It’s World Breastfeeding Week! Back in 2011, I was asked to guest post about breastfeeding on about.com. I went to pull up the article today to share it, but it looks like it’s no longer on the site and the link from my blog no longer works. So, I think it’s fair game for me to republish that post here!
Why It’s Time to Move Past “Breast is Best”
As a public health practitioner, I tend to look at any health issue through my “Masters of Public Health lens.” I can appreciate the beauty of the “Breast is Best” campaign. I mean, who hasn’t heard that slogan at some point? It’s catchy! Although not easy to measure, I’d assume this campaign has done a fair amount to help teach new mothers that breastmilk is best for their babies.
I’d like to take this time during World Breastfeeding Week to encourage us to move past “Breast is Best” though. It’s a bit like a campaign about water safety, where the extent of the campaign is “life vests are the best way to prevent drowning.” Great! But where do we get a life vest? What if the life vest doesn’t fit? How do we use alternatives to life vests if one isn’t available or we’d prefer not to use one? There’s so much more to the story!
One of the keys to a good health campaign is to 1) give people the reasons they should change their behavior and 2) help them see they have the ability to change that behavior. When both of these are not present the campaign ultimately fails; people are left feeling stressed and may even rebel against the health behavior being recommended. We can clearly see that stress in the great “breastmilk vs formula debate.”
Many women know that breastmilk is best for their child, but that knowledge doesn’t address some very real barriers to breastfeeding. What if breastfeeding doesn’t appear to work? What if a woman doesn’t know about, can’t find, or can’t afford a lactation consultant? What if she gets less than accurate information from a physician? How does a woman learn how to pump effectively, and what if she doesn’t have access to a pump or a place to pump, but needs to go back to work? The list goes on. Knowing the benefits of breastmilk does little if women feel unsupported in other ways.
The fact is, while more women may be educated about the importance of breastmilk, real disparities exist. In the 2011 Breastfeeding Report Card, the CDC reports that the national average for “ever breastfeeding” is 74.6%, a slight increase from 2007’s 73.8%. That said, only a little more than a third of women are exclusively breastfeeding at 3 months (35%) and a paltry 14.8% are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months. Nearly a quarter of babies receive formula within the first two days of life (24.5%).
Then, the numbers are even lower when considering certain ethnic and social economic minorities. According to the CDC’s National Immunization Survey (2004-2008), 66.1% of women on WIC initiated breastfeeding, as did only 54.4% of non-Hispanic African-Americans, and 53% of women under the age of 20.
Clearly, we have a long way to go. It’s time for some focused campaigns. Let’s take the time to really understand barriers to breastfeeding, accept them as valid, work to remove them one by one and leave the blanket statements a thing of the past.