American women are widely reported to produce an average of 2.5 children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of 12 months of breastfeeding. It should then follow that every American mother can claim 24+ months of lactation but the statistics tell a very different story. Fewer than one in four American mothers make it to the 12-month milestone of nursing. More than half don’t even get to the 6-month marker. The World Health Organization recommends at least two years of breastfeeding per child. Informal internet-based polls indicate only about 5% of American babies achieve this level of nursing.
Why aren’t American babies getting all the mother’s milk they need? There isn’t a single factor that can be blamed for our nation’s failure in this area. Usually there isn’t even a single factor that can be attributed to an individual mother’s prematurely shortened lactation. American mothers are working mothers: 55% of women who gave birth between May 2011 and May 2011 were part of the paid labor force. The United States is one of only three countries in the world with no paid maternity leave and there is no doubt that this affects the health of our infants. When mothers must return to work soon after giving birth, they may feel as though it is a waste of time and effort to establish breastfeeding. Few workplaces make any accommodations for the pumping and storage of milk or allow flexible break times for pumping moms.
Mothers also face a culture hostile to breastfeeding despite pervasive lip-service to the ideal of mother’s milk. New mothers are repeatedly told “breast is best” while at the same time ushered into bathrooms and told to cover up when their baby needs to nurse. The conflicting messages of “good mothers breastfeed” and “breastfeeding is gross” result in a miasma of guilt and shame around nursing mothers. New mothers may want to feed their babies with their bodies but they also want to avoid social shunning and so they resort to bottle-feeding outside of their homes. They soon find that they are no longer making as much milk, which leads to more bottles filled with artificial baby milk, and the cycle escalates, resulting in premature weaning.
A third factor in America’s disappointing breastfeeding rates can be found with the very people mothers trust most in promoting infant health: their doctors. Promotional materials from infant formula companies are found in the waiting rooms and exam rooms in doctors’ offices. Even the pamphlets that seem to be promoting breastfeeding and paid for by formula companies and include tips that lead to early weaning. Once the expectant mother has gone shopping for maternity clothes or registered for baby shower gifts, she will find that her name and address have been sold to these formula companies and she will be receiving “free” samples and coupons for the next year or more. Then the baby is born, in a hospital as the vast majority of American babies are, and mommy and baby face an onslaught of formula. The CDC reports that one in four babies are given formula within hours of birth. More than 70% of US hospitals send new mothers home with a “goodie bag” filled with formula samples, artificial nipples, and coupons for more formula. The sum of these efforts results in lowered breastfeeding rates; a win for formula companies and a loss for babies and mothers.
Perhaps the most pernicious obstacle facing breastfeeding babies is the idea that there is no real difference between human milk and formula. The formula companies have succeeded in convincing people that the processed substance in a can is virtually identical to the milk a mother produces specifically for her baby. It is intellectually dishonest to say that breast vs. bottle is a personal choice with no impact on maternal-infant health or long-term effects on health. While it is reasonable for women to decide breastfeeding does not interest them, it must be acknowledged that this choice affects both their own physical health and that of their baby. Breastfeeding results in lowered incidences of uterine, ovarian, and breast cancers for mother and female babies, as well as diabetes and heart disease.
Americans all need to make an effort to increase breastfeeding rates. This one act produces a ripple effect in public health. Encouraging breastfeeding can be as simple as smiling at a mom trying to latch her baby on in public or encouraging your local hospital to refuse to accept free samples of formula for new mothers. Our health as a nation can only be improved as more of our babies get the milk they deserve.