World Breastfeeding Week: Breastfeeding Benefits and Support

World Breastfeeding WeekThe week of August 1-7, 2013, is designated by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) as a globally-coordinated effort to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. It is celebrated in more than 170 countries. This year’s theme is: “Breastfeeding Support:  Close to Mothers.” Research indicates that even when mothers get off to a good start, breastfeeding rates decline in a few weeks or months after delivery. According to WABA, continued support to sustain breastfeeding is needed to tackle the sharp decline in breastfeeding rates and practices. Why should women breast feed? What support is there for breastfeeding?

Why is breastfeeding important?

Breastfeeding has been shown to have significant health advantages for both women and children. Many major health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree that breast milk is the best form of nutrition for infants in the first year of life. Some of the numerous benefits of mother’s milk include: antibodies that protect infants from bacteria and viruses, fewer ear, respiratory and urinary tract infections, less spitting up, less diarrhea and prevention of childhood obesity, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and type 2 diabetes. Infants who are exclusively breastfed tend to have fewer health care visits, prescriptions and hospitalizations, resulting in lower medical care costs compared to never-breastfed infants. In addition, research shows breastfeeding provides numerous long-term health benefits to the nursing mother, including an earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight, a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer and osteoporosis. Working women who breastfeed or provide breast milk for their infants miss less time from work. A recent issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology relayed that a new study suggests that breastfeeding also can reduce a woman's risk of high blood pressure later in life. In the study of nearly 75,000 Australian women age 45 and older, researchers found that those who breastfed for at least three months per child, or for more than six months total, had significantly reduced risk of high blood pressure, compared with mothers who did not breast-feed

What support is there for breastfeeding?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends peer counseling as an approach to tackling the sharp decline in breastfeeding rates and practicing in the weeks or months after delivery. The period when mothers do not visit a healthcare facility is the time when a community support system is essential. Traditionally, support was provided by the family. As societies have changed, they state, support from a wider circle is needed, whether it is provided by trained healthcare workers, lactation consultants, community leaders or from friends who also are mothers and/or from fathers/partners. 

Implementation strategies have been identified to give mothers the support they need to breastfeed their babies. First, women need to be informed of the importance of breastfeeding for their babies and for themselves. Doctors and nurses can share information on the benefits of breastfeeding and provide resources for breastfeeding education. Second, women need to be taught to breastfeed. Education prepares women, and research shows that they are more likely to be successful at breastfeeding when they are well informed. Breastfeeding classes, books, online resources and community breastfeeding support groups are helpful. Third, mothers should be encouraged to ask for help when challenges arise. If a mother experiences a problem with breastfeeding, asking for help will assist her in achieving her breastfeeding goal. To ensure the best and most supportive environment for breastfeeding, mothers can talk to family, friends, employers, child care providers and others to ask for and create a plan that will accommodate their ability to continue breastfeeding at home and after returning to work or school. The key to best breastfeeding practices, WHO concludes, is continued day-to-day support for the breastfeeding mother within her home and community.

(JoAnn Wangler, MSN, RN-BC, CLC, is a registered nurse and certified lactation counselor.  She is a breastfeeding consultant at St. Alexius’ Well Baby Clinic.)