Where moms breastfeed may stir debate, but the health benefits are clear

Posted Aug. 27, 2012, at 12:23 p.m.
Portland businesses are being encouraged to display this decal to show nursing mothers they are places where breastfeeding is welcome. The city launched its &quotWherever, Whenever" campaign Wednesday morning, Aug. 1, 2012.
City of Portland
Portland businesses are being encouraged to display this decal to show nursing mothers they are places where breastfeeding is welcome. The city launched its "Wherever, Whenever" campaign Wednesday morning, Aug. 1, 2012.

In the park, at the mall, dressed in Army fatigues — breastfeeding moms can create a stir as Americans wrestle with whether breastfeeding a baby should be a private or public activity.

Regardless of differing opinions about where breastfeeding is appropriate, medical evidence proves that breastfeeding offers significant health benefits for both babies and mothers.

Mother’s milk lowers a baby’s risk of infections and illnesses, including childhood leukemia, diarrhea, ear infections, diabetes and pneumonia. Exclusively breastfeeding at one month of age reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome by 50 percent and babies who are breastfed are less likely to become obese and develop asthma. The practice also provides health benefits for mothers, including a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. The health benefits accrue for women who breastfeed for a minimum of six months and improve the longer breastfeeding continues.

Breastfeeding presents financial benefits as well; the American Academy of Pediatrics says breastfeeding saves families an average of $800 per year on formula costs.

“Breastfeeding’s economic benefits are substantial,” said Donna Wood, director of clinical operations at Quorum Health Resources. “A study in the journal Pediatrics estimated that if mothers breastfed their babies for six months it would save the nation $13 billion per year in health care costs related to disease.”

Almost 75 percent of babies in America begin their lives as a breastfed baby. However, by the time they’re six months old, only about 15 percent are still receiving nourishment exclusively from their mothers.

While the advantages of breastfeeding range far and wide, not every woman can or chooses to breastfeed. Breastfeeding moms face challenges with time commitments when they return to work. They have to watch their intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, which can affect the milk that baby will be ingesting. Breastfeeding may be difficult for some women who have had breast surgeries and unsafe for some women with certain medical conditions or who are taking some medications.

While commercially produced formula is considered an alternative to breastfeeding, recent research has concluded that powdered formula is not a sterile product and may contain three different bacteria: chron bacteria, enterobacter sakazakii and salmonella. If it’s not properly prepared, it can cause illness in babies.

Doctors recommend breastfeeding for one to two years and medical experts suggest that babies should have no other food source than human milk for the first six months of life.

The United States Breastfeeding Committee, which has named August National Breastfeeding Month, says the following steps can help improve breastfeeding rates:

• Communities should offer programs to provide women with access to breastfeeding support and counseling from peer mothers

• Hospitals and other health care providers should offer education and counseling on breastfeeding

• Health care providers should be properly trained to care for breastfeeding mothers and babies and should provide education to pregnant patients

In an age when choices for baby food fill the grocery store shelves, breastfeeding advocates say mother’s milk is more convenient, makes babies and mothers healthier and costs nothing. As education and support for breastfeeding becomes more widely available, more women and infants may be able to capture these health and economic benefits.

To learn more about the health benefits of breastfeeding, visit www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/benefits.asp.

Contributed by Paulette Meister, RN, CLC, Calais Regional Hospital Obstetrics Department.

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