National Consumers League

Breastfeeding a public health issue

A study published recently brings news that breastfeeding could save 900 lives a year and billions of dollars if 90 percent of women breast-fed their babies for the first six months of life. These findings are from the journal Pediatrics, which determined that there are hundreds of deaths and many more illnesses from health problems that breastfeeding could prevent – like asthma, diabetes, ear infections, stomach viruses, or even childhood leukemia.

The analysis studied the prevalence of 10 common childhood illnesses, costs of treating those diseases, including hospitalization, and the level of disease protection other studies have linked with breastfeeding. The $13 billion in estimated losses due to the low breastfeeding rate includes an economist’s calculation partly based on lost potential lifetime wages, at $10.56 million per death.

Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight infections; it also can affect insulin levels in the blood, which may make breast-fed babies less likely to develop diabetes and obesity. One or two critical things the study failed to note – breastfeeding is FREE. Check out the prices of infant formula some time – it’s expensive!  And it doesn’t provide nearly the benefits that mother’s milk contains.

Secondly, breastfeeding is a wonderful bonding experience for baby and mom. We need to do so much more to encourage women to nurse their children – like a major education campaign for starters about the benefits of breastfeeding. And marketing baby formula to new moms should be vastly curtailed in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Happily, the new health reform legislation encourages breastfeeding by requiring that employers create a private space for working women to nurse their children. And under a new provision the Joint Commission, a hospital accrediting agency, hospitals may be evaluated on their efforts to ensure that newborns are fed only breast milk before they're sent home.

“The magnitude of health benefits linked to breast-feeding is vastly underappreciated,” said lead author Dr. Melissa Bartick, an internist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. Bartick calls breastfeeding a public health issue, and I couldn’t agree more. About 43 percent of U.S. mothers do at least some breastfeeding for six months, but only 12 percent follow government guidelines recommending that babies receive only breast milk for six months.

Why do moms either never start or quit breastfeeding early? It’s not always easy to get started – the kid and the mom have to figure it out together, and it can be frustrating when the baby won’t “latch on.” It also can be messy and you have to keep up with it, which means pumping at work if you’re a working mom, which can be a pain. But as this study shows, it’s the best thing for the baby, and we have to do a much better job of communicating the importance of breastfeeding to expectant and new moms. In short, there are ways to address all of these challenges.

The pediatrics academy says babies should be given a chance to start breastfeeding immediately after birth. Bartick said that often doesn't happen, and at many hospitals newborns are offered formula even when their mothers intend to breast-feed. "Hospital practices need to change to be more in line with evidence-based care," Bartick said. "We really shouldn't be blaming mothers for this." Bartrick’s study is invaluable. No, not every woman can successfully breast-feed and she shouldn’t feel guilty if it doesn’t work for her. But the statistics in this study demonstrate that we need to do all that we can to ensure that women who want to and can nurse their infants are given all the encouragement in the world to succeed.