Breastfeeding is a natural, beautiful, and beneficial process for both mother and baby, but it can be a surprisingly complicated topic. This year for World Breastfeeding Week, we decided to share the benefits of breastfeeding and start a conversation about the role the United States could take to make breastfeeding more commonplace and accessible to support women’s health.
Breast milk is unlike any other food in that it is a living fluid that can adapt to changes in the baby’s health and compensate with extra white blood cells and antibodies to fight off illness; it is specifically made to tune your body to the health of your baby with tailor-made nutrition. The World Health Organization recommends solely breastfeeding babies for a minimum of 6 months before weaning and introducing other foods to supplement breast milk, but weaning ages vary by country and culture. Breastfeeding is amazing in so many ways and has been shown to have benefits for both mother and baby in the short and long run.
Benefits for the baby:
- Breast milk coats the gut provides good bacteria to protect the baby from illnesses
- Reduces the risk of diabetes later on in life
- Intenses the bond between the mother and child through skin-to-skin contact
- Reduces the risk of asthma and allergic disorders
- Lower risk of childhood leukemia
Benefits for the mother:
- Breastfeeding can help the mother in balancing her hormones post-pregnancy
- Helps to shed pregnancy weight
- Reduces the risk of getting uterine and breast cancer
Despite the universal historically-proven evidence in support of breastfeeding, the choice to breast feed is not as accessible to everyone as it may seem. Whether for personal health restrictions, societal pressures, or personal preferences, it’s a woman’s choice whether or not they choose to breastfeed their babies. When compared to other high-income countries, the United States has some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding. So why does the United States lag so far behind?
Breastfeeding can be a demanding job, both on the body and in time. Between the well-known benefits of breastfeeding and the “recent” cultural push to normalize it, it’s clear that many American women choose not to breastfeed because they don’t have the support they need in order to do so. Currently, the United States offers absolutely no country-wide paid maternity leave. Mothers are able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, but the average woman ends up taking around 10. Compare this to Sweden who leads the way with 56 weeks of paid maternity leave. How often and for how long your baby needs to be breastfed varies, but within their first months, most babies need 2 to 4 hours of feeding time each day. If a new mother wants to return to work and continue breastfeeding, this often means she will have to breast pump throughout the day to provide milk for her baby.
Modern office workplaces may provide breast feeding closets in which mothers can use breast pumps to continue their breast feeding plans. However, mothers that don’t work in offices or are not given enough time for breast pumping breaks do not have this option. Lack of a nationally mandated paid maternity leave and support for mothers returning for work could potentially lead to negative long-term health consequences for both mothers and children. Other wealthy countries have proven that you can make breastfeeding and maternal care commonplace, but the United States is only catching up on a company-by-company basis rather than on a national scale.
Globally, the average age in which children are weaned from breastfeeding ranges from 27 months to 7 years. In the US, many women are afraid to even breastfeed their newborn babies within eyeshot of a stranger, let alone a toddler, due to social pressures. In Italy and many European and South American countries, you would rarely be stared at or scolded for breastfeeding in public. Despite it being such a natural process that every person undergoes in one form or another, it’s sadly still taboo and makes it harder for a new mother to stick to her breast feeding plan, but that’s changing.
Between 2004 and 2014, there was a 10% increase in the amount of mothers who start out breastfeeding. Hashtags like #NormalizeNursing and breastfeeding selfies from inspiring women are accompanying this shift to re-normalize breastfeeding as the healthy, natural, and nurturing process that it is and to celebrate the power of women’s bodies.
There are many reasons why women might choose not to breastfeed or to supplement with a bottle, and each option of feeding and loving your baby is just as valuable as the last. Breastfeeding can be a big adjustment, physically and emotionally. IGT (Insufficient Glandular Tissue), lactogenesis disorders (inefficient milk production), complications with medications, and emotional trauma on top of the baby’s potential health and latching issues is enough to take the option to breastfeed off the table. Breastfeeding alone may not be enough for some babies’ appetites, so you may need to turn to formula as a supplement. Nobody knows your body or your baby better than you, and a commitment to breastfeeding is pointless if it’s not in good health. If you find that breastfeeding isn’t working for you or your baby, it’s not your fault. There is no shame in switching to formula to ensure that both you and your baby are healthy.
A mother’s approach to breastfeeding is her choice, and her choice alone, to make. Oftentimes, it will reflect the customs of her local community, personal views, physical ability, and the support system she has in place. In this way, the US has some catching up to do. Rather than leaving the responsibility on individual employers to create their own flexible maternity leave plans and accommodations for new mothers, there should be a country-wide support system that allows women to make whatever choice is best for themselves and their baby to live their best life.
Whether you are a soon to be mother considering breastfeeding your child, a mother reflecting on the journey you took with your baby, or an ally for women’s health, you can check out the World Alliance Breastfeeding Action this week to learn more and spread awareness of the power of breastfeeding. No matter which method you choose, feeding can be such a special time to nourish, nurture, and comfort your little one. As one new mother put it “I love looking at my baby and knowing that every little roll on her body is because of me.”