What could be more natural and normal than breastfeeding an infant? Natural it may be, but it is hardly the norm. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that globally less than 40 percent of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed.
A recently-released study indicates that if mothers would breastfeed their infants for the first six months of life, it would save about 1,000 lives and billions of dollars annually.
We hardly needed another study to tell us what should be common sense. Health organizations the world over agree that breastfeeding is the most perfect source of nutrition for infants. It is packed with proteins and nutrients; easy to digest; and contains antibodies that protect babies from bacterial and viral infections and reduces the risk of many illnesses, including meningitis, diarrhea and ear infections, to name a few.
Some research also indicates that women who breastfeed benefit as well. Breastfeeding helps the uterus to contract and bleeding to cease more quickly after delivery. It can also lower the rates of some breast and ovarian cancers. The mother-child bonding can also be emotionally beneficial.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that it is very rare that any disease or condition of the mother’s will outweigh the benefits of breastfeeding. You can view a list of those conditions here.
A 2009 report from the CDC showed that only 73.9 percent of women in the United States even began breastfeeding, and only 33.1 percent were still exclusively breastfeeding at three months, and 13.6 percent at six months.
There are many reasons why women in the United States are breastfeeding is such low numbers. Among the obstacles:
- Separation of mother and baby in maternity wards
- Lack of support within the family; lack of guidance by mothers and grandmothers
- Lack of maternity leave and support in the workplace
- Lack of acceptance of breastfeeding when in public situations
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) maintains an up-to-date listing of breastfeeding laws by state that can be viewed here. The recently passed Patient and Affordable Health Care Act includes a provision to help some breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. From the NCSL website:
President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, H.R. 3590, on March 23rd and the Reconciliation Act of 2010, H.R. 4872, on March 30, 2010. Among many provisions, the law amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.Code 207) to require an employer to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express milk. The employer is not required to compensate an employee receiving reasonable break time for any work time spent for such purpose. The employer must also provide a place, other than a bathroom, for the employee to express breast milk. If these requirements impose undue hardship, an employer that employs less than 50 employees is not subject to these requirements. Furthermore, these requirements shall not preempt a state law that provides greater protections to employees.
Social stigma has a devastating effect on the process. Most women who breastfeed are simply trying to feed their babies, yet they find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to breastfeed in public bathrooms, hiding in corners, draping blankets over the baby’s head, or pumping in to a bottle. Sometimes they are made to feel unwelcome or asked to leave the premises.
The general message woman get? Breastfeeding is unacceptable, should be done only for a brief period of time, and completely hidden from view. Anyone who has ever breastfed can tell you that under those circumstances, exclusive breastfeeding is very difficult, forcing many good-intentioned mothers to give up.
Not that breasts aren’t bountiful in public life as objects of sexuality, especially in advertising. The social condemnation seems to stem from the perfectly normal and nurturing act of breastfeeding. Isn’t it about time we all get a grip?
Breastfeeding is healthy for mothers and babies and, practically speaking, saves a lot of money. Numerous studies have pounded the message home. Breast is best. Women who can and want to breastfeed deserve to be met with support from the medical community, their families, and from society as a whole. It’s just common sense.
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Centers for Disease Control
- La Leche League
- World Health Organization
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Just to clarify for the few commenters who spoke to the issue of women who don’t want to breastfeed — I wrote, “Women who can and want to breastfeed deserve to be met with support.” It is most certainly a woman’s personal choice, and it doesn’t always work out.
Thanks for all the insightful comments!