The New York Times reported last week that about 77 percent of new mothers breast-feed, the highest percentage in the United States in over a decade. However, at six months age for the newborn, the rate of breast-feeding is the same as it has been, which is much lower than government-targeted rates. This means that too many women try breast-feeding but don’t continue doing so.
The increased rate of breast-feeding at birth is encouraging because of all the health benefits associated with breast-feeding: “The increase in initial breast-feeding has been driven at least in part by a concerted campaign by medical groups and government agencies that have sought to educate mothers about the benefits of breast-feeding and, increasingly, the risks associated with infant formula. . . . Studies have shown that children who are fed formula have increased risks of ear and respiratory infections, obesity, diabetes and even cancer.”
Campaigns to increase the rate of breast-feeding are wonderful. But, at the same time, they are flawed without more, and maybe that’s why the rate at six-months isn’t increasing.
First, as has been pointed out by many, campaigns need to come with a push to make breast-feeding easier in a women’s lives. Some working women get the support they need from their employer, but that’s the exception. Most struggle to fit breast-feeding and pumping into their work lives and get no support from their employer in doing so. All breast-feeding women struggle with finding breast-feeding-friendly public space. The law needs to work to make breast-feeding easier for women. But, despite this being incredibly important, it is well-worn territory.
In my mind, what is less-well-worn is a second flaw with current campaigns to increase the rate of breast-feeding. This second flaw is that information about just how difficult many women find breast-feeding is not a major part of the campaign. Admittedly, I’m speaking from my personal experiences (which are even more limited because I’m a man), but almost every woman I know who has breast-fed has had major problems — engorgement, oversupply, undersupply, mastitis, blebs, clogged ducts, cracked nipples, biting babies, etc. And, most of them were surprised by this. Breast-feeding had been portrayed to them as this wonderful experience between mother and child. And, ultimately, it was. But, the picture drawn did not include information about just how difficult it would be — physically and emotionally — and about how committed many women have to be to persevere through the difficult times. With more accurate information about difficulties that many, if not most, women go through, maybe campaigns to increase breast-feeding would actually be more effective in the long-run, as more women might continue through difficulties if they knew that their problems were common, if not almost universal.
Certainly La Leche League, lactation consultants, OB/GYNs, midwives, and other personal/familial connections can provide this information, but it needs to be out there even more, a significant part of every campaign to increase breast-feeding. Breast-feeding is natural, but it’s also incredibly hard for many women. That shouldn’t be ignored. The more realistic campaigns on the issue are, the more successful they’ll be.
- David S. Cohen