In a world filled with inequality, crises and poverty, breastfeeding can be a building block for lifelong health for babies and mothers. Even an hour or a day of breastfeeding after birth delivers benefits to mother and baby; nursing exclusively for six months offers even greater health rewards for both mother and child.
Support for breastfeeding in the U.S. and around the world has continued to mount in recent decades. Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of breastfeeding in the U.S., and our own community’s hospitals, medical Clinicians and family support programs recognize nursing’s benefits.
Although breastfeeding initiation rates are fairly strong in the U.S., infants in rural areas (like ours) are less likely to be breast-fed. And in general, breastfeeding duration declines as mothers face the stress and logistics of returning to work; they may also lack adequate family and workplace support. And some mothers are not aware of the of breastfeeding’s health benefits: breastmilk provides all the nutrients needed for an infant’s first months. Breastmilk can provide up to half or more of a child’s nutrition during the second six months and up to one-third during the second year.
According to the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization:
- Breastmilk protects infants against infectious and chronic diseases such as earaches and asthma.
- Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhea or pneumonia and speeds up recovery from illness.
- Breastfeeding contributes to the health of mothers by reducing the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer and protecting against hypertension, heart attack and even Type 2 diabetes.
Partners, family, friends and employers can best support nursing mothers by asking, “How can I help you?” Equally important: new mothers need practical support in setting aside time and space for nursing or pumping breast milk, at home and at work.
Still, breastfeeding simply does not work for all mothers and babies. Certain medical conditions can preclude nursing, or a mother’s medication may not be safe for nursing babies. Some mothers do not have the support needed to breastfeed exclusively while working or raising other children. Just as nursing mothers need help from families and workplaces, women who cannot breastfeed need support in providing alternative nutrition to their growing babies.
Nursing and non-nursing mothers can tap an array of local support resources: pediatric health care Clinicians, nutritionists and breastfeeding counselors, Berkshire Nursing Families, or any local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs. CHP Family Services also maintains a library of information, classes and parent groups. Fairview Hospital and Berkshire Medical Center offer excellent encouragement and education to new mothers as they begin breastfeeding their infants. CHP’s family playgroups provide solid connections for parents and children.
So, what can you do to help?
Family and friends are key to helping women to breastfeed their children, and they can help most by providing logistical and emotional support for a woman’s breastfeeding routine. Employers can provide break time and space for nursing mothers.
Yes, it does take a village –and the village here in Berkshire County is growing stronger.
By MaryElizabeth Merrit, Ph.D, CLC. MaryElizabeth is a breastfeeding peer counselor and pre- and perinatal health educator at Community Health Programs Family Services in Great Barrington.