Bibi Chaterpateah discusses breastfeeding support and it’s importance in improving public health
By Bibi Chaterpateah
Breastfeeding support is vital for improving public health
August 1- August 7th is recognized as World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) and this year the campaign theme is “Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility”.
Breastfeeding and lactation support and services are important in supporting the health of mothers and infants. Breast milk contains anti-infective properties that help protect infants against disease. The act of breastfeeding is also important for mother-baby bonding and promoting emotional development.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Infants
- Lower risks of asthma, childhood leukemia, childhood obesity, ear infections, eczema, necrotizing enterocolitis, and type 2 diabetes
- Lower risks of acute otitis media (ear infections), sudden infant death syndromes (SIDS), gastrointestinal infections, severe lower respiratory disease
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mothers
- Lower risks of type 2 diabetes, certain types of breast cancers, ovarian cancers
- Decreases rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease
- Improved return to prepregancy weight
- Improved birth spacing
Barriers to Breastfeeding
Infant malnutrition is a part of larger public health issues including lack of education, poverty, and social justice. Lack of access to professional lactation support services is a significant barrier to breastfeeding. Other barriers include lack of access to private spaces for breastfeeding and milk expression especially in work settings. Research has demonstrated a relationship between racism and discrimination and decreased odds of breastfeeding at 3-5 months in the workplace. The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative was launched in 1991 to provide spaces for infant feeding. There are more 600 Baby-Friendly designated facilities in the United States as of 2019.
The World Health Organization urges governments to develop social support systems to protect, facilitate, and encourage breastfeeding and must uphold the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. This code is significant in that it recognizes the role that marketing industries promoting formula-based milk substitutes play in supporting or deterring breastfeeding and the potential harmful effects of health of mothers and babies. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that not all mothers can breastfeed because of the complexity of their health and the infant’s health, so they rely on other breastfeeding alternatives.
Breastfeeding and COVID-19
WHO recommends standard infant feeding guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidelines are also safe for mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. The benefits or breastfeeding outweighs the risk of transmission. Currently, there is no research that indicates that breast milk is a source of COVID-19 infection. These guidelines are:
- Initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth
- Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months
- Continued breastfeeding until the age of 2 years or beyond
Retruning back to the theme of “shared responsibility” to improve the health of mothers and infants by encouraging and supporting breastfeeding practices, a collective effort on various levels is necessary from educating the public to influencing policy changes. Some recommendations include:
- Implement lactation support programs in maternity care settings
- Increase access to lactation consultants in maternity care settings and at home
- Increase familiarity and access to donor human milk which is especially important for high-risk infants (preterm and low-birth weight infants)
- Provide resources particularly catered to families of color and marginalized communities
- Recognizing that other vulnerable populations including the LGBTQ+ community, those with substance use disorder, and incarcerated parents faces unique challenges surrounding breastfeeding and require services tailored to address these challenges
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