A pair of substantial mammary glands have the advantage over the two hemispheres of the most learned professor’s brain in the art of compounding a nutritive fluid for infants. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
So what’s the Big Deal about Breastfeeding?
There are a number of controversial topics when it comes to parenting: sleeping arrangements and whether or not to sleep train your baby, rice cereal or oatmeal, purees or baby led weaning, and even debates on how to give birth. Why is that? Well, everyone has their own individual parenting style. And no one wants to feel like they’re doing less for their child.
But there’s one controversy that boggles the mind, and that’s breastfeeding.
Somehow American society has managed to take a natural biological process designed to nourish babies and turn it on its head.
Over time, somehow breastfeeding became less about feeding babies and more into a topic for debate. As a result, breastfeeding moms in the United States largely lack the support they need and deserve.
So the question today becomes this: How do we get to a place where breastfeeding is normalized, celebrated, and visible without judgment in society?
It starts with education about why breastfeeding matters. Specifically, why it should matter to you.
A healthy start for babies and benefits for moms and society, too.
Breastfeeding a baby is a universal and basic act of nurture, providing significant benefits for mothers, their babies, and even society.
The ability to breastfeed is a beautiful gift in itself. It helps mothers and babies bond, and it offers vital benefits to the health of both mothers and their babies.
Benefits for Babies
A growing body of scientific literature substantiates the medical benefits of breastfeeding.
Breast milk is a live substance that is specially and uniquely made to meet an individual baby’s nutritional needs. It also has unmatched immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that help protect babies against a number of diseases and illnesses.
Studies show that breastfed babies have lower instances of:
- Bacterial and viral infections;
- Childhood leukemia and other cancers;
- Developmental delays;
- Diarrheal diseases;
- Ear infections/Otitis media;
- Obesity during childhood;
- Respiratory illnesses requiring hospitalization; and
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Studies also suggest a positive correlation between breastfeeding and a child’s intelligence quotient.
On the other hand, exclusive formula feeding has been associated with higher instances of common childhood infections. Formula-fed infants also demonstrate higher instances of more serious diseases like lower respiratory infections and leukemia. And the risk of SIDS is more than 50% higher among infants who have never been breastfed.
Benefits for Moms
Studies show that breastfeeding offers many protections to mothers, as well.
Breastfeeding is associated with increases in maternal protection from:
- Breast cancer;
- Ovarian cancer;
- Postpartum depression; and
- Urinary tract infections.
When it comes to breast cancer in particular, studies have shown that the breast cancer rate in the United States could decrease by an impressive 25% if every mother would breastfeed her children for at least two years.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 1 out of every 9 mothers experience postpartum depression. Studies have suggested that women who breastfeed—particularly women who breastfeed for a longer duration—may have lower instances of postpartum depression. Some women have expressed a significant psychological benefit from breastfeeding, describing a very close bond between themselves and their babies.
Benefits for Society
There’s little doubt that the health benefits of breastfeeding mentioned above, which are only a partial list, result in direct economic benefits to society. When mothers and children experience fewer health problems, this leads to reduced medical expenses. And for parents who work outside the home, fewer medical issues leads to fewer days of missed work–helping employers as well.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF set the encouragement of breastfeeding as a primary goal. Both recommend that mothers breastfeed for at least two years, but the vast majority of mothers in the U.S. do not continue breastfeeding as recommended.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Surgeon General of the United States also recognize the role of breastfeeding in helping infants attain a healthy and optimal start in life. Both recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed their infants be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, with continued breastfeeding for at least 1 year (alongside the introduction of complementary foods) unless medical reasons prohibit it.
Breastfeeding Still Isn’t Normalized
So one would think society should encourage breastfeeding in the best interests of both the mother and the child, right?
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Breastfeeding became an unusual and uncommon choice during most of the last century—largely as a result of poor advice and discouragement to American mothers.
Thankfully, recent decades have brought with them a turnaround. Mothers, their families, supporters, and health care providers have started to realize and embrace the benefits of breastfeeding. As a result, the number of breastfeeding mothers in the United States is increasing. More than three-quarters of newborns in the U.S. begin now their lives breastfeeding.
Despite this improvement, breastfeeding mothers and their babies continue to face obstacles to breastfeeding far too often. And while a large number of babies are initially breastfed upon birth, the numbers for continued breastfeeding show that our society still has work to do in our efforts to normalize breastfeeding.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s 2018 Breastfeeding Report Card, slightly more than half of U.S. women are still breastfeeding at six months. These rates drop significantly thereafter, with only about 35% of women still breastfeeding at twelve months.
Unfortunately, social limitations tend to weigh against the decision to breastfeed. Differing opinions about breastfeeding can understandably make some women uncomfortable nursing in public areas. As a result, new mothers may be inclined to choose formula over breastfeeding simply to avoid situations where they may feel intimidated, excluded, or ostracized in public.
In addition, mothers who work outside the home are one of the fastest growing groups in the workforce. Until President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, there was virtually no federal protection for mothers who need to breastfeed or otherwise pump milk during their work day. The ACA set forth requirements stating companies with greater than 50 workers to provide (1) adequate break time and (2) adequate space for certain employees to express breast milk at work.
The ACA also required insurers to provide coverage for mothers to obtain breast pumps and lactation support services. But women are still faced with situations where their employers cannot or do not afford them an adequate place to express breast milk.
Ultimately, the fact that breastfeeding numbers continue to rise tells us that most mothers in the U.S. want to breastfeed and are at least willing to try. However, lower rates for breastfeeding at six months and beyond demonstrate that breastfeeding for the recommended time frames remains uncommon in the U.S.
Mothers need support in order to help themselves and their babies reach the recommended breastfeeding goals.
Breastfeeding should be encouraged so that no mother feels intimidated, excluded, or ostracized for breastfeeding her baby, whether in public or in private.
Employers must work harder to create breastfeeding-friendly environments for mothers who return to work outside the home.
Significant others, family members, friends, healthcare providers, and others must help facilitate a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers and their babies.
Doing so can help improve the overall health of the entire nation.