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Better Breastfeeding Rates Can Improve Public Health

Better Breastfeeding Rates Can Improve Public Health

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By Dr. Ebun Ebunlomo
Associate Professor, Public Health, American Military University

On August 6, 2011, the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) officially declared that August is National Breastfeeding Month through a proclamation that describes the mission of USBC, the benefits of breastfeeding to mother and infant, and the role of other parties (e.g., workplaces) in supporting this health-promoting behavior.

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Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for about the first six months and continue breastfeeding for at least one year while parents introduce appropriate foods. Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) supports this recommendation, while extending the length of breastfeeding up to two years of age with appropriate complementary foods.

Why Is Breastfeeding Important?

Research has shown that there are breastfeeding has several benefits for both infants and their mothers’ health. There are also potential environmental and economic benefits for society at large.

For instance, low rates of breastfeeding add more than $3 billion a year to medical costs for mothers and children in the United States. Other benefits are that:

  • Breastfeeding prevents infections. Given that breast milk has many disease-fighting factors, breastfed babies have fewer digestive, lung and ear infections.
  • Breastfeeding prevents other conditions such as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and reduces risks for allergies, asthma, and long-term health problems like diabetes and obesity.
  • Women who breastfeed are more likely to lose the weight gained during pregnancy. Additionally, the skin-to-skin contact between mother and infant while breastfeeding can enhance emotional well-being.
  • Breastfeeding can lower a mother’s risk for high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer and breast cancer.

Where We Are Now and How We Can Improve Breastfeeding Rates

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in four infants is exclusively breastfed as recommended by the time they are six months old. The CDC’s Healthy People 2020 objectives associated with breastfeeding in the United States are:

  • Increase the overall proportion of infants who are breastfed at six months and one year, and who are exclusively breastfed through three months and six months
  • Increase the proportion of employers that have worksite lactation support programs
  • Reduce the proportion of breastfed newborns who receive formula supplementation within the first two days of life
  • Increase the proportion of live births that occur in facilities that provide recommended care for lactating mothers and their babies

Based on the 2018 CDC Breastfeeding report card, we are meeting all of these goals, except for the proportion of infants who are breastfed at six months and those who are exclusively breastfed through six months. This trend shows that mothers are motivated to initiate breastfeeding; however, they need additional support to sustain the practice.

What Are the Next Steps Our Society Can Take?

We all have a role to play in the improvement of breastfeeding rates. We are moving in the right direction; there has been an increase in the proportion of babies born in baby-friendly facilities that provide care recommended for lactating mothers, and almost half of employers now provide a separate onsite lactation room/mother’s room for nursing mothers. Additionally, there are now worksite wellness programs and health insurance plans that provide a free breast pump with accessories to support women in expressing milk even while away from their infants. Breast pump accessories and breast milk storage supplies are also covered under flexible spending plans.

Also, several airports now have a mother’s room designated for women who would like to breastfed or use a breast pump within the terminals. But all sectors of society -- such as family, friends, healthcare offices, childcare facilities, community-based organizations and workplaces -- can work to provide even more support to ensure mothers have the best resources available to express milk.

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About the Author

Dr. Ebun Ebunlomo, MPH, MCHES, is a trained scholar in health promotion and health education, with over 10 years of experience developing, implementing and evaluating public health programs in clinical, community and work-site settings. She previously was an evaluation fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She received her Ph.D. in Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, with minors in Epidemiology and Leadership/Management from the University of Texas School of Public Health.