According to a new report from the CDC, hospitals should be doing a lot more to help mothers start and continue to breastfeeding. Their recommendations are couched within an argument about childhood obesity, but it’s clear that breastfeeding has a variety of positive outcomes which hospitals should be trying to promote. Most, unfortunately, are not.
Only 4% of hospitals follow all of the World Health Organization’s “ten steps to successful breastfeeding,” and although most women start breastfeeding their babies in the week after birth, many switch to formula far before they need to. Indeed, by 9 months, only 31% of babies are breastfeeding at all.
The CDC points out that breastfeeding can help protect against childhood obesity, which is true. It also boosts a baby’s immune system and improves maternal health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be fed nothing but breast milk for the first 6 months and that breastfeeding continue until the baby is at least 1 year old. This has dramatic effects on the baby’s health (and decreases post-natal healthcare costs), and mothers have lower risks of breast and ovarian cancers. It also makes the mother’s uterus contract and can help women lose weight in the months after giving birth.
As researcher Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz succinctly put it in an article for the La Leche League: “The longer a mother nurses her baby, the better for both of them.”
Breastfeeding is the way to go. So why aren’t more people doing it? Hospitals may be a large part of the problem, especially if they’re not giving women the tools to breastfeed their children effectively. Breastfeeding can be difficult for women to learn, and the hours and days after childbirth are the ideal time to provide resources about its benefits, and to help women through the initial challenges.
Hospitals sometimes give babies formula or sugar-water, even though there is no nutritional reason to do so. New mothers are also sometimes given gift bags with formula upon leaving the hospital, which sends the wrong message. Only half of hospitals help new moms place their infant on their skin and breastfeed within the first hour after birth, which can be a crucial time in which the mother and baby bond and begin to nurse. And very few hospitals provide breastfeeding support after families leave the hospital.
Given the fact that when mothers leave the hospital, some states (like Michigan) have no laws protecting women who breastfeed in public, hospitals should really be doing all they can to help women navigate this tricky terrain.
The CDC has a number of recommendations for ways that hospitals can begin to improve their breastfeeding services. And, in the middle of World Breastfeeding Week, it’s a good example of how beneficial breastfeeding can be – and how much more we have to do before it becomes a culturally normalized practice in the United States. It’s also a reminder for mothers-to-be to check out their hospital’s policies on breastfeeding, and find out what kind of support they’ll be receiving as they begin this intimate process with their newborn child.
Photo from aurimas_m via flickr.