Jan. 20. 2011 -- U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, today announced a ''call to action" to support breastfeeding, asking families, communities, health care systems, and employers to make breastfeeding easier for mothers who wish to do so.
''One of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect her child and her own self is to breastfeed," Benjamin told a news conference in Washington, D.C.
''Breastfed babies are less likely to develop asthma," she says. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, and breastfeeding for the first six months reduces the risk of later obesity, among other benefits.
For mothers, breastfeeding reduces the risk of both ovarian and breast cancer, she says.
Breastfeeding can save money, too. "Families who follow the optimal breastfeeding practice can save anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500 in infant formula in the first year alone," Benjamin says.
Despite the benefits, the U.S. breastfeeding rate is far from optimal, Benjamin says. While 75% of mothers start out breastfeeding newborns, just 13% of infants are still breastfed exclusively by age 6 months.
The call to action aims to change all that.
Removing Barriers to Breastfeeding
Mothers wishing to breastfeed face multiple barriers, Benjamin says. The call to action outlines steps that can be taken to remove some of those obstacles. Among them:
- Education and counseling on breastfeeding from hospitals and other health care systems. With the majority of U.S. babies born in hospitals, Benjamin says, ''that is an excellent place for education."
- Expansion and improvement of community programs providing support in the form of mother-to-mother support and peer counseling. Among programs in place already are the support groups offered by La Leche League. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's WIC program can expand the support that women ideally have received in the hospital, according to the call to action report.
- Promotion of breastfeeding by doctors, who should be sure their patients get the best advice on breastfeeding. One good source, according to the surgeon general's report, is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, trained to work with mothers to solve breastfeeding problems and educate them about breastfeeding benefits.
- Lactation support programs at the workplace. Employers are also urged to establish paid maternity leave for mothers and to provide clean places (other than restrooms) for mothers to breastfeed.
With these programs in place, according to Benjamin, the key barriers to breastfeeding will decline. Among them are lack of knowledge, poor social and employer support, and embarrassment about breastfeeding.
"Everyone can help make breastfeeding easier," Benjamin says. But she adds that "the decision to breastfeed is really a personal one. No mother should be made to feel guilty if she cannot or does not want to breastfeed."
The call to action was supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Dietetic Association, among other organizations.
In a statement, the AAP says: "Dr. Benjamin's report adds increased federal attention to the importance of breastfeeding, identifying areas for continued improvement and building support for breastfeeding mothers across the country."
"This is an important new approach," says Ruth Lawrence, MD, professor of pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology and director of the Human Lactation Study Center at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.
Instead of focusing on breastfeeding itself and its known benefits, the call to action is focusing on reducing obstacles. "It's about making it possible for women to succeed, making it easier for women to accomplish their goals," Lawrence says.
"Breastfeeding is truly the best gift any family can give to their baby," says Tonya Lewis Lee, a mother, attorney, and television producer who spoke at the news conference. "No one should feel guilty if they can't breastfeed."
Lee says when she breastfed, she needed her husband, filmmaker Spike Lee, to remind her that the act is beautiful and needed her mother ''to remind me to be patient." She also needed the help of a breastfeeding girlfriend who ''taught me how to settle down and relax."
Until the call to action steps are implemented more fully, what can mothers do to get breastfeeding support?
"You can get support by making your intention to breastfeed known to your family, friends, and employer," says Laurence Grummer-Strawn, PhD, of the CDC, who joined the question-and-answer session at the conference.
"Too often, women keep that decision to themselves, and no one knows their support is needed."