March 16, 2004
Phone: (504) 865-5714
Breastfeeding is the best way of feeding most babies--it provides complete nutrition and protects infants from a range of diseases. It's also good for the mother. It helps reduce postpartum bleeding and may help prevent breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
And it's cost-effective, too. Not only does it save the cost of formula, but medical costs for breastfed babies are on average 20 percent lower than for those who are never breastfed. Yet fewer than 65 percent of new mothers in the United States give breastfeeding a try, and fewer than 30 percent stick with it for six months.
The numbers are even lower among black women--45 percent try breastfeeding in early postpartum, and only 19 percent are still breastfeeding at six months. Meshawn Tarver knows firsthand the benefits of breastfeeding.
"The whole time I was breastfeeding, my baby never had an ear infection, a cold, allergies, none of that," she said. Tarver is the coordinator of the breastfeeding program of the Mary-Amelia Douglas-White Community Women's Health Education Center at the Tulane-Xavier National Center of Excellence in Women's Health.
The year-old program is part of an initiative by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to promote breastfeeding. The goal is that by 2010, 75 percent of women will breastfeed in early postpartum, 50 percent will continue for at least six months and 25 percent will continue for a year. Breastfed babies get immunologic agents not found in cows' milk or formula and that offer protection against viruses, bacteria and parasites.
There's evidence that breastfeeding results in earlier development of the immune system. Human milk contains the right balance of nutrients for human babies. And nursing helps women feel more confident as mothers and facilitates bonding between mother and child.
"There's just something about knowing you're the only person who can provide that for your child," Tarver said.
The only conditions that absolutely preclude breastfeeding for American women are when the mother has HIV or T-cell leukemia. There are some situations in which a woman should consult with her doctor before breastfeeding--if she's taking prescription or illicit drugs, has been exposed to toxins or has hepatitis C, for example.
But there are lots of reasons why women choose not to breastfeed or don't stick with it. Some hospital practices discourage breastfeeding right from the start, like the separation of mother and child at birth, strict feeding schedules and promotion of formula feeding. Women are less likely to breastfeed if it's not the norm in their family or community. And even women who breastfeed in the early months find it hard to continue when they return to work. Many workplaces aren't conducive to breastfeeding, despite the motivating consideration that breastfeeding mothers tend to be more productive and less frequently absent due to sick children than those who don't breastfeed.
Women sometimes feel uncomfortable with breastfeeding, or they have trouble getting the baby to latch, or worry that they're not producing enough milk. But support and information can make a big difference.
"Most women will give breastfeeding a try if they see someone else doing it," Tarver said. The women's center is working to promote breastfeeding in the Lafitte public housing development by providing new mothers with information, support and the mentorship of women in the neighborhood who have breastfeeding experience. It is also collaborating with Women's Hospital in Baton Rouge to conduct research on why some women choose not to breastfeed and why some breastfeeding moms choose to stop before the recommended six-month minimum.
And in order to make the healthcare system friendlier to breastfeeding, each semester the center offers training to students in Tulane's medical and public health schools about the benefits of breastfeeding and ways to encourage it.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org