I’ve been lactating now for nearly 6 years. Six years of being able to nourish and nurture my children with my own breast milk. I feel lucky.
Because although the U.S. government indicates that “Breastfeeding is Ideal for Infants”, according to the CDC’s Breastfeeding Report Card from 2006, only 73.9% of US babies have ever been breastfed. Only 43.3% of U.S. babies were still breastfeeding at 6 months, and a mere 22.7% were still breastfeeding at 12 months.
The exclusively breastfeeding numbers are even lower (and much more startling, considering the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life – meaning, baby needs no additional foods or fluids other than breastmilk) at 33.1% exclusively breastfeeding at 3 months and only 13.6% exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months.
So, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, and the World Health Organization recommends breastmilk ONLY for the first 6 months of life, only one seventh of the babies in this country are doing so. When you look at the individual states, the numbers are even more shocking. In Mississippi for example, of babies born in 2006, only 4.6% were still exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months. Only 4.6%. A tiny fraction of infants. In spite of the recommendations. In spite of the fact that human milk is species-specific (meaning, our human milk is tailor made for human babies, whereas cow milk is tailor made for calves), in spite of research that indicates human milk feeding decreases infectious diseases such as bacterial meningitis, respiratory tract infections, UTIs, ear infections; in spite of studies indicating reduced rates of SIDS, insulin dependent type 1 and non-insulin dependent type 2 dibetes, cancer, obesity, and asthma (both in older children and adults who were breastfed compared with individuals who were not breastfed); in spite of the association with enhanced performance on tests of cognitive development in individuals who were breastfed; in spite of maternal health benefits – like decreased post-partum bleeding and decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. (Source: http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;115/2/496)
What’s wrong? Why aren’t more women breastfeeding their children? And why are so many supplementing with formula so early on, or quitting altogether? I believe it’s a combination of factors. Perhaps foremost is the lack of understanding and support from the general population with regards to normal infant feeding and sleeping habits. How many articles have you read which indicate women should breastfeed only under cover or in private, should have their infants sleep separately, should feed them on a specific schedule, should give them pacifiers instead of the breast for comfort? How may advertisements in parenting magazines are there for formulas? How many free samples of formula are sent home with new mothers, instead of easy, free, consistent, and friendly access to breastfeeding counselors and lactation consultants (both in the hospital and at home)? Far too many.
In combination with the lack of public support for breastfeeding is the general feeling towards the act of breastfeeding. I believe that while many people may feel “breast is best”, in reality, breast is just normal. Breastfeeding shouldn’t be seen as an ideal (which makes it difficult to reach for some), rather as a normalcy. Unfortunately, breastfeeding is often seen as shameful. When new mothers feel they have to put their breast milk into a bottle, or to nurse under a tent in order to feed in public, the act of breastfeeding, and with it the breastfeeding mother herself, is marginalized; not normalized, not supported. How can a new mother stand up to that?
When formula companies suggest feeding formula offers “healthy growth patterns similar to breastfed babies” (Infamil) or their formula contains “unique blend of prebiotics, nucleotides and antioxidants nutrients naturally found in breast milk” (Similac) and offer “$250 worth of free gifts” (again, Infamil), breastfeeding is further marginalized, and formula feeding becomes more accessible and more normalized. When formula feeding is presented as just another way of feeding infants instead of something to be offered only when medically indicated by a physician (as per the AAP policy on breastfeeding), when its presented as easy, healthy, and free; when real breastfeeding support is lacking, what else can a mother do but formula feed?
So why aren’t more women breastfeeding their children? Because society and big business says formula feeding is easy, bottle feeding is normal and acceptable anywhere & everywhere, and breastfeeding is difficult and something to be hidden or kept private.
So, here I am, breastfeeding for nearly six years. But I understand that this is primarily because I was lucky enough to have had support from day one in the hospital – a hospital which was working on “baby friendly designation” which meant all of its lactation consultants and nurses and doctors were familiar with and fully supportive of making the breastfeeding relationship work. Lucky enough to have had no bottles or pacifiers offered to my newborn, even while in the nursery. Lucky enough to have my baby room in with me when possible, and brought to me each & every time she awoke to nurse (when she was in a special care nursery due to ABO incompatibility jaundice). I was lucky enough that when I had to supplement with formula, the formula was given to me with an SNS (supplemental nursing system) so that I could keep baby suckling at the breast. I was lucky enough to be given a free pump and consistent instructions and encouragement to bring my milk in and get my baby off of formula and back on to breast milk. I was lucky enough to have support at home from my husband, parents, and phone support from the hospital’s lactation consultant. I was lucky enough to have had support from other mothers in La Leche League.
Yet, it shouldn’t be luck for women to have support in breastfeeding. It should be normal. We need to work towards normalization of breastfeeding in this society so that more than 22.7% of the population of new babies can get the benefits of breastfeeding to (at least) one year, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Please tell me your stories of support. How you were able to be successful in breastfeeding. Or, if you weren’t successful with breastfeeding, please share what circumstances led you to formula feed. Thank you so much for listening & sharing. I believe we can all learn from each others’ experiences in order to better support all women and babies.