Family Matters

Breast-Feeding: It Takes a Village to Help Moms Succeed

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That breast-feeding is good for mom and baby is old news, which is why U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin didn’t focus on that when she issued her first “Call to Action” last week. Instead, she urged communities, relatives, employers and health providers to do their part to support breast-feeding. But, wait, isn’t the act of breast-feeding between just two parties — mom and babe?

Hardly, points out Benjamin in the document: “The time has come to set forth the important roles and responsibilities of clinicians, employers, communities, researchers, and government leaders and to urge us all to take on a commitment to enable mothers to meet their personal goals for breast-feeding.” (More on Time.comWhy Most Moms Don’t Follow Breast-Feeding Recommendations)

For too long, mothers have been urged to breast-feed but left alone to figure out how to make it happen, says Best for Babes, a newish nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to breast-feeding. They call them “Booby Traps,” and they’re everywhere.

Some hospitals whisk a newborn away to the nursery, interfering with the establishment of breast-feeding. A quarter of healthy, full-term babies get formula or sugar-water supplementation after birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though colustrum, the precursor of breast milk, is all an infant needs. Certified lactation consultants who can teach a new mom how to breast-feed are not on staff at many hospitals. (More on Time.comStudy: Breast-Feeding Improves Academic Performance, Especially for Boys)

At home, many moms — particularly low-income women — have to return to work quickly since the U.S. is one of a handful of countries that don’t mandate paid maternity leave. Back at work, employers may not provide enough breaks for a woman to pump milk. Even if they do, they may not have a designated, discreet space; female employees may be relegated to a bathroom, as I was (not at Time!). Pumping and pooping is not an appealing combination.

“Moms don’t need more pressure, judgment or guilt,” says Bettina Forbes, who was invited to attend the Surgeon General’s briefing as a co-founder of Best for Babes. “What they need is for us to remove the booby-traps — the institutional and cultural barriers that surround moms everywhere they turn. We intercepted the Surgeon General afterwards and told her it was about ending suffering for moms. She gets that.” (More on Time.comIn the Battle Over Breast or Bottle, Guilt May Play a Role)

Last week’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding was Benjamin’s first. Calls to Action, in general, are issued with the hope of training attention on a public-health problem, such as the low rates of long-term breast-feeding. Babies who are breast-fed are less likely to be obese or contract ear infections or diabetes, while their moms benefit from a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Because breast-fed babies are healthier, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) projects that a significant increase in the nation’s breast-feeding rate could trim nearly $4 billion a year in health-care costs. Yet although 75% of women initiate breast-feeding, only 13% are persevering by six months — despite a recommendation by the AAP that babies be exclusively breast-fed until then.

The Call to Action lays out a plan to create a web of support surrounding breast-feeding that includes training physicians, increasing access to lactation consultants and working toward a national policy of paid maternity leave.

“It’s really a document aimed at changing the paradigm,” says Cathy Carothers, a spokesperson for the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. “For so long, all the talk about breast-feeding has been about the benefits of breast-feeding, and the responsibility falls on the mother to navigate the barriers because it’s the best thing for her baby.

“Breast-feeding isn’t always easy, but we can do our part to make it easier for moms, whether that mom’s goal is one week or one year or one month,” says Carothers. (More on Time.comStudy: Breast-Feeding Moms Get Just as Much (or Little) Rest as Formula-Feeders)

There is incremental progress. The new health-care law contains a provision that employers with more than 50 workers must provide breaks, as necessary, and a private space to pump that is not a bathroom.

For me, expressing milk next to a toilet at work was the least of my worries. Breast-feeding hurt so much in the beginning that I cringed before each nursing session. Just because breast-feeding is natural — that’s why women have breasts, after all — doesn’t mean it’s effortless. Fortunately, I found an experienced lactation consultant who was able to teach me to pinch here and tug there; I ended up loving the connection with my kids so much that I spent more than six years doing it.

I’ve helped many a friend through breast-feeding crises, which, I suppose, falls under the rubric of the support that Benjamin is talking about. Formula isn’t poison, of course, but if a mom wants to breast-feed, it would help if the community’s got her back.

As Meghan Leahy — a mom of three in Washington, D.C., who credits her breast-feeding success to classes, a supportive husband and a mom who’s a lactation consultant as well as a lactation consultant who’s not her mom — puts it, “if you don’t have a supportive community, it’s pretty hard. Our American lives don’t make it easy for us. A little support would go a long way.”

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