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Study: Two Thirds of Moms Don't Meet Breastfeeding Goals

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For all the ranting that goes on against breastfeeding support (cue Whoopi , stage right) as a guilt-inducing form of peer-pressure that leaves formula-minded moms feeling like failures from the start, a new study points to that support as critical to breastfeeding success for those moms who want, and plan, to breastfeed. These are the moms for whom that support is intended, of course, and although some of you have shared your experiences of feeling pressured, and judged, when you chose not to breastfeed, or when it didn’t work out for you (totally valid experiences that should be shared, especially as hospitals figure out how to best serve all moms and babies!), other commenters among you have detailed your desire for support in the early days of breastfeeding. And what you’ve shared is consistent with what this recent study from the journal Pediatrics shows: for many new moms, the availability of early support -- or the lack thereof -- either makes, or breaks, their prospects for breastfeeding success.

In fact, although many moms plan to exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least three months, only a third of those moms succeed in doing so. The Pediatrics study showed that the most statistically relevant factor in this equation was whether babies received supplemental formula while still in the hospital. Of course, some babies receive supplementary formula because breastfeeding actually isn’t working out, and moms change their game plans due to their own unique circumstances. (I thought I’d breastfeed exclusively for three months, for sure, but ended up supplementing with organic formula very early on; it was the first of many ways in which I’d discover that parenting in general requires flexibility above all.) Some percentage of moms who plan to breastfeed will probably end up supplementing because they need to, due to latching issues or whatever, no matter what. But, many breastfeeding challenges – latching issues among them –that lead to some moms’ calling it quits on breastfeeding entirely don’t necessarily need to. Adequate, early support can help many of these moms work through the issues, and move on to exclusive breastfeeding success, as planned. This is where in-hospital breastfeeding support becomes important. It’s also why the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative , launched in 1991 by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, is needed; hospitals not prepared to offer the right kind of support to moms who want to breastfeed may offer supplemental formula instead, inadvertently curtailing breastfeeding success rates among moms and babies who exit their doors.

The AAP’s new breastfeeding guidelines (six months breast-only is best) were issued along with recommendations for hospitals, pediatricians, workplaces and communities for how to best support nursing moms in breastfeeding for as long as they intend to. As this mom and doctor writes in her Boston.com column, the four key reasons moms stop breastfeeding (a rough start; concern that baby isn’t getting enough; discomfort with nursing in public -- the reasons for behind this one are obvious ; and challenges associated with returning to work) can all be dramatically offset by… yep, support. And as the AAP’s report and recommendations proved, this support doesn’t only benefit moms and babies, either; high breastfeeding rates have far-reaching positive implications, even for economies. But, breastfeeding can be truly difficult (and costly! ) for the moms working to do it, which is why speaking up against public harassment and scrutiny (or, for breastfeeding moms of all kinds, as these military moms did by participating in an on-base, pro-breastfeeding campaign) is so necessary. Most breastfeeding advocates aren’t addressing, or judging, formula-feeding moms; they’re pushing for social and structural support for moms who want to nurse.

I wasn’t able to get the in-hospital support I wanted while I recovered from childbirth and began breastfeeding, after delivering my son; several months later, I wrote a letter to the hospital letting them know what my experience had been like, and how it disappointed, and in some ways failed, me. I’d moved on from the experience -- it wasn’t keeping me up at night (Kaspar was all over that job) -- and I thought it pretty likely my letter would land in a pile of trash as soon as it was delivered, but I wrote it anyway. I received a response a few weeks later, detailing the ways in which the hospital had addressed my concerns and would change some of their practices going forward. (I don’t know if anything actually changed, but I sincerely hope I made a small difference for another new mom like myself.)

I’ve been amazed, in reading your comments and stories here on Natural Parenting, at the range of hospitals’ policies and practices across the country, and on the impact these respective practices have on new moms. Since this recent study confirms that in-hospital support makes a measurable impact on breastfeeding success rates, and since hospitals’ approach to childbirth in general has recently opened up new debate, discussion and possibilities for serving families better in terms of both safety and satisfaction, now seems like an ideal time to direct feedback not at each other (“How dare you pressure me to breastfeed!” vs. “How dare you censor my breastfeeding!”), but toward the hospitals (and insurance companies, etc.) themselves, constructively. If you felt pressured to breastfeed and were mistreated when you decided not to, tell the hospital how your experience could have been made better. If you wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t get a lactation consultant in the room, or you felt knowledgeable, success-oriented support was lacking, tell the hospital how your experience could have been made better. (The WHO and UNICEF compiled ten steps for healthy breastfeeding to accompany the Baby-Friendly Hospitals initiative— why not add to this list and send it along?). Had an awesome experience all around? Tell the hospital!

It’s fantastic when people in public office make family-friendly policy changes , but we can also encourage this in a way that specifically addresses the changes that are needed in the (vastly different) hospitals where we have our babies. As studies continue to demonstrate that support is key to moms being able to parent in the ways we want to, we – moms, parents – can take that as our cue (center stage) to guide our hospitals, workplaces, and communities (granted, social stigmas may be the most challenging to change-- check out some of the comments on this post  ... Whoa) in providing that support. Social media gives us glimpses into what’s working in different settings around the globe; we can incorporate some of those ideas as we work to improve circumstances for moms and babies in our local institutions, and communities, too.

Have you gotten the support you needed and wanted in breastfeeding, or some other aspect of parenting? Did support make a (positive or negative) difference to your breastfeeding success? What do you think all hospitals should do to support moms and babies? Have you ever written a feedback letter, like I did (to a hospital, or another institution)? If you gave birth in a hospital, what’s the number one suggestion you’d make to that hospital, in retrospect?

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