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Removing the Barriers to Breastfeeding

The Surgeon General discusses the challenges women face in breastfeeding, and what physicians, family members, and employers can do to help.

Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin today issued a Call to Action to support breastfeeding that outlines the steps that can be taken to remove some of the obstacles faced by women who want to breastfeed their babies.

“Many barriers exist for mothers who want to breastfeed,” said Benjamin in a press release. “They shouldn’t have to go it alone. Whether you’re a clinician, a family member, a friend, or an employer, you can play an important part in helping mothers who want to breastfeed.”

She stressed that the decision to breastfeed “is a personal one,” and that “no mother should be made to feel guilty if she cannot or chooses not to breastfeed.”

While 75% of US infants start out breastfeeding, the CDC says that only 13% are exclusively breastfed at the end of six months. The rates are particularly low among African-American infants.

Some of the factors that impede efforts, according to many mothers, are as follows:

  • Lack of support at home;
  • Absence of family members who have experience with breastfeeding;
  • Lack of breastfeeding information from health care clinicians;
  • Lack of time and privacy to breastfeed or express milk at the workplace;
  • Inability to connect with other breastfeeding mothers in their communities.

Benjamin’s “Call to Action” identifies ways that families, communities, employers and health care professionals can improve breastfeeding rates and increase support for breastfeeding, including the following:

  • Communities should expand and improve programs that provide mother-to-mother support and peer counseling.
  • Health care systems should ensure that maternity care practices provide education and counseling on breastfeeding. Hospitals should become more “baby-friendly,” by taking steps like those recommended by the UNICEF/WHO’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.
  • Clinicians should ensure that they are trained to properly care for breastfeeding mothers and infants, promote breastfeeding to their pregnant patients, and make sure that mothers receive the best advice on how to breastfeed.
  • Employers should work toward establishing paid maternity leave and high-quality lactation support programs. Employers should expand the use of programs that allow nursing mothers to have their babies close by so they can feed them during the day, and should provide women with break time and private space to express breast milk.
  • Families should give mothers the support and encouragement they need to breastfeed.
  • Family members can help mother’s prepare for breastfeeding and support their continued breastfeeding, including after her return to work or school.

According to the Call to Action, breastfeeding protects infants from infections and illnesses that include diarrhea, ear infections, and pneumonia. Breastfed babies are also less likely to develop asthma, and those who are breastfed for six months are less likely to become obese. Mothers can also realize benefits, as those who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics estimated that the nation would save $13 billion per year in health care and other costs if 90% of US infants were exclusively breastfed for six months. Benjamin added that, by providing accommodations for nursing mothers, employers can reduce their company’s health care costs and lower their absenteeism and turnover rates.

For more:

  • Study: Lack of breastfeeding costs lives, billions of dollars (CNN)
  • Breastfeeding and Risk for Fever after Immunization (Pediatrics)
  • Breastfeeding Duration and Academic Achievement at 10 Years (Pediatrics)