Why We Should Promote Breastfeeding
Over the past year, maternal health issues have received national attention due to multiple investigative reports on increasing maternal mortality rates in the U.S. Celebrity pregnancy health scares, the emergence of promising technology in the prenatal and neonatal stages, and the stark increase in the number of pregnant women addicted to opioids have contributed to yet more news coverage. With continued medical advances, it can be easy to forget one of the most basic activities that can support the health of moms and babies — breastfeeding.
Since the 1970s, a range of federal and state initiatives have supported breastfeeding including the Women, Infant, and Children (WIC), Food and Nutrition Service. Even with decades of public health messaging and repeated research findings, education is still necessary. In 2015, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that breastfeeding rates ranged from 63 percent to 93 percent at the state level. Research shows that breastfeeding is linked to fewer infant infections, a reduction in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and higher IQ scores. The gap in rates demonstrates where we are incurring health-care costs and highlights the need for continued public education to improve infant health. Moreover, we should work towards removing barriers to breastfeeding, while encouraging programs designed to fit the specific needs of varying demographics and communities.
The need for evidence-based recommendations is apparent when it comes to all components of maternal and child health. There are numerous policy efforts underway regarding maternal health including S.1112, the Maternal Mortality Accountability Act, H.R. 5492 the Maternal Opioid Treatment, Health, Education, and Recovery Act and as of this month, S. 3363 the Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies (Maternal Care) Act. Any program targeted to pregnant or recently delivered moms should reinforce positive overall health messages, including education and support around the importance of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a building block toward setting a strong foundation for parenthood; it can also encourage moms to make other healthy choices for their babies and themselves.
Four years ago, I testified before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee on the Reauthorization of the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act. Our country is innovative when it comes to the use of technology and community-based programing in supporting families through the diagnosis, treatment, and care of newborns with life-threatening conditions. Supporting the needs of moms and families during those critical first few months after delivery is an essential and necessary part of health care.
As a maternal and child health advocate, I am proud to see the support behind emerging technologies, though I am puzzled by the fact that we still lag other parts of the world in our breastfeeding policies and programs. The U.S. is a global leader in newborn screening for rare conditions, a complex topic requiring necessary medical personnel, research, and time. However, breastfeeding also has decades of research, centuries of lived experiences, and requires minimal costs for a mother and family to begin. And yet, the U.S. is still struggling with what policies to implement and how to best support women and their babies around breastfeeding. Breastfeeding should be treated as a basic aspect of health and is an important part of both child development and a mother’s well-being.
As August is Breastfeeding Awareness month, it is time we get back to basics and support women as they breastfeed, while also providing resources and education when breastfeeding is not an option. Public education and awareness are not the only solutions; we must also provide a spectrum of evidence-based approaches and implement policies that support the needs of women and children during a delicate and critical time in their lives. We need research, programming, and communications on this topic as well as the range of other critical issues facing the maternal and child health sector today.
Breastfeeding is a clear example of the importance of building long-term infrastructure to implement science-driven policies with options for real life applicability to improve maternal health.
Natasha F. Bonhomme is the founder of Expecting Health, a leading Washington, D.C based national initiative focused on maternal and child health.