, because formula is readily available. Honestly, this list could go on forever, but this last point, is the one that is the heart of the issue. When faced with breastfeeding difficulties, we live in a country that can provide us with a secondary source of food that is relatively safe for our babies. Because instead of offering help, we offer formula.
So let’s change this.
How can we improve exclusive breastfeeding rates?
If you are an expectant mom or dad, and haven’t given much thought to breastfeeding, take a class and learn about it. If you are an expectant mom or dad and are planning to breastfeed, take a class and learn about it. Education is key. Knowing what to expect, learning what is normal and learning when to get help sets you up for success.
If you are a new mom, know where to get help when it gets hard. You can call us at the Warmline (419-291-4577), talk to a friend or family member who has breastfed or come to our Nursing Mom’s Group. If you are in the hospital, ask to see the Lactation Consultant and have the nurses help you. Find an online resource that is reliable and supportive—don’t rely on “Dr. Google”!
If you are a grandma, an aunt or a best friend, support your baby and their mama in her choice to breastfeed. You love this baby, too, and want only the best for him or her, make sure she knows that you support her decisions. And when it gets tough, don’t hand over the formula! Give her a pep talk, help her find the Lactation Consultants phone number and set up her breast pump for her. It’s the support of the women in our lives that is sometimes the most powerful.
Support legislation to help our new moms be able to take time off from work to allow for breastfeeding to become well established, and support our moms in the workplace. Making sure Mom has time and a place to pump helps her be a better employee in part because she will have fewer sick calls since baby is less likely to be sick. An added benefit is that an employee who feels supported, may be more loyal. Why would she leave when everyone is helping her reach her goal? High five a mom who is breastfeeding in public; it may just make her day, boost her confidence, and it helps to normalize exclusive breastfeeding in our communities.
It all comes down to support and education. We owe it to our new moms and babies to provide both.
Angie is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Parent Instructor for ProMedica and a former Labor and Delivery nurse at ProMedica Toledo Hospital. Click here to read previous columns from her breastfeeding series, Let’s Spill the Milk!