Mother’s milk is the best nature has to offer and the healthiest first food for babies, critical for the development of healthy individuals and communities. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have identified breastfeeding as the optimal method of infant feeding, ideal for fostering nutritional, immunological and emotional health. The short and long-term health advantages for babies include protection against illnesses and diseases, such as ear infections, Bacterial Meningitis, gastrointestinal infections, lower respiratory infections, Asthma, obesity, Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. For mothers, breastfeeding in the short term is associated with decreased postpartum bleeding, quicker returning to pre-pregnancy weight, and decrease in the likelihood of experiencing postpartum depression. Long-term benefits have been associated with a risk reduction in breast and ovarian cancer, and Type II diabetes.
Yet despite all these benefits, Philadelphia’s breastfeeding rate is unacceptably low. At 62.2%, it is 14.8% lower than the national average of 77% at delivery [i] and drops to 28.9% after six months compared to 43% nationally.[ii]
So what are the barriers that prevent women from achieving their breastfeeding goals? The factors which impact a woman’s decision whether or not to breastfeed can be layered and complicated. A lack of breastfeeding role models in the community, social and familial pressures, history of trauma and abuse, poor access to information, resources and support or lack thereof can all result in poor breastfeeding outcomes.
Many healthcare providers are ambivalent about breastfeeding, sometimes as a result of personal experiences or simply because they received no or inadequate breastfeeding education during their professional training years. Poor breastfeeding policies and practices at birthing hospitals coupled with a lack of access to affordable qualified breastfeeding support services after hospital discharge also impacts a woman’s ability to achieve her breastfeeding goals.
Mass media and advertising does not help combat the issue either. When it comes to infant feeding, you mainly see images of babies with a bottle or parents shopping for formula. Rarely do you see an image of a woman breastfeeding, giving the perception that nursing your child is not a commonly desired or preferred feeding option. With all of these various issues at play, it is not surprising that many women cannot see themselves breastfeed, lack the confidence to do so, or, if they do, give up quickly.
The good news is that in Philadelphia big changes are happening, paving the way for a healthy start for our youngest citizens. One of those significant changes is that all Philadelphia birthing hospitals stopped giving out free formula samples to new mothers at discharge. Research shows that mothers who receive infant formula samples have a shorter exclusive breastfeeding duration and are less likely to breastfeed exclusively. With the city-wide removal of discharge bags with free formula samples, the hospitals make a joint statement that marketing practices that undermine successful breastfeeding and negatively affect the health of vulnerable women and children have no place in healthcare settings. But this is not the only step hospitals are taking to support breastfeeding. Eliminating those discharge bags is part of a bigger transformation plan. Most of our city hospitals have formally committed to becoming a breastfeeding friendly hospital in a more comprehensive way by pursuing the “Baby Friendly” designation awarded by the national organization Baby Friendly USA. Hospitals achieve this designation by complying with the “10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” developed by global health experts.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes all of us to support breastfeeding. You can help us make Philadelphia a City of Motherly Love! During World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7, 2014, we invite you to make your pledge to support breastfeeding women in your community. In the meantime, MCC will continue to educate the general public and employers about the benefits of breastfeeding and help fostering an environment that makes nursing a baby at the LOVE Park as normal as eating a Philly Cheesesteak. So let’s work together and normalize breastfeeding in Philadelphia, the City of Motherly Love.
[i] Breastfeeding Report Card, United States 2012. Centers for Disease Control, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevent and Health Promotion.
[ii] Breastfeeding Among U.S.Children Born 2007, CDC National Immunization Survey. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/NIS_data/2007/state_any.htm.