International advocates are using the annual observance of World Breastfeeding Week - which is August 1-7 - to raise awareness of breastfeeding’s health benefits and to provide the societal support mothers need to do it.
Breast milk provides all the nutrients a baby needs for the first year of life, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and many other experts worldwide. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) reports that - although breastfeeding rates are rising around the world - many mothers still choose to give their babies formula.
Dionna Ford is pregnant with her second child. She still remembers how difficult her breastfeeding experience was when her son, now three, was born.
“My son was put in the Intensive Care Unit for babies for possible breathing problems," Ford says."He had a hard time latching, which is a very common problem among new breastfeeding mothers. It took a while for my colostrums to come in, the first milk you produce.”
Benefits of Breastfeeding
- Reduces incidence and severity of infections, including ear infections, pneumonia and meningitis in infants
- Protects infants against a variety of illnesses, such as diarrhea and infant botulism
- Reduces the chance of allergies, asthma and eczema
- Reduces the risk of becoming overweight or obese, even as adults
- Helps mothers recover from childbirth
- Reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancer
- May reduce the risk of osteoporosis
- Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months can help in child spacing among women who do not use contraceptives
- SOURCE: Women's, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program
It would have been easy for Ford to switch to formula, but she persevered.
“I had an amazing lactation consultant that worked for the hospital and she spent hours helping me figure out how to get him to latch on and nurse.”
Her friend, Lauren Wayne, had a very different experience. She says there was no such help in the hospital where she gave birth to her first child, four years ago.
“There was a nurse there who was very passionate, but misinformed about breast feeding," Wayne says. "She convinced us to feed him formula. We got a rough start there. Fortunately, I had a midwife who came to visit me at home once we were out of hospital. She was able to get us back into a very good breastfeeding relationship.”
For Wayne, there is nothing is better than breastfeeding.
“It’s the easiest way. I don’t have to sterilize bottles and worry about the right temperature. I’m also able to nurse at night and not really wake up, my baby just can sleep with me. It’s made me close to my 4-year old. It’s been a good way to connect.”
Natural Parents Network
Inspired by their experiences, Wayne and Ford launched “Natural Parents Network,” an online resource to inform, empower and inspire other mothers who want to breastfeed.
“We have writers for Natural Parents Network who’ve had so many different experiences and challenges and they share that with other mothers to help them persevere through their own challenges," says Ford.
“One way that we promote breastfeeding is through informing them," Wayne says. "We have a lot of articles and resources on breastfeeding. We linked to breastfeeding sites. We have a Facebook page, a forum and a Twitter link so people can interact with each other and get the support they might not be getting from the people they know in real life.”
Encouraging more breastfeeding
Those sorts of resources are crucial to getting more mothers to breastfeed their babies, says U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin.
“We’re having to make those groups available. We know in past generations, there was often someone present in the family, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister, who knew how to breastfeed. We’re seeing less of that now," Benjamin says. "So we’re having to turn to community resources to help educate the family, the mother and the father, on how to continue breastfeeding.”
World Breastfeeding Week, like other campaigns that continue throughout the year, has a simple goal: increase the number of mothers who breastfeed
“We know that 75 percent of women in the United States start out breastfeeding, but by 6 months, less than 13 percent of them are exclusively breast feeding,” Benjamin says.
Many mothers quit when they go back to work, Benjamin notes, because they don’t have a supportive workplace that provides a time and place for them to pump their milk.
Other mothers find nursing too difficult and frustrating. Kelly Seo,30, wanted to breastfeed her baby, but couldn't.
"When she was born, we started off well, but then it wasn't very long before every feeding she was unhappy. She was screaming every time I put her to the breast," says Seo. "I was in severe pain and it just became an awful experience for both of us. I did try to see a couple of lactation consultants and I had some help from my midwife but they weren’t really able to give me the answers I needed. All of the frustration and the tiredness of being a new mom just kind of culminated and I ended up stopping at 10 days."
Dr. Chessa Lutter, spokeswoman for the Pan American Health Organization, which promotes a range of programs that provide support for breastfeeding moms, says it is absolutely possible to increase breastfeeding.
“That involves making hospital environments very conducive to breastfeeding and in general having a society that’s supportive of breastfeeding.”
Lutter would like to see the scope of breastfeeding advocacy grow to involve almost everyone around mothers. When more people support breastfeeding as the normal and right thing to do, she says, more mothers will choose to breastfeed their babies as long as they can.