Surgeon General: Help make breastfeeding easier for moms
January 20th, 2011
10:36 AM ET

Surgeon General: Help make breastfeeding easier for moms

Breastfeeding seems to be the most natural thing in the world and is recommended as the optimal form of nutrition for newborns, yet many moms find it difficult to do for a variety of reasons.  This is why the Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin is launching a “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.”

Dr. Regina Benjamin talks with CNN's Kiran Chetry about the call for breastfeeding support

Benjamin says the number of women breastfeeding in the United States is low compared with other countries, and “we'd like to change that.” Her plan identifies 20 different things families, employers, health care professionals and communities can do “to help encourage women to breastfeed and give them the support they need.”

According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, 75% of new moms initiate breastfeeding. At 3 months only 33% of moms are only feeding their infants breast milk and at 6 months only 13% are still exclusively breastfeeding their babies.  Benjamin points out that the numbers for African-American women are even lower – 22% at 3 months and only 8% are still exclusively breastfeeding by the time their little one is 6 months old.

The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend exclusive breastfeeding for first 6 months because it benefits babies and mothers.  Breast milk contains antibodies, which can protect babies from ear infections, digestive problems, and severe lung infections.  Studies also suggest it protect babies against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), diabetes, obesity and asthma. Moms also benefit, according to a report issued by Benjamin’s predecessor,  former acting Surgeon General Dr. Steven Galson,  which says breastfeeding benefits for moms include “reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, as well as breast and ovarian cancers.”

Benjamin says “something happens between when they [moms] start breastfeeding and 6 months,” and she is trying to help change this.

She recognizes that some women are simply unable to breastfeed because the babies are not latching on and she is not trying to make them feel bad for not doing so.  She suggests that while these moms may not be able to directly feed their babies, encouraging them to express their breast milk and then giving it to the baby in the bottle is another way for the infant to get mom's nutrient-filled and protective milk.

Any woman who has breastfed can attest to it being a learned skill that requires patience.  Both mom and baby have to learn how to do this and if you first do not succeed, encouragement from family and instruction from a lactation expert can prevent a mother from giving up.  According to the CDC, 1 in 4 breastfed babies also is getting formula within 2 days of birth.

Benjamin’s plan calls for developing programs to educate spouses and grandparents about the benefits of breastfeeding, but also for support groups within communities and for hospitals and health care professionals to provide support and help for moms when they leave the hospital.

Having access to prenatal care and instruction on how to breastfeed before the baby is born can help moms prepare for what’s ahead. But for many women who want to breastfeed, the support to do so is often lacking, particularly when they return to work.

According to the “Call to Action,” half of all mothers with children under age 1 were working in 2009 and more than two-thirds were employed full time.

While they’re at work, moms need to pump their breast milk, so their infants can be bottle-fed mom’s milk while they’re away.  However, if mom can’t take a break to pump, or there isn’t a private place for her to set-up to pump, she may feel as if  she doesn't have much of a choice but to discontinue breastfeeding.  Benjamin says women working in low-income jobs have a  particularly difficult time pumping at work.

Over the next 6 months to a year, Benjamin says she wants to have a constant conversation and raise awareness about helping women breastfeed. “We want to get them [businesses] to understand that there are some economic benefits – it helps to retain good employees. Companies who have lactation programs or breastfeeding programs tend to keep their employees longer.”

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.