For quite a while, breastfeeding was the status quo. It is, after all, what mammals do.
“It’s what human babies are suppose to eat,” said Elaine Condon, a registered nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) at Baptist Hospital’s Mother Baby Care Center. “It’s the norm. It’s the normal feeding for infants. For human babies. There’s a lot of benefits to it, of course, for babies and for mommas.”
And yet, the practice isn’t always the norm. Not in America, anyway. It is estimated that half of the babies born here are fed formula within the first week, with breastfeeding numbers dropping to 31 percent within nine months.
“Unfortunately, people here think that the artificial milk and the baby milk are equal,” Condon said. “I think a lot of that is lack of education and marketing.”
Why the Breast is Best
The list of reasons for breastfeeding is long.
“There’s lots and lots and lots of reasons,” said Karen Shelton, lead lactation consultant, also IBCLC certified, at Sacred Heart Women’s Hospital. “There’s many, many benefits.”
As such, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life. The breast milk contains all the nutrients an infant needs for healthy development. A mother’s milk is also tailored specifically for her baby, and changes to suit the baby’s needs.
“Breast milk is dynamic,” Shelton said. “In the morning it’s different than what it is in the evening. It actually changes as the baby grows.”
The milk also contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses. Formula, conversely, does not contain such antibodies.
“Study after study show that human milk is much more beneficial than artificial milk,” Shelton said.
Beyond the immediate benefits of breastfeeding, the WHO contends that the practice lays the foundation for a lifetime of health benefits. Adults who were breastfed as babies often have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. They also tend to have lower rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Evidence also indicates that people who were breastfed perform better on intelligence tests.
Breastfeeding also offers benefits to mothers. It has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian and breast cancer later in life, and also makes it easier for women to return to their pre-pregnancy weight and lowers rates of obesity in general. The WHO also associates the practice, when done exclusively, with a 98 percent effective birth control method for the first six months after a baby is born.
Out of Practice
The popularity of breastfeeding dropped around the middle of last century.
“Around the time of World War II is probably when it changed dramatically,” Condon said.
As women joined the workforce in greater numbers, breastfeeding numbers slipped. Formula companies, at the same time, began to gain traction in the American market.
“The formula companies did a really good job of convincing the pediatricians and the public it was the way to go,” Shelton said.
Jeannie Connolly, nurse director at the Mother Baby Care Center at West Florida Hospital, is from Scotland. She describes the culture across the Atlantic as being much more accepting of breastfeeding.
Her reception in the states, as she tried to breastfeed her baby, was less encouraging.
“When I was out with him as a baby, I’d get strange looks out at restaurants,” Connolly recalled, explaining that such reactions were often coming from older women, likely mothers who had joined their generation in opting out of breastfeeding. “It wasn’t men that were making faces, it was women, especially the older generation.”
Connolly also found America less accommodating of breastfeeding in general. Not only was society cool to the practice, there were also less than adequate practical provisions made.
“Here, you have to go to a bathroom to feed your baby,” she said, “which is really unacceptable.”
In recent years, the pendulum has swung. While organizations such as the WHO would like to see higher rates still, an increasing number of women are deciding to breastfeed instead of giving their baby formula.
Condon estimates that about 77 percent of the mothers currently coming through Baptist are choosing to breastfeed.
“That is high,” she said excitedly.
Shelton provides similar figures for Sacred Heart. However, she explained, the numbers drop off after two months, then again at six months. She attributes this to mothers returning to work.
“That’s indicative of the rest of the United States,” Shelton said. “It’s very difficult to breastfeed when mothers go back to work.”
In addition to community groups, all of the local hospitals have services aimed at helping a new mother with breastfeeding. Lactation consultants introduce the practice, and also provide help once the mother and baby have left the hospital.
“A lot of the problems don’t show up until the mom goes home,” Shelton said.
Last April, Sacred Heart Women’s Hospital was selected to participate in the Best Fed Beginnings program. It is an effort of the Centers for Disease Control and Baby Friendly-USA that is designed to increase breastfeeding rates. Sacred Heart is one of 90 participants chosen for the program.
“We were ecstatic,” recalled Shelton.
The hospital is currently working through the program, which requires the implementation of “a proven model for maternity services that better supports a new mother’s choice to breastfeed.” Eventually, as per the program, Sacred Heart will not be accepting formula, and will not market for baby formula companies.
“We’re on our way,” Shelton said.
Condon said that Baptist Hospital, while not participating in the same program—instead, involved with the Florida Quality Breastfeeding Initiative—will also soon only offer formula samples to mothers who have chosen to bottle feed. Mothers are, of course, encouraged to breastfeed.
“You don’t have to do anything to make it ideal,” Condon explained. “It is ideal.”
Mother Baby Care Center, 434-4567
Sacred Heart Women’s Hospital
The Nesting Place, 416-6378
West Florida Hospital
Mother Baby Care Center, 494-4368
Santa Rosa Medical Center
The Baby Suite, 554-0256
Other resources available online, at emeraldcoastbreastfeeding.com and lllflorida.com (La Leche League Pensacola)
Benefits of Breastfeeding
- Provides antibodies to the baby, which decreases the incidence and severity of many infectious diseases.
- Decreases baby’s chances of becoming obese.
- Provides for lower blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates later in life.
- For mothers, decreases the risks of breast and ovarian cancers, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease; also makes it easier to lose pregnancy weight.