WASHINGTON, DC—Despite ample evidence that breastfeeding a child for the first six months of his or her life provides benefits that far outweigh those gained by formula feeding, the majority of American mothers abandon breastfeeding too soon, or do not do it at all. This has spurred Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, to issue a call to action, not only encouraging mothers to breastfeed, but also urging society as a whole to identify and remove barriers that prevent women from breastfeeding.
According to the report released by the Surgeon General’s Office last month, breastfeeding has been shown to protect against infections and illness, including ear infections, diarrhea, and pneumonia. Children who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life are less likely to become obese, less likely to develop asthma, and less likely to die from SIDS. Women who breastfeed for that full time period are shown to have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
But while 75% of mothers begin breastfeeding when their child is born, only 13% continue exclusively breastfeeding through the first six months of the child’s life. “These rates are even lower for African American women and their infants,” Benjamin said at a press conference. “Something happens between the time many women start to breastfeed and the first six months of life. This call to action suggests there are too many barriers that exist for women that want to breastfeed.”
Some of those barriers identified in the Surgeon General’s report are social in nature. Many people, not just mothers, see breastfeeding as an alternative rather than traditional way of feeding a baby. Also, women may feel embarrassed and self-conscious to breastfeed in public. However, the more significant barriers may be found in the need for many mothers to return to work soon after a child is born.
The call to action states that employers should work toward establishing paid maternity leave and high-quality lactation support programs. Whenever possible, employers should make use of programs that allow nursing mothers to have their babies close by so they can feed them during the day. Employers should also supply break time and space for nursing mothers.
The report also states that communities should expand and improve programs that provide mother-to-mother support and peer counseling; healthcare systems should ensure that maternity care practices provide education and counseling on breastfeeding; clinicians should be trained to properly care for breastfeeding mothers and babies; and families should give mothers the support and encouragement they need to breastfeed.
“It’s critical we take action across this country to support breastfeeding,” Benjamin said. “We know it has health benefits. And if 90% of US families followed the guidelines to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, the US would save $13 billion a year from reduced medical costs.”
The full report can be found at www.surgeongeneral.gov.