If we want a healthier nation, one solution may be to look at the diets of our youngest citizens, even those who are just an hour old.
With 77% of U.S. infants exposed to breastfeeding just after birth, our country continues to make progress in the number of babies who begin their lives with what experts agree is their best food source.
But fast forward and the statistics aren’t as positive. By 6 months old, only 49% of U.S. babies are breastfed, and by their first birthday, only 27%.
These numbers are much lower than the recommendations of healthcare professionals. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, continued breastfeeding until the baby’s first birthday and then for as long as is mutually desired by the mother and baby.
Why is improving these statistics important for families, communities and, ultimately, our country? As the saying goes, “Breast milk is best.”
“Breastfed babies truly do get an early advantage in life that formula fed babies do not,” says Carmen Weeber-Morse, MD, a pediatrician with ProMedica Physicians.
“The biggest benefit of breast milk for infants is that it’s easy to digest and it has a lot of immune factors, which are especially important in those early weeks to months of a baby’s life,” she explains.
And the benefits, like breast milk, change as the baby grows. “Right after birth, breast milk is high in protein and high in immunity,” says Dr. Weeber-Morse. “As a baby gets older, a mother’s breast milk increases in volume, offers more lactose, fat and more fatty acids, which are important for brain and cognitive development.”
And the list of benefits doesn’t end there. Breastfeeding may also be linked to a reduced risk of allergies (particularly to foods), SIDS, ear infections, diarrhea, and eczema. Adults who were breastfed as babies also tend to have a lower incidence of obesity, as well as some autoimmune diseases.
Benefits Beyond Baby
With nearly 4 million births in the United States each year, improving breastfeeding practices across the country could have major health and economic impact.
Although it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact impact, a 2010 article in PEDIATRICS analyzed that if 90% of U.S. women breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year in healthcare costs. More than 900 infant deaths could also be prevented each year.
The health benefits of breastfeeding aren’t only for baby. Mothers benefit, too.
Dr. Weeber-Morse explains, “Breastfeeding provides a unique emotional satisfaction which is enhanced by the pituitary hormones that are released during breastfeeding. One hormone, oxytocin, also helps reduce postpartum bleeding and stimulates with contractions that help a woman’s uterus return to its normal size after childbirth. Breastfeeding moms also tend to lose their pregnancy weight quicker and there’s a slight reduction in the incidence of ovarian and breast cancers in women who have breastfed.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends initiating breastfeeding within the first hour of life, as long as the baby and mother are healthy enough to do so. And while the number of U.S. babies who breastfeed after birth is continuing to improve, the challenge lies in not only continuing this progress but also making sure it’s a sustainable option for women who would like to breastfeed as long as it’s recommended.
Become a Breastfeeding Advocate
Whether you are a healthcare organization, a local business or a breastfeeding advocate, there are many ways that you can help support breastfeeding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers research and tips for anyone who wants to make a difference.
Improving breastfeeding practices across the country requires continuous support from families, healthcare organizations and communities. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to feed one.