Breastfeeding goals: Over half of new moms miss the mark

Breastfeeding goals are largely unmet in the US where 85 percent of new moms intend to breastfeed for at least three months; more than half of all new moms miss that mark.

Breastfeeding moms largely don't fulfill their goals of nursing the their infants for at least three months, a new study shows. Camie Goldhammer, chairman of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition, with her daughter Johanna, 6 months, testifiied in April before the Seattle City Council which was weighing whether to specifically make it illegal in the city to ask nursing moms to stop, cover up, or move to a different location.

This in from the American Academy of Pediatrics:  Although the vast majority (85 percent) of new moms say they intend to breastfeed their babies for at least three months, two thirds of them (or half of all moms) fail to meet their goals. A full 15 percent of these breastfeeding-intentioned moms stop nursing before they even leave the hospital.

The stats are part of an article in today’s “Pediatrics,” the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and are based on monthly questionnaires completed by thousands of moms between 2005 and 2007 as part of a joint Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration study. 

While there are a number of trends that one can sift out of the data – mothers who were married were more likely to achieve their exclusive breastfeeding intentions while moms who were obese or smoked were less likely to do so – some of the biggest indicators of breastfeeding success were connected to what happened at the hospital.

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New moms who began breastfeeding within an hour of giving birth and those whose babies were not given supplemental feedings or pacifiers were a lot more likely to achieve their breastfeeding goals.

Which takes us back to what breastfeeding proponents see as a really big problem in the United States: a hospital and commercial system that is set up to hinder, rather than help, nursing.

Despite a lot of hype about women breastfeeding (hello, Time Magazine), the US lags well behind other developed countries (and a lot of undeveloped ones, too) when it comes to nursing. It ranks last on a recent Save the Children “breastfeeding policy scorecard,” with only 35 percent of moms exclusively breastfeeding at three months. 
And although there’s a lot of talk in the medical world about the benefits of breastfeeding – the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends six months of exclusive nursing – there’s also a lot of contradictory behavior. 

That Save the Children report on global motherhood, for instance, found that only 2 percent of American hospitals are “baby friendly.”  The “Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative” was launched in 1991 by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, and designates a hospital as “baby friendly” if it does not accept free or low-cost breast milk substitute and has implemented a number of breastfeeding support measures, such as having lactation consultants on staff and encouraging moms to nurse their babies soon after giving birth.

In a lot of ways, these seem that they’d be pretty basic steps. According to the all the information about breastfeeding out there, it’s clear that nursing soon after birth – preferably with the help of someone who knows how the whole thing works (not as obvious as you might think, I tell you) – is hugely important to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship. So is avoiding formula. 

But that’s not the way it often works in maternity wards.  According to the advocacy group Public Citizen, nearly two-thirds of US hospitals still give out free formula samples to new moms. That goes along with stories that I’ve heard from friends (totally scientific, I assure you) who have come home from giving birth in a hospital with “goodie bags” packed with formula and bottles.  I remember seeing formula pamphlets in a doctor’s office that compared the nutritional component of “milk” unfavorably with the advertised products. (The advertisement noted in tiny print on the back that it was talking about cow’s milk, not breast milk.) 

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The formula onslaught is even worse outside of the hospital, with Enfamil samples showing up on your doorstep after you buy a carseat, and formula coupons printing out at the drug store every time you buy a nursing-related item.

A lot of people in the new mom world talk about the need for breastfeeding mothers to “have support.”  And sure. A supportive partner, a flexible employer – these are important for nursing success. But a lot of women might simply not have these. 

Which brings me to another statistic in the Save the Children report, taken from a University of Michigan study. 

We know that a lot of moms who plan to breastfeed don’t meet their goals. But among low income moms the situation is even worse.  Almost none of them – only 2 percent – nurse according to plan. 

Those are the moms who are least likely to have “support” at home, and more likely to be influenced by the policies at a hospital.

And for this, say breastfeeding proponents, there is no excuse.

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