“I’ve breastfed all over the world including in the Vatican,” Olga Ryan, of El Rio Birth and Women’s Center recalls, “the only place I was told to take it behind closed doors was in Tucson.”

Photo used with permission from Life Aglow Photography

Olga Ryan
Photo used with permission from Life Aglow Photography

This experience where another woman suggesting that there was something shameful about breastfeeding and a bittersweet experience at a local bakery (the owner shared that they were glad to see her breastfeeding as it was something he didn’t see often in his adopted home of the United States), lends a personal perspective to Olga’s work. Along with her colleagues at El Rio Birth and Women’s Center and at TMC for Women, Olga works to normalize breastfeeding within our community.  To that end, this week we’re celebrating World Breastfeeding Week.

What’s the purpose of a World Awareness Week? Why is it important?

Susan Dennis on the right with fellow TMC IBCLC Lactation Consultants

Susan Dennis with fellow TMC IBCLC Lactation Consultants

Susan Dennis, IBCLC Lactation Consultant at TMC for Women explains,

The success of Breastfeeding relies on multiple levels of support and care for new moms. World Breastfeeding Week helps highlight the need for public awareness. When breastfeeding is viewed as the normal way to feed babies, then our society will become more accepting and supportive of breastfeeding in the community.

Women should not feel like they have to hide behind closed doors to feed their children in the healthiest food they can provide. And that concept, that breast milk is the healthiest food for an infant, that breast milk and formula are not equal is one that Olga states many women don’t realize, “Too many people think that breastfeeding and formula are equal. Formula is sometimes life saving and sometimes medically indicated, but it is not an equal replacement for breastfeeding.”

In the 2011 Surgeon General’s Call to Action in support of Breastfeeding these facts about breastfeeding are shared:

Health benefits of breastfeeding:

  • Breastfeeding protects babies from infections and illnesses that include diarrhea, ear infections and pneumonia.
  • Breastfed babies are less likely to develop asthma.
  • Children who are breastfed for six months are less likely to become obese.
  • Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Mothers who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Economic benefits of breastfeeding:

  • Families who follow optimal breastfeeding practices can save between $1,200–$1,500 in expenditures on infant formula in the first year alone.
  • A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics estimated that if 90% of US families followed guidelines to breastfeed exclusively for six months, the U.S. would annually save $13 billion from reduced medical and other costs.
  • For both employers and employees, better infant health means fewer health insurance claims, less employee time off to care for sick children and higher productivity. 
  • Mutual of Omaha found that health care costs for newborns are three times lower for babies whose mothers participate in the company’s employee maternity and lactation program.

From: The Surgeon General’s Call to Action Support for Breastfeeding Fact Sheet accessed August 1, 2013

Why do we need events like the World Breastfeeding Week?  Why not just provide that information privately?
Today, the vast majority of new mothers in the United States attempt to breastfeed their babies,  but after a few months the drop off in breastfeeding is considerable. At one year, the World Health Organization recommends two years, just 27 percent of babies are being breastfed in the US.  Challenges in continuing to breastfeed lie within our community, the workplace, behind societal barriers, and even within our families. Luckily, we can find the support to tear down those barriers there too.

Olga explains that, “Events like the Big Latch On provide the community at large with an opportunity to see the range of what is normal when it comes to breastfeeding, from infant to children of seven years old. From expressing of milk for a child with a cleft palate, to pumping, to breastfeeding and to the use of a SNS (Supplemental Nursing System).”  Such events, and peer support groups, provide the support that might once have been provided by generations of women within a family. Today that generational knowledge may not exist as the rates of breastfeeding declined from the 1930s to all time low in 1971 here in the US  when only a quarter of new mothers initiated breastfeeding at hospital discharge ( Wolf, J.H. 2003) . “A lot of families who didn’t breast feed don’t know how to express support for breastfeeding women. They (events like Big Latch On) surround women with positive affirmation to reassure women with self doubt and facing oppression.”  Olga shares.

Despite efforts starting in the 1970s to support and increase rates of breastfeeding, attitudes about and messages to women who breastfeed are often still negative. Images of women nursing children are taken down from popular social media sites for indecency, while the same site may allow images more sexual in nature and just as revealing to be shown with no penalty. Women are asked or told to feed their children in bathrooms, but a scantily clad individual is not required to cover up. The message comes across clear, there is still a significant portion of the society who struggle to accept the image of a woman as a mother nursing her child for what it is, “the most elemental link of a mother to a child”.

Not only do nursing women need support from other women and their families, but also from health care providers. Susan Dennis addresses how health care providers can and are helping:

We can offer classes, evidenced-based information, community events promoting breastfeeding to all pregnant women. During the post partum period it is especially important for women to be surrounded by supportive health care providers, family, and friends. Breastfeeding support groups through hospitals, birth centers, and La Leche League allow new moms to get peer support and assistance by trained advocates of breastfeeding.

The “10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” outlines the pathway to increased exclusive breastfeeding and longer duration of Breastfeeding in our society.

Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding

  1. Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
  2. Train all health care staff in the skills necessary to implement this policy.
  3. Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
  4. Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth.
  5. Show mothers how to breastfeed and how to maintain lactation, even if they are separated from their infants.
  6. Give infants no food or drink other than breast-milk, unless medically indicated.
  7. Practice rooming in – allow mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day.
  8. Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
  9. Give no pacifiers or artificial nipples to breastfeeding infants.
  10. Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from the hospital or birth center.

Wolf, J. H. Low Breastfeeding Rates and Public Health in the United States, Am J Public Health. 2003 December; 93(12): 2000–2010.