August is National Breastfeeding Month, in addition to August 1st through 7th being World Breastfeeding Week. This can bring about the question: When it comes to new mothers providing their babies with the nutrients of breastfeeding, how does the United States do when compared to the rest of the world?
Will County Health Department WIC Program Manager and Breastfeeding Coordinator Alissa McCormick says the U.S. can be at a disadvantage for two reasons. First, while mothers in poorer countries may go the breastfeeding route immediately because it is simply the safest option, the United States has loads of stores with baby formula, making it tempting to just go that route from the start.
But even today, there is also the social angle. McCormick says that while in European countries public breastfeeding is very much supported, the United States can still be a prudish country by comparison.
“That definitely plays a part,” McCormick said. “Most laws now allow a woman to breastfeed wherever she is allowed to be. So at a restaurant, she’d be allowed to do it where the public is welcome, but not in the kitchen, since customers are not supposed to be there.”
But still, McCormick says all it can take is “that one person making a negative comment or creating a scene, saying ‘you’re not supposed to be doing that.’ It can be very discouraging.” She says this is especially true for new mothers who are still learning the fundamentals of breastfeeding and getting used to the routine. “If you don’t have a significant support network; such as a mother, older sister, a baby’s father informed of the benefits, or family and friends who have built a life breastfeeding and saying ‘yes you can do this,’ negative reactions can be hard to take.”
McCormick says there are over 250 nutritional benefits to mother’s milk compared to less than 50 known nutritional benefits in formula. She says the rewards of breastfeeding are still being found. One of the more recent discoveries concerned a special cell that is formed by two of the molecules found in breastmilk. Known as HAMLET cells, they are lethal to tumor cells but harmless to healthy cells in a baby’s body. This gives mother’s milk even more power when it comes to helping prevent ear and respiratory infections, allergies, and diseases such as leukemia.
But how are things going when it comes to just getting new mothers to understand these nutritional and healthy benefits of breastfeeding? McCormick says, we are getting better as a country when it comes to educating them. But she would love to see more taught about the benefits of human milk in schools. One rather new place for great information is YouTube videos, which can offer everything from “how to” tips to great nutritional information.
McCormick says if there is one thing new mothers definitely need to understand, it would be how their bodies work when it comes to producing milk for their babies.
“Our statistics show that 36.4% of our WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program’s participating mothers that stopped breastfeeding ended up having to quit because of formula supplementation. In other words, they started supplementing their breastmilk with formula almost immediately after birth. If you do that, your body is not encouraged to keep producing milk because you are not using it enough.”
McCormick reminds us that birth triggers an automatic process in mothers for producing milk. But that process must be nurtured. “We all know about ‘supply and demand,’” she explained. “I call this ‘demand and supply.’ The baby is latched on to the breast demanding milk, and that signals the body to supply it. It is normal for a newborn baby to be fed about 12 times per day. And the new mother needs to breastfeed at least eight times per day to keep that process going.”
McCormick says the first two weeks are especially critical. “This is when the mother’s body is making cells to be able to make more milk. If you cut back on that “signal’ from the baby, the process does not work, and your supply goes down.”
An example of that, McCormick pointed out, would be a new mother making the mistake of thinking, “I know I have a lot of milk stored up, but I’ll just use the formula this time and save it for later.” McCormick says there is no ‘saving it for later.’ Instead, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it.’ “Eventually, the body says, ‘okay, I don’t need to do this anymore,’ and stops producing the milk.”
So how long should a mother breastfeed a child? McCormick points out that the American Academy of Pediatrics says until at least the age of one. But that does not necessarily mean you should simply stop after a baby’s first birthday. She says the end of breastfeeding is something that is meant to come very naturally, just like other important stages in a baby’s development.
“It’s often an emotional issue,” McCormick explained. “The baby will no longer desire the comfort of his mother’s breast, and realize it’s time to move on. It’s often a mutual decision.”
McCormick advises that if a mother simply feels she may wish to stop breastfeeding her child, such as if she has a certain medical condition or simply desires to move on, her best bet is to seek a lactation consultant.
“You can find one through your local hospital or through WIC if you are a participant,” McCormick said. “They can help the baby through the emotional transition, from mother’s milk to formula or mother’s milk to regular milk.
For more breastfeeding information, you can go to www.breastfeedingbasics.com or www.breastfeedingusa.org. To learn more about breastfeeding classes and eligibility for the Will County Health Department WIC program, call 815-727-8524.
You can also click on the video below, from globalhealthmedia.org; called "Increasing Your Milk Supply."