07/23/2013 04:29 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2013

Breastfeeding: Better for the Prince, Better for the Duchess


Most of the world is joyously welcoming the arrival of the Prince of Cambridge. And while I find myself caught up in the excitement, what would give me real cause for celebration is if Kate does the very ordinary but extraordinarily important motherly act of breastfeeding her baby. She's already proven that the power of her celebrity influences fashion choices; as a breastfeeding mom, she'd be a champion of maternal and baby health, and could help save lives.

The United Kingdom and the United States have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration in the world. In England, the number of new mothers breastfeeding their babies actually declined last year for the first time in almost a decade. Low-resource nations also report a substantial drop in breastfeeding -- from India to Latin America and beyond. The result: Increased rates of disease among both mothers and children, and greater costs to society.

Most people know that breastfeeding is better for the baby, reducing a child's risk of infection, obesity, asthma, allergies and more. But there is relatively little awareness about the benefits for the mom. Women who breastfeed tend to have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression. It can also help shed extra baby weight. And while breastfeeding generally benefits all women, some seem to derive extra protection. Breastfeeding is particularly effective at lowering the risk of "triple negative" breast cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease which is more common in African-American and Latina women, and among carriers of the BRCA1 gene mutation.

Mothers, regardless of age, where they live, how much money they have, or their royal status can reduce their risk of breast cancer by breastfeeding. Any duration of breastfeeding appears to help -- but the longer you do it, the lower your risk.

It's no surprise that most women are unaware of these potentially life-saving benefits given that the information expectant mothers receive on breastfeeding focuses almost exclusively on the baby. Additionally, many people incorrectly believe that most breast cancers run in families and there's nothing they can do to lower their risk. The fact is, only about 10 percent of breast cancers are due to a specific inherited gene, while 90 percent of breast cancers are largely triggered by lifestyle and environmental factors. Breastfeeding is one of the important activities woman can engage in to lower their breast cancer risk, regardless of their family history or genetic predisposition.

It's also not surprising that many new moms never attempt to breastfeed or give it up early given the obstacles and lack of support that exists for breastfeeding mothers in many countries.

More moms would likely choose to start and sustain breastfeeding if they better understood the value of breastfeeding for their own health, and had the right encouragement, information and role models to help them succeed at it. Overcoming barriers to breastfeeding requires a concerted education effort and the support of family, friends, employers, health practitioners, and yes even celebrities.

Mothers have tremendous influence over whether their daughters breastfeed, no matter if they breastfed themselves. Even those that didn't can be powerful advocates. A lack of first-hand experience may limit your ability to coach your daughter, but it doesn't make your encouragement any less credible. In fact, many of these women wish they had known its value and had more help overcoming the challenges so they too could have breastfed.

The baby's father also plays a major role. Studies show a significant increase in breastfeeding when the father receives pre-natal education about the value of breastfeeding.

Doctors and nurses hold enormous sway. And while many health practitioners encourage the practice, a new mom's breastfeeding challenges can fall through the big crack that exists between the obstetrician's care through delivery and the first visit to the pediatrician. But helping to fill the gaps are lactation experts who can assist with breastfeeding problems including sore, bleeding nipples, engorgement and pain. (It's best to work with the reasonable and resourceful ones and avoid the over-zealous and militant.)

Employers can make a huge difference. Women are less likely to breastfeed if they have to go back to work quickly and fulltime without proper facilities to pump. The Affordable Care Act will help us here in the U.S., stipulating that employers with 50 or more employees must provide a private space and reasonable break time to pump or breastfeed until the child turns one. While this law only pertains to workers paid on an hourly basis, some states have similar rules that cover salaried employees, and hopefully these facilities will be extended to smaller businesses.

Celebrity can help catalyze this public health opportunity. Camilla Alves should be applauded for being such a tireless advocate. Kate has the worldwide stage to draw attention to the benefits of breastfeeding. Whether she chooses to breastfeed her child publicly or privately, her endorsement could help turn the tide and make breastfeeding the popular thing to do among a generation of new mothers -- a huge step toward improving the health of babies and their moms.