Surgeon General Says Americans Should Be More Supportive of Breast-Feeding
And it's not just for new moms. The surgeon general is calling on employers, medical experts, spouses and friends to rally their support for mothers who breast-feed.
Flanked by breast-feeding advocates -- including Spike Lee's wife, Tonya Lewis Lee -- Regina Benjamin, MD., recently detailed her campaign, "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding," which includes greater cultural support of nursing moms at work, home and in the community, Medpagetoday.com reports.
"One of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect her child and her own health is to breast-feed," Benjamin, surgeon general for the Department of Health and Human Services, said during a briefing.
The official call to action is intended to jump-start efforts across the country to promote breast-feeding as the healthiest option for feeding babies, both physically and emotionally, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says in a report that coincided with Benjamin's briefing.
"For much of the last century, America's mothers were given poor advice and were discouraged from breast-feeding, to the point that breast-feeding became an unusual choice in this country," Sebelius states in the report. "But as parents and health professionals have realized the importance of nursing, more and more mothers are doing so."
Today, three-quarters of all newborns are breast-fed, she adds. But what's concerning federal health officials is that a number of informal exchanges have popped up on the Internet where moms who can't breast-feed can buy breast milk at a substantially lower cost than the $3.50 per ounce reported at some milk banks, NPR reports.
While they support formal breast milk bank sharing programs, the Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics take a dimmer view of this informal breast milk-sharing phenomenon, which, they say, puts babies at risk of HIV, hepatitis B and other infectious diseases, according to NPR.
"We cannot recommend the sharing of breast milk over the Internet," Lori Feldman-Winter, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, tells NPR.
Instead, Feldman-Winter says, mothers in need should turn to one of the country's 11 breast milk banks sanctioned by the Human Milk Banking Association.
These banks take donations from nursing mothers who have been tested to make sure they don't have infectious diseases, and the donated milk is pasteurized to further ensure its safety. Premature babies get first dibs on the milk because human milk gives them a host of benefits -- including protection against necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious intestinal disorder. Parents of full-term babies also can buy breast milk from a bank, but it's expensive, NPR reports.
Benjamin describes specific steps people can take to participate in a society-wide approach to support mothers and babies who are breast-feeding, including making the workplace more breast-feeding friendly, the report states.
"I recall my own cherished memories of breast-feeding, and I am grateful for the help and support I received, especially when I went back to work as a young mother," Sebelius adds in the report. "I am also aware that many other mothers are not able to benefit from the support I had."
The report also cites specific health risks to newborns associated with formula-feeding, including common childhood ailments such as diarrhea and ear infections. The risk of acute ear infection, also called acute otitis media, is 100 percent higher among exclusively formula-fed infants than those who are exclusively breast-fed during the first six months of life.
Additionally, parents can save $1,200 to $1,500 in expenditures for infant formula in the first year alone, according to the report, and better infant health means fewer health insurance claims, less employee time off to care for sick children and higher productivity, all of which concern employers.
Other findings in the report include that while 75 percent of women start out breast-feeding, just 43 percent are still breast-feeding at all by six months, and far fewer -- 13 percent -- are exclusively nursing at that point, according to the latest national data, Medpagetoday says.
Several strategies are in place to promote breast-feeding in the workplace, including policy-making, the online newspaper reports.
Specifically, Benjamin is calling on employers to offer women a "clean and private place other than a bathroom" to nurse or pump breast milk. They should also offer paid maternity leave and lactation support programs, Medpagetoday reports.
Benjamin also says physicians need to make sure they're well-equipped to care for breast-feeding mothers, and promote breast-feeding to their patients, while health care systems should incorporate breast-feeding into their maternity education.
The surgeon general is pushing to change society's image of breast-feeding, which can make some women hesitant or embarrassed.
"The popular culture's sexualization of the breast makes some women want to hide the fact that they're breast-feeding," Benjamin said at the briefing.
In order to achieve this kind of societal change, Lewis Lee, who breast-fed both of her children, says more people "just need to see it ... Those of us in the mainstream need to come out more and let people know we do it," Medpagetoday reports. "My husband used to say, 'Oh, I want to taste some. It was a little weird, but I appreciated the sentiment. Men need to begin to understand what breast-feeding is really all about."
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.