By Chuck Kouri –
Breastfeeding has undeniable benefits towards the mother and child alike. But despite numerous studies promoting this, breastfeeding continues to carry a stigma and overall lack of understanding even in developed countries, like the U.S.
Various health organizations have reported that breastfeeding has been on the rise worldwide during the last decade. That’s good news as the practice protects young children from illness, lowers their risk of obesity, helps with brain development and builds stronger mother/child bonds. Mothers benefit, in turn, by lowering their risk of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and ovarian cancer. The positives extend beyond mother and child as breastfeeding also drives general economic benefits, including lower healthcare costs that benefits everyone.
The bad news? Only one of four babies worldwide are breastfed exclusively in their first six months—the recommended goal by The American Academy of Pediatrics.
The exclusive breastfeeding rate in the U.S. may be higher but it remains one of the lowest among industrialized countries. UNICEF, in fact, reports that in 2018 only 74 percent of U.S. babies were “ever breastfed,” meaning they sometimes or are always breastfed in their first six months. In Sweden, in comparison, this level hits a staggering 98%.
The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) notes that mothers in the U.S. aren’t intentionally choosing not to breastfeed. The CDC explains that 60 percent don’t breastfeed for as long as they intended.
Why the problems? Mothers cited issues with lactation and latching; concerns about infant nutrition and weight; worries about taking medications while breastfeeding; unsupportive work policies and lack of parental leave; hospital practices and policies; and discouraging cultural norms and/or lack of family support.
There are ancillary challenges as well. These include mothers not getting enough sleep, unable to keep up with household chores and feeling isolated. For many, it also means choosing between parenting and employment.
This disconnect between what’s happening and what parents and their babies want and need is no small matter—especially for the 3.9 million babies born annually.
Beyond the cultural issues, there are significant structural hurdles that hamper U.S. breastfeeding rates including lack mandatory parental leave, limited workplace lacation rooms and even the U.S. healthcare systems.
In Sweden, for example, mothers and fathers can take up to 49 weeks of leave with full pay. In Japan, mothers can find free nursing rooms at work as well as in stores, train stations, airports, and many public spaces.
The difference? The U.S. does not require paid parental leave and many employers offer little or no parental leave benefits. And only about half of U.S. employers provided a separate onsite lactation rooms.
Ironically, the American health system isn’t overly supportive of the practice, especially when it comes to informing women about the benefits of breastfeeding. Many health care professionals and programs don’t emphasize breastfeeding, in part, because they know employment schedules and workplaces often inhibit mothers from breastfeeding.
There is no easy answer to facilitating breastfeeding. However, education, engagement and advocacy are a good start.