For feeding babies, health experts agree that nothing is better than breast milk. It contains anti-bodies that reduce rates of childhood illnesses. Breastfeeding also protects mothers from certain ovarian and breast cancers. While more American women are nursing their babies now than anytime in the last 50 years, the United States still has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the developed world. A national awareness campaign designed to change that.
"Recent studies show that babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop ear infections, respiratory illness and diarrhea. Babies were born to be breastfed!" That's the message of the campaign, which has been disseminated via TV, radio and billboards throughout the country for more than a year.
"The campaign messages are really targeted to women of childbearing age, which ranges from teens all the way through the 30s," Campaign spokeswoman Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter says. The message seems to be getting through. A survey conducted last month revealed that - compared to last year - more men and women agree that breastfeeding is the best way to feed a baby. And they are more comfortable about seeing a woman breastfeed in public.
Dr. Feldman-Winter says in the early 1800's, new mothers who could afford to got a wet nurse - another woman who'd recently given birth - to breastfeed their baby for them. "There was this tradition of wet nursing that went on and many slaves in fact were mandated to become wet nurses for the wealthy aristocrats," she says.
In the 20th century, bottle-feeding became popular, especially after World War II, as the growing numbers of working mothers discovered the convenience of baby formula.
"It was the popular thing, the thing that wealthy women did," she says. "So it was sort of this freedom to not have to breastfeed, and that was a cultural issue that then drove many African American women away from breastfeeding, that that was something that the slaves of the previous generations did, so now they are free to not have to breastfeed, they can actually get formula."
Dr. Feldman-Winter says the campaign to encourage women to return to breastfeeding, encourages immigrants and women of different ethnic and cultural groups to embrace their own breastfeeding traditions. "But of course everyone wants to aspire to being like Americans and part of that, unfortunately, is to begin to formula-feed their young," she says. "So we're really trying to encourage the normative perception that breastfeeding is the American norm, or should be the American norm."
The Babies Are Born to be Breastfed campaign has helped encourage what some see as a cultural change. "I think that the campaign is really important in changing the perspective on breastfeeding for the country," says Mudiwah Kadeshe, lactation consultant at the Washington Hospital Center. She helps new moms learn how to breastfeed.
She says more mothers have become aware of the importance of breastfeeding in boosting their babies' immunity, reducing the risk of allergies and providing the best nutrition… and most want to nurse. "We have a great amount of Moms who initiate breastfeeding," she says. "The challenge becomes maintaining breastfeeding up to the recommended 6 months by the American Academy of Pediatrics."
One problem, she says, is the lack of role models. Many new moms today don't have mothers, sisters or other relatives who nursed their babies, and that makes it harder for these young mothers to start. "Breastfeeding is something that they need help, support and training with," she says. "It is a very intimate process, but the people who are most intimate in their life may not be able to teach them. So, it becomes incumbent on the medical profession, the health care professionals, to support breastfeeding. This is something that's occurring, but not perhaps as fast or as completely as it needs to be."
Nursing advocate Mudiwah Kadeshe says she'd like to see breastfeeding-friendly initiatives in all hospitals and birthing centers and staff trained in the skills necessary to support breastfeeding.
Over the next five years, the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign hopes to increase the proportion of American mothers who nurse their babies to 75%, and those who breastfeed for at least 6 months to 50%.