Next week is World Breastfeeding Week. This topic has never been more timely than it is today. Scientific research continues to show a positive relationship between breastfeeding and infant and maternal health.
There is cause for optimism. Breastfeeding rates in the United States are rising. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 83 percent of newborns started out breastfeeding in 2014, up from 73 percent 10 years earlier. By 6 months of age, 55 percent of babies were still breastfeeding, up from 42 percent.
However, not all groups are benefiting equally. As with so many other health issues, there is a gap between breastfeeding rates among non-Hispanic whites and racial minorities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life with continued breastfeeding, supplemented by complementary foods, until at least 1 year of age.
Breast milk is the best food for infants, plain and simple. Breastfed infants have lower risks of asthma, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, respiratory and ear infections and sudden infant death syndrome. In fact, promoting breastfeeding is one of the most important actions to combat the twin national epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Mothers benefit as well. Breastfeeding has been shown to lower a woman’s risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
These health benefits are complemented by other benefits such as maternal-infant bonding and reduced health care costs. Breastfeeding may improve long-term cognitive development, especially among pre-term infants.
To be sure, there are certain circumstances that limit breastfeeding based on the health of the mother or infant. Fortunately, these circumstances are not common. Moreover, some women choose not to breastfeed, which is their right. That said, there are many women whose option to breastfeed is limited because of lack of information, lack of support and/or workplace and public policies. To restate this, not every community is supportive of a mother’s right to breastfeed her infant.
Public policy that supports breastfeeding is good for mothers and infants, for families, for public health and for communities. Supporting mothers who choose to breastfeed is multifactorial.
Health care providers and institutions need to be proactive about ensuring access to high-quality information and support services for pregnant and new mothers.
Baby-friendly workplace policies are also important. Examples include providing places to pump and store breast milk, flexible work hours and maternity leave benefits. Notably, employers stand to benefit from higher breastfeeding rates in terms of reduced health care costs and improved morale and worker retention.
Finally, families and communities can support breastfeeding mothers by sharing knowledge, providing peer support and encouraging a culture of acceptance.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.