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Dr. Gail Christopher Headshot

Nursing Moms Need Our Support Every Day

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As a mother, I know there is no stronger love, no more powerful human energy or force than a parent's determination to protect and nurture our children. When I am able to translate that understanding into practical insights and tools to support families that face many adversities like income challenges, stressful environments and extreme work demands, I am inspired to champion those tools. When it comes to saving lives, among mothers and infants, to mitigating the harms of excess exposure to toxic stress, and even providing an "edge" for development in the critical first 1000 days of life -- nothing compares to the benefits of breastfeeding.

We know that most mothers want to breastfeed their babies and that more than 75 percent start breastfeeding. But most women face barriers in hospitals where they give birth, at work when they return, at home with their families or friends, and in public. They face real challenges that make it difficult for them to sustain or even to start breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends feeding breast milk to a baby exclusively for six months for optimal nutrition and other benefits, yet just 16 percent of women are able to do so.

It's welcome news that breastfeeding rates are rising for all women, but significant racial disparities persist. Native Americans, for instance, have lower breastfeeding rates than women overall, and we're starting to see second and third generations of Hispanic women breastfeeding less than their mothers and grandmothers. African Americans have the lowest breastfeeding rates in our country -- only 59 percent start breastfeeding, and at six months, only 30 percent of African American mothers breastfeed compared with 45 percent overall. Yet African Americans and other communities of color disproportionately face specific health problems and higher infant mortality rates that breastfeeding can help reduce.

In a new State of the Black Family survey, conducted by Ebony and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and appearing in this month's issue of Ebony, just 30 percent of African American women report having breastfed their children. Among women who chose to breastfeed, less than a quarter indicated receiving support from a spouse or the baby's father, from family members and friends, from health care providers or from employers. Yet we know that support is one of the most critical factors in success with breastfeeding.

Families, especially fathers, play a crucial role in supporting breastfeeding. Indeed, studies show that fathers and partners have a more significant influence on breastfeeding success than even health care professionals. In a recent survey by breastfeeding clothing retailer Bravado Designs that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, a strong majority of breastfeeding moms indicated that the support of a husband or male figure was extremely or very important to their breastfeeding experience.

At the Kellogg Foundation's First Food Forum in March, NFL running back Justin Forsett joined his wife, Angela, to deliver a keynote. Forsett admitted he knew nothing at first about breastfeeding but attended birthing classes and continues to give Angela his full support. "Breastfeeding is like football," Forsett concluded. "It's a team sport."

And while fathers like Justin play a huge role in supporting breastfeeding, so too do hospitals, doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals, especially in the prenatal stages and immediately after the birth of the baby when the mother is making crucial decisions on how her child should be fed.

Some of the greatest barriers women face in breastfeeding their babies are in the workplace. The reality in our nation is that most women must return to work shortly after giving birth, adding nursing or pumping breast milk at work to the challenges they face in breastfeeding. We can hope that one day all parents will have guaranteed paid family leave, but for the foreseeable future, mothers who breastfeed need more support in the workplace.

If we truly are going to shift our culture toward a breastfeeding-supportive society, then our employers need to adapt to our changing workforce and do their part to encourage and support mothers in the workplace. I'd personally like to salute all employers who support mothers in breastfeeding, with both the space and the time they need, and for the critical role you play in making breastfeeding the norm.

You don't have to be breastfeeding, or a mother or a woman to support your co-workers. Let's all come together to support breastfeeding mothers at work and also at home and in public. And let's do so every day, just as we champion all mothers on Mother's Day. For we know, it not only benefits babies and mothers, it benefits every one of us.